Racing mom has tough job |

Racing mom has tough job

So how does a mother cope with the fact her baby is blazing his way around a race track at high speeds while weaving through traffic thicker than any rush hour she’s ever seen?

“She paces,” said 12-year-old Alexander Rossi. “A lot.”

Rossi’s mom, Dawn, along with Jennifer Sweet and Patti Ferree, have been facing such fears for at least a few years now.

The mothers of the three young area drivers that The Union featured in this week’s series, “Checkered Dreams,” are well aware of the danger their boys drive through each time they circle the track.

Dawn Rossi remembers the first time she saw the green flag fly with her then-11-year-old son at the center of speeding pack of 36 go-karts.

“The flag flies and it is carnage,” she said. “There are karts going in every direction besides actually staying on the track. The kids are driving on top of other kids and there are kids that have been pushed out into the infield and there I am, trying to see where my child is in all of this.”

Alexander was fine, but Mom was clearly shaken.

“Sweat is just dripping down my entire body and I’m thinking I’m going to have a heart attack,” Dawn said. “I asked this man standing next to me ‘Is anybody going to do anything about this? What are you people thinking?'”

So much for easing into this racing thing, eh?

Don Sweet says that when a sprint car flips into a high-speed, end-over-end roll, which most motorsports fans have caught on TV at least once, the crash typically looks much worse than it is.

His 18-year-old son, Brad, has rolled through such a scene twice in his sprint car career. But Brad’s mom, Jennifer, wasn’t on hand either time.

“I’m sure I wasn’t there for a reason,” she said. “I wasn’t scared when he first started, he was 10 years old and only racing 125s. And most of the kids were 14 to 15. But two years later, he was racing 500s and racing with men. That was really scary for me, because he was going so fast with these older guys.

“It’s just that each level they move up to, each car is faster, bigger and more powerful. But you just realize that he’s just stepping up and everything is just new to you. When something happens, and I’m there, I just look for my husband and he gives me the thumbs up that everything is OK.”

Patti Ferree wasn’t much worried when her son Happy took up racing.

“Because they were these little go-karts and it didn’t seem like there was any danger to it,” she said. But Happy did have a mishap, flipping a kart after striking the wall one day while she was

videotaping the race.

“I’m filming this and my sister is sitting next to me and then I see it and … ‘Oh my god! That’s Happy!’

“He just had his breath knocked out of him, but that really shook me

up bad. I was thinking ‘Do I want to lose my child through this sport?’

But within a half an hour, he wanted to get back out there again.

“I thought ‘What the heck?'”

There’s no doubting the danger involved in auto racing. Anyone who has ever read a newspaper knows the potential for death in automobile accidents, even crashes that occur without exceeding a 55-mile-per hour speed limit.

You don’t need to be a physics major to know that doubling, tripling or even quadrupling such a speed only increases the odds that a driver might not walk away from a crash.

Three years ago at Daytona, those odds claimed the life of perhaps the nation’s most well-known driver, NASCAR-legend Dale Earnhardt. But the Intimidator wasn’t the first big name in the world’s fastest growing sport to lose his life on the track. Since 1989, 10 drivers have been killed in NASCAR events, including promising young talent such as Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and most recently, 18-year-old Adam Petty, grandson of Richard Petty, the winningest driver in stock car history.

Not that NASCAR’s all alone here.

Hailing from Indiana, I know that the open-wheel scene has more than its share of drivers at the home of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” When Tony Renna was killed during testing last October, he was the 67th driver to die at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since its opening in 1909.

Which might explain why famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray stirred such a fervor with his tongue-and-cheek line “Gentlemen, start your coffins!” in advance of the 1966 Indy 500.

Of course, that was back before the auto racing industry really dug into the subject of driver safety. Certainly, today’s drivers have never been safer behind the wheel.

But the threat remains.

The Charlotte Observer reported in 2001 that at least 260 people in America had died in auto racing incidents since 1990, an average of 22 a year. Twenty-nine of those 260 deaths were spectators.

Those, however, may seem just like numbers to most drivers and their families. It’s something that happens to someone else, someone you don’t know.

That wasn’t true for the Rossi family last summer, when nine-year-old Caleb Maxwell of Merced was killed in Davis after his racing kart flipped and skidded upside down during a Junior I Two-Cycle race of the Nor-Cal IKF Regional Racing Series.

“It was devastating,” said Dawn Rossi, whose son Alexander knew Maxwell. “But it was one of those flukish things, just like in football, where if boy falls at the right angle and his neck snaps or gets hit in the chest cavity. It was just one of those ‘one-in-a-million’ type of accidents.

“It was a tremendously sad thing that happened, but it never got to the point for me that I was thinking ‘That’s it.'”

Why not?

“I’ve had to deal with my mother and with a few girlfriends who ask me that,” Dawn said. “I’m at peace with that. I feel like this is what he’s supposed to be doing.”

And Jennifer?

“It is so incredible to me, the talent he was blessed with. I think it’s going to take him a long way.”

And Patti?

“I just don’t think any mother would want to deflate their child’s


Any more questions?

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. He may be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 477-4240.

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