FRENCHTOWN – Shon Gooden has his sights set on a career behind the wheel, preferably in NASCAR, and he’s quickly heading down that path.

Gooden isn’t old enough yet to even take the Montana driver’s license exam, but the 13-year-old knows this much already: He loves driving fast. And he’ll be getting the chance to do just that as a member of Ron Sutton’s Winner’s Circle, a talent scouting and driver career development program based in Sacramento, Calif.

Gooden is the youngest driver currently in the program, which doesn’t begin its racing season until May. The seventh-grader at Frenchtown Junior High School was selected to join the program after competing in a shootout last fall. Gooden was one of 11 drivers offered a first-time contract for 2010. There were 36 drivers invited to the shootout, but even more applicants were weeded out through interviews and e-mails.

“It started out with over 700 people, and I was one out of 11 that made it.” Gooden says. “That really startled me. I thought, ‘Wow, I might actually be good at this.’ ”

Gooden will compete in two series in southern California, the USAC Ford Focus Midget and Junior Ford Focus Midget, when racing begins in a few weeks. Both are beginner series for the program – there are 10 series altogether – and they use a midget car, which looks similar to the popular sprint cars, but only smaller and without the wing.

Oddly enough Gooden had to apply for a special USAC (United States Auto Club) driver’s license to be able to compete. The “odd” part is Gooden had to get a partial emancipation from his parents to sign all the releases and waivers associated with the sport and the race tracks involved.

“That way, he’s out there on his own free will,” says his mother Heather Gooden. “It’s not always an option for the adults to sign the papers. He has to be able to do that.”

The freedom is neat, Shon says, but he’s not exactly livin’ it up like one of NASCAR’s young guns.

There’s still school and homework to tend to and when Shon’s not racing he enjoys drawing, building stuff and playing video games. Let’s not forget the occasional babysitting duty – can you hear that adrenaline-pumping joyride screeching to a halt? – that comes with being the oldest sibling.

“Yeah, my parents make me do some babysitting,” says Shon, who has a younger brother and sister, ages 3 and 2, “so they can have some time off together.”

The hectic schedule of a soon-to-be racecar driver can certainly tie up a family.

Shon first started racing karts at age 9. He has since traveled the country with his father, Wade, racing in the

125cc-, 250cc- and 500cc-sized motor Outlaw Kart divisions in Montana, Idaho, California, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri. It was at the got milk? Nationals in Hartville, Mo., last fall that Shon first thought racing might be in his future.

“That’s when Shon said ‘You can get paid for this? I can make a living off what I enjoy doing the most?’ ” Heather recalls. “Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought this was possible – a father and his son hanging out together, racing just for fun – we never imagined he’d be where he is today.”

Gooden’s early on-track education is undeniable, but lately he’s been stockpiling more off-track knowledge, which is where the hectic schedule comes into view. Each RSWC driver is expected to attend on-site driver workshops prior to the race season.

“He does more classwork down there than he does at school,” joked Heather.

Shon recently wrapped up the classroom portion of the program. He had to attend at least 10 workshops to be eligible for the race season. Every other weekend for two months Shon went back-and-forth between home and class, alternating parents each time (he doesn’t have a driver’s license, remember). The 990-mile drive from Frenchtown to Sacramento can take almost a full day, depending on who’s driving and weather conditions.

“On good days it’s a 16-hour drive,” says Wade, “but every time Shon and I come down it’s taken us 20 hours or better. We don’t get it. When he comes down with his mom the roads are perfect.”

On one of their most recent trips, father and son were caught in a snowstorm and had to wait at the bottom of Donner Pass. The two were on the road by 5 a.m. that day.

“It gets to you after awhile – the late nights and early mornings,” Shon says, “but the knowledge and the experience that I’m getting makes it all worth it.”

Each workshop has a specific topic aimed at preparing the student-driver for a career in racing, whether it’s car handling, driver fitness or learning how to handle sponsors and the media, the classes cover it all. The only trouble is, the workshops don’t come cheap. And neither does the eventual track time.

The workshops cost the Goodens $11,000. The price tag for just a half-season of racing – which is 12 races – is $80,000, and that’s if there are no damages or repairs needed to the midget cars. Imagine the cost of a full season, which is 21 races and lasts through September.

Like any parents that want to see their child succeed, the Goodens are doing everything they can, but that means weighing their sons wishes and dreams against their wallet. To help offset some of the costs, a fundraiser for Shon Gooden Racing is being held April 16 from 6-9 p.m. at the Broadway Inn. There’ll be raffles, 50/50 drawings and both silent and live auctions. Shon has volunteered to preside over the latter.

“It’s kind of funny,” Heather says, “since Shon’s been off (from the workshops) he’s been on the Internet, training himself to get the sound of an auctioneer’s voice down.”

Imagine that, another profession that requires speed.

Nick Lockridge may be reached at 523-5298 or at nick.lockridge@lee.net.

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