It was March 2010 and Lance Fenderson was age 8. While most kids were kicking soccer balls or playing with Star Wars charactes, Lance was hitting 70 mph in his go-kart at the Florida Winter Tour, practicing the sport he'd taken up at age 5.
Tucked behind another racer, foot flat to the floor, Lance attempted to make a pass. At that moment, the leading kart lost grip and slid sideways. Lance clipped the kart’s exposed rear wheel, causing him to rocket skywards, up and over — flipping his go-kart at highway speeds. Lance’s father, Troy, watched in horror as his son flew through the air, while his mom, Christine, waited by the phone at home taking care of their infant son, Luke.
Luckily, Lance was fine, albeit shook up and sporting a fat lip. His race helmet, too, had a nasty chip on the front: “My dad and I immediately went to the store to buy a new helmet so we could make the next session,” Lance, now 11, told me. “The crash definitely made me feel a little nervous about what could happen, and it maybe affected me for a bit, but I’m fine now. I’ve seen worse.”
By Monday, Lance was back at school with his friends.
It’s a fine line parents must walk, allowing their children to chase racing dreams while keeping grounded and focused on education and just being young. As with many professional sports, starting young has become not just an advantage, but a requirement, often as soon as a kid's feet can reach the pedals.
Unfortunately, the chase comes with adult-sized risks. Three years ago, 9-year-old Taybor Duncan died from a crash during qualifying for a Colorado karting race; a grand jury later found a "perfect storm" of problems that led to the accident. There's no stats on how many children take part in amateur karting or get into spills like Lance's, but running an open-cockpit car on track always carries some danger.
And the challenges don't stop at the finish line; racing has its fair share of parents pushing their kids too hard in an attempt to resurrect their own dreams of glory. I started racing when I was 8 years old, and I’ve seen this firsthand: fathers punishing children harshly for their mistakes, kids terrified because of what their fathers will do if they don’t succeed. I only needed to see one father whipping his child with a belt after a race to understand.
The Fendersons, too, have seen this unhealthy competitiveness. It’s what drives them to ensure Lance races because it’s what he wants to do, and that the only pressure is the expectation he places upon himself: “It makes me uneasy at times,” Christine, Lance’s mother, says. “It’s not so much the safety side of things; I try not to think about that. And it’s not about the racing. It’s this other aspect that can be quite overwhelming.”
That pressure often turns financial: Who has the biggest million-dollar motorhome, or who sports the flashiest team truck becomes a contest amongst parents: “Lance will be invited into these massive RVs to play video games and hang out with his friends, then he’ll come back to our little trailer with no air-conditioning, and he’s sweating away eating and sitting on a cooler,” Christine says.
“I think it’s made Lance work harder. He’s very humble. He just loves to race. But it’s the impact this could have that worries me most.” Christine continued to say how she was initially fearful for her young son's safety, but as she became more knowledgable about the sport and the safety measures in place, that fear subsided.
Troy Fenderson, Lance’s father, concurs, stating that while there are of course inherent risks, safety has come a long way: “People see a 70 mph go-kart with no roll cage and seat belts and think it’s crazy,” he says. “But when we get home, the kids grab the Razor scooters on the driveway and try to jump something and bust a wrist. I think, ‘Man, we’ve just spent the entire weekend driving 70 mph, literally touching other karts, and we’re in the ER for this?’" He continued, "While you must always be prepared, incidents are very rare.”
As Lance progressed in his young career, winning everything on a regional level, Troy realized the importance of joining a leading team to help them compete nationally within the Cadet Sportsman1 class, the first true step on the ladder to turning pro for racers aged 8-12: “It’s been a big transition,” Troy says, as Lance competed as a rookie for the renowned Top Kart USA team in this highly competitive national series, battling upwards of 30 racers, all driven by the desire to one day make the big leagues: “Unless you’re running at the front, you’re not getting the best motors. Some families are paying $300,000 per season to race at this level; we’re doing it on maybe a tenth of that. So to move up the ladder, get recognized, and get the better engines, we really needed to prove ourselves on track.”
Achieving top ten finishes, then top fives, Lance caught the eyes of the leading engine builders, and as a result, began receiving better motors. In his rookie season racing Cadets against the best 8- to 12-year olds America has to offer, Lance won the final race of the 2013 WKA season on Sept. 29 in Mooresville, N.C.
With two seasons left before he’s eligible to move up to the next age group, Lance will start next year as the favorite to win the Cadet national championships. “At this level,” Troy says, “the driver’s got to be perfect; the chassis has to be perfect; the engine has to be perfect. You need all three components to be competitive. I never realized how crucial that was. But we’re thrilled with how it’s going. Next year, we want the championship!”
Equally crucial will be finding the money to keep climbing. Drivers must pay teams to race, no matter how good they are, right the way up to the top level of the sport. Even then, from Formula 1 to NASCAR, many drivers continue paying millions to keep their seats. As the saying goes: "To make a small fortune in racing, start with a large one."
Lance doesn’t come from extreme wealth; the Fendersons are successful in the insurance risk management business, but being well off doesn’t afford you a career in motorsport. At age 11, on a tight budget, it costs around $30,000 to compete. Each year, for the next 10 seasons or more, those numbers will increase, eventually tipping into the millions. Sponsors, or investors, will become as important as skill.
“That’s what we’re working on,” Troy says. “I figure I can commit to another five years, but by then, we need to have something in place.” The Fendersons already have a deal with Red Bull on a regional basis, and work with other companies to facilitate even the smallest of relationships with the hope that within five years it might evolve into something more substantial, helping Lance achieve his dream.
Here's Lance in action in 2011 — winning at age 9:
That dream? “Formula 1,” Lance says excitedly. “When I was four, I wanted to race so badly after watching a go-kart event in Sonoma when I was there for my aunt’s wedding. So I saved up my pocket money for ten months, not spending a thing. My parents would slip money in my piggy bank when I was good and eventually I bought my first go-kart.”
Lance’s dedication is evident. It became clear at a young age that gasoline was running through his veins. “It’s hard to balance school and racing,” Lance says. “I guess I have to work a little harder than everyone else to catch up when I miss days.” Despite this, Lance is a straight A student, but continues to work hard. “I get really nervous racing,” he continues, “but I just love the hype. When you win a race, the feeling makes it all worth while.”
I was struck by Lance’s maturity. Racing as a child, working and building relationships with people of all types and ages, helps one mature faster. You learn life’s lessons through the language of motorsport. You're exposed to the real world earlier than most, and you adapt. When I was a young racer, I certainly felt that.
But despite Lance’s success, winning races and becoming one of the best U.S. racers in his class, Lance and his parents remain grounded: “If Lance wants to keep racing and is dedicated, we’ll support him as best we can,” Troy says. “If he wants to do something else, that’s fine too.”
As Christine told me, if Lance continues taking racing seriously, the family will work with private tutors if needed to ensure he receives the education he needs, regardless of how this intended career path turns out: “We’ll make it work,” she says. That could potentially include moving from their home in New Hampshire to an area more centralized for racing.
“I’m thinking about this long term, wanting to be a Formula 1 driver,” Lance says. “But I’m taking it year by year. If I do a good job this year, that will lead on to next year. And what happens next year will lead on to the future. I’m just trying to focus one year at a time; that will allow me to focus on the future.”
Photos: Lance & Troy Fenderson