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Benda driving to new heights

April 07, 2003|by DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

Three years ago, Mark and Michelle Benda came across a classified ad for a go-kart. They would buy it for their son Alex, then eight years young.

Flash forward to today. The Bendas own a specialized Shadow Storm chassis, three racing motors and a trailer to carry it all when they travel to Florida, the Carolinas and Ohio so Alex - now 11 and with 27 victories and three series championships to his credit in 2002 - can compete in the World Karting Association Junior Sportsman Nationals, among other events.

How did this happen?

"I still ask that," Michelle said last week. "'How did we get into this?'"

The Beginning


It started innocently enough. After all, you don't buy a go-kart and then leave it sitting to collect dust. So Mark and Michelle drove Alex to Shippensburg (Pa.) Speedway.

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"We figured, 'Let's go racing,'" Mark recalls. "We found out the car was a piece of junk."

Lesson number one: You're only as good as your equipment.

So Mark learned how to make the kart go - in essence, becoming Alex's crew chief.

"As the dad, you have to learn all the things to make (the kart) fast, because it changes," Mark said. "You're never done learning the tricks of the trade."

Mark and Michelle also started pooling their financial resources to buy better equipment, giving Alex a chance to compete near the front.

Lesson number two: Even with the best equipment, experience matters.

When Alex was driving an obviously inferior car, he showed that he was unafraid to mix it up with other drivers. While that trait helped with his confidence, it soon turned into a problem.

"I used to spin out a lot, and I had to straighten the car out, drive in the grooves and be patient instead of hitting everybody and getting black-flagged," Alex said.

With better equipment and a little hard-earned knowledge, the pieces starting coming together for Alex in 2001.

"One night he was up there (Shippensburg) and he got second, and it was like, 'Yeah! He got second!'" Mark said. Alex followed that up with his first win that year, coming at Path Valley Speedway in Dry Run, Pa.

The Breakthrough


If 2001 gave a glimpse of Alex's racing potential, 2002 provided a panoramic view.

First, he dominated the Shippensburg Speedway track that taught him so many lessons the previous two years, winning seven races and the Jr. Sportsman 1 (ages 8-10) track championship.

He did the same at Path Valley, winning 10 races on the way to that track's Jr. Sportsman 1 title. Thanks to his success, Path Valley officials allowed Alex to compete in the Jr. Sportsman 2 division (ages 11-13). He thanked them by winning seven races and that division's championship, as well.

To top it off, Alex competed in the Pennsylvania Dirt Kart Championship Series - consisting of six races, three at Path Valley and three at Selinsgrove Speedway - in both the Heavy and Lights divisions of Jr. Sportsman 1.

Alex earned two wins, two poles and a third-place series finish in the Heavy division, and one win, one pole and a fourth-place series finish in the Lights.

The Family Business


Paying for Alex's racing isn't easy. Total costs to keep Alex driving on the track run in the thousands of dollars, mostly coming from "my wallet," Mark said.

"The main cost of it is the cost of the motors," he added. "Every 12 races on a motor, you need to have it rebuilt. Every 12 races, we stick four or five hundred dollars into it."

Then there's the chassis the Bendas purchased, as well as travel costs, racing and license fees. It adds up to a lofty commitment, but one the Bendas make with love and affection.

"If he wasn't good at it," Mark said, "I wouldn't keep going to the next level."

Indeed, Alex's racing has become the family business. Not only will the family travel to Florida, Greenville, N.C., Waynesfield, Ohio, and Neeces, S.C., for WKA events, they will also hit the road for Alex's Virginia and Pennsylvania Dirt Kart Series races, spread across five Mid-Atlantic tracks.

"We know from mid-March to October what we are going to be doing every weekend," Mark said. "It's a family thing. You see entire families at the track doing this."

Now, it's not just Alex whose racing exploits his parents must support. Alex's brother Jeremy, 6, has started racing kid karts of his own.

The Safety Issue


Of course, Alex's racing doesn't sit well with everyone. With speeds reaching in excess of 70 miles per hour even with the required restrictor cap (speeds can reach more than 100 mph without it), questions of safety arise.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," Mark said.

"It bothers me a lot," Michelle quickly added. "When there's a lot of competition, sometimes I cry I'm so worried."

As for Alex, he is more than happy to show a tape of his worst wreck to date - when another kart ran into, then onto, his own, coming to a stop on top of his ride. Alex was unharmed.

"I've seen a lot of wrecks, and very few injuries," Mark said. "It worries mom more than dad. And it really worries (Michelle's) mom."

"She's terrified," Michelle said.

The Next Step


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