Start your engines

Liam Waters of Carrollton, Ga., gets one last look at the camera before starting his race at the East-West Raceways in northeast Randolph County on June 1.

Two Saturday’s ago a sleepy little dirt circle racetrack in the northeast corner of Randolph County came to life after lying dormant for the better part of two years.

That in and of itself is certainly of interest to those who are drawn to such things. But the reincarnation of this track is not just a bunch of go-karts going around in circles on Saturday nights. Yes, that’s part of it, but behind that very typical element of rural racing is a very atypical origin story that also includes, of all things, a non-profit wing of the venture geared specifically toward growing the sport.

And, of course, like any typical dirt track, go-kart, non-profit story, it all begins at show and tell.

If you ask his dad Eddie, it’s almost as if Liam Waters was born to race.

“Really into four-wheelers, anything with an engine,” Eddie said, describing his son. “Wanted to go to Monster Jam, stuff like that. Typical boy. He’s all boy.”

By the way, Liam is five years old.

So when Eddie was looking for ways for his son to expand his motorized horizons beyond the now-routine four-wheeler treks around the front yard, he stumbled across an unexpected outlet. Go-karts.

“I just started looking around for four-wheeler riding groups and came across a racetrack down in Whitesburg (Ga.) that was having an open practice for go-karts,” Eddie recalled. “He saw that and he was like, ‘Daddy, I want to do this.’”

The Waters, who call Carrollton, Ga., home, landed on the doorstep of JRP Kart Performance Warehouse in Carrollton where they quickly began to feast on the expertise of proprietor Phil Swofford, a veteran of the rural racing scene in Georgia and Alabama.

Swofford assembled Liam’s first kart, and the Waters started signing up for races to begin their crash course in how to break into go-kart racing. And the welcoming arms of the racing community proved to be just what they were looking for.

“When I was first starting with Liam, they wouldn’t let Liam not race,” Eddie said. “If something broke, if I pulled and the pull cord snapped you’d have families running out there zipping it, getting it all put together, getting Liam running and going just so they could have him racing. You don’t find that anywhere. You don’t find that kind of close-knit group of people making sure something works. They want to get the kid out there. They want to get him racing. That’s what I loved about it. That’s what got me hooked.”

The experience was so positive, in fact, that Eddie didn’t want to keep it all to himself. He began to ask the people responsible for organizing the races at the various tracks what they were doing to grow the sport and make it accessible for more kids.

“It was sheer dumb luck that I came across it,” Waters said. “I said, ‘What do you do to get more kids?’ And they said, ‘We don’t do anything really.’ And that was the same answer for a lot of different tracks.”

As that dissatisfying answer was swirling in Waters’s head, it just so happened that show and tell day arrived at Liam’s preschool. And it was obvious to the boy who was born to race what he should show off to his classmates.

“He said, ‘Daddy, I want to bring my go-kart to show and tell,’” Waters said.

So Eddie loaded up the kart on a trailer and put it on display in the school parking lot. The kids in Liam’s class were riveted as they touched the kart and took turns sitting in it. And they all marveled that their classmate was actually allowed to drive it.

“He was the most popular kid in class for the next couple of weeks,” Eddie said.

Not long after that Eddie found himself having the same conversation with a number of different parents of Liam’s classmates.

“I was picking up Liam from school, and as I’m picking him up I had parents coming up to me. ‘How can my kid get into this? I really think he’d enjoy this.’ And I just sat there and didn’t have an answer for them at that point,” Eddie said.

Anyone who is a parent of a young child knows that children that age can be fickle. One day they love baseball, and the next day they’ve moved on to swimming or archery or any number of interests.

Go-karts don’t exactly lend themselves to that fickleness, as getting into the hobby can cost hundreds of dollars just get a good kart up and running. So Eddie wanted a way that parents could let their kids try karting without having to make that financial commitment.

That idea brought him back to Swofford, the man who had built Liam’s first kart.

“I got with Phil because I knew he had a lot of karts,” Eddie said. “And I said, ‘Hey, this is my idea. Do you have any extra karts laying around here that we can throw together? They don’t have to be competitive race ready. Just something that kids can get into, take a couple of laps and see if they like it.’

“I wanted to have an event where I can invite classmates out and their parents to come out, put their kids in a kart and see if they like it.”

Swofford didn’t require a lot of convincing.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Genius,’” Waters said.

Said Swofford, “We needed more kids to get into it because 10 years down the road they’re going to be the ones keeping this alive. It starts with kids. You can talk to just about any racer, even the adults, and they’ll say, ‘Well my dad had me in one when I was young.’”

So it was that on a February morning at the Fast Lane dirt track in Woodland, what soon became the non-profit Weekend Warriors Karting Association had its first karting clinic for would-be racers of all ages.

About a dozen kids showed up for that first clinic, half of whom ended up in Swofford’s shop asking him to build them karts. And almost all of those showed up again when Swofford and Waters hosted their first race night on June 1 at what is now known as the East-West Raceways.

It’s the dirt track on County Road 87 between Roanoke and Ranburne, and Waters and Swofford are in the final stages of purchasing the track from the Bailey family that built it on their property in 2012.

They plan to stage kart races with cash prizes every week, as the weather allows, and they are tentatively looking at hosting their introductory clinics for potential new drivers every six weeks.

They visualize their track becoming a one-stop shop for people wanting to get started in karting and cut their teeth as competitive racers.

“We want to point them in the right direction to make the whole transition of getting into the sport as easy as possible and as stress-free as possible,” Waters said. “When you first get into it, for me it was overwhelming. I had no idea what to do. I stuck with it because my little boy wanted to stick with it, but I can understand how for anybody else not familiar with this it could be extremely overwhelming.”

And Swofford said he hopes the track becomes a place that is known for providing a good experience for kart drivers of all levels.

“If the racers get in behind us, we’re going to get behind them because we’re going to try to stay away from being all about the money,” Swofford said. “As long as we can keep this place afloat and keep filling it up it will all work just fine.”

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