Jason Knudson smiles proudly as his 18-year-old son, Michael, shares life lessons he has learned during his nine-year Outlaw Kart racing career. The Knudsons are driving to the second night of racing during the Wild West Shootout, an annual race each July in Missoula, Montana that draws drivers from around the United States.
“He got to sign in as an adult this weekend, so it’s kind of a new chapter for him,” said Jason. Michael graduated high school only two weeks ago and said that road was difficult.
“I just didn’t apply myself, as my father would say,” Michael said. He plans to move to Arizona in the fall to attend auto mechanic school, leaving the duo’s racing career in question. Michael considers this weekend “a big one” as this is one of the premier races in the nation for Outlaw carts.
Outlaw Kart racing is a smaller variant of open-wheel motorsports. Outlaws and the larger Sprint cars could be considered the minor leagues of NASCAR as many top drivers earn their chops on a one-eighth-mile dirt track in carts that can travel over 60 miles per hour.
The Knudsons have raced since Michael was nine-years-old starting with smaller, less powerful engines and eventually working their way up to the 500cc engine Sportsman class. Most of those years were a larger family endeavor as Michael’s older cousin was a top local racer.
Tonight in Missoula, team Firecracker works out of a modest trailer with just enough tools and parts to keep them running. It’s a far different scene at a neighboring team’s camp from another state, where a double-level tractor trailer adorned with sponsor logos carries several carts and enough spare parts to build a few more. Those drivers lounge in air-conditioned accommodations with televisions. Michael nibbles a bag of chips while resting on extra tires and wipes his hands on his ragged racing suit.
Michael talks more about racing and how he feels it has helped him learn to deal with situations off the track. Prone to a quick temper, Michael’s observations suggest he’s ready for the new chapter in his life.
Michael’s older brother Jonathan remarks that he isn’t sure where Michael would be without racing as an outlet. The brothers have opposite personalities but Jonathan frequently takes breaks from his duties in the scoring booth to check on his brother in the pit area.
Preparations including last-minute tuning and inspections take a couple hours followed by qualifying heats where Michael earns a good starting position for the night. While other teams qualify, more adjustments are made back at the team’s trailer. Jason’s mechanical skills are evident as he demonstrates an expertise with every part of the cart.
Spectators fill the stands as racing begins. Michael is in the first heat and the carts scream as the drivers skillfully drift the carts around the tight corners. At each turn mud from the track sprays into the cheering race fans.
Michael’s driving is methodic and is in position to win the heat until some aggressive driving by a team from California causes him to lose his temper. The drivers collide and crash into the track wall. The incident leaves both cars mangled, and warnings are issued to the drivers. Firecracker is disabled and towed back to the pit area.
Michael confesses to his father that he lost his temper and drove the other driver into the wall. A lecture seems appropriate, but Jason is more concerned about the damage to the cart, and after nearly coming to blows moments before with the father of the other driver, Jason understands his son’s emotions. The only option is for Jason to race home to find a new exhaust pipe, hopefully in time for the next heat, or the team will be disqualified.
This feud is short-lived and after some handshakes both teams are motivated to settle things on the track. The teams offer to share parts to get both carts running again but no one has an extra exhaust pipe that has disabled Michael’s cart. Jason has no choice but to race across town in search of the part.
“This was supposed to be my weekend,” says Michael, as he pounds dents out of a piece of metal in the trailer. The incident has also infuriated other local teams, who along with Michael’s cousin and uncle, come by to assist in the cart repairs. Only minutes before the start of the final heat of the evening Jason returns with the spare pipe.
The waning sun bathes the surrounding mountains in warm hues as Michael drives to a fourth-place finish in the final heat of the evening. Not his best race, but a minor victory over his emotions as he finishes without incident.
As they load Firecracker into the trailer for the evening, Michael reflects, “It kind of feels like it’s the end of the whole racing thing for a little bit so I wanted to make it a good ending. I want to have a few wins under my belt so I can come back into it confident, if I do come back, and know that I’m a driver, it’s what I do.”