LA SELVA BEACH — Aptos High School senior Tyler Slay is both a racer and a wrestler — two completely different sports, to be sure.
Yet there are more similarities between them than one might realize.
“In racing and wrestling, you are always striving,” Slay said. “There is always someone better than you. You are alway striving to beat them. There is always a bigger step to take.”
With his wrestling career on hold until the winter, Slay’s racing career got a major boost on Aug. 1, when the 17-year-old scored his first United States Auto Club Speed2 Western Dirt Midget race win at the Ventura County Fair.
Racing for Breidinger Motorsports, powered by a Honda engine, Slay passed Randi Pankratz on lap nine of the 20-lap race, and never looked back.
Noting that he didn’t qualify “very well,” Slay soon found himself climbing the ranks early on in the race, eventually finding himself in second place.
“I saw the leader in front of me,” he said. “Then I’m thinking, ‘man, I’m hunting down only one person.’”
After passing Pankratz and holding off attempts from other drivers to regain the lead, the possibility of winning the race became a reality with about two laps left.
“This is really happening,” Slay said he remembered thinking. “That was the longest two laps ever.”
Slay’s father Chris described a tight battle for the lead over the back half of the race, which caused the crowd of 2,000 to “go crazy.”
The win was the result of many hours of work on the car, from inception to building the engine and installing it in the car.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Chris Slay said. “It was a big full circle for me.”
Tyler Slay first got behind the wheel of a quarter midget, a smaller version of a midget car, at the age of 10, encouraged by his father Chris, who builds race engines.
“You can never stop evolving as a driver,” he said. “You’re always working to get faster. The adrenaline of going that fast with 20 other cars on the track, you can’t look back.”
Slay, who plans to attend Cabrillo College or Monterey Peninsula College before transferring to San Jose State to study engineering, offered some advice to other young people with a fascination for racing.
“Go out to the track and get yourself into it,” he said. “Get yourself used to the whole racing scene. Work towards racing and eventually you can save up and get a car. Put in a lot of effort and have as much fun as possible.”
Now the points leader in the USAC Speed2 Western Dirt Midget standings, Slay’s next race is Sept. 7 at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, followed by another race the next day at Santa Maria Raceway.
Slay knows he wants to still be involved with racing after he graduates from college.
He’s already in good company. Such well-known drivers as Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and others got their start in quarter midget racing.
It is a path many drivers throughout history have taken, said Don Redmon of Watsonville-based Replika Maschinen Inc., which builds engines for a number of different racing vehicles.
But with other kinds of race cars taking over in recent decades, such as sprint and stock cars, midget racing in California has taken a dip in popularity, Chris Slay said.
“There are so many other types of racing now,” he said. “It’s diluted it.”
Redmon added that tracks closing throughout the state over the years has further hindered the sport.
“We still race in California,” he said. “Only now we drive further and further to do so.
“As long as there are two people breathing and ambulatory left on the earth, there will be racing.”
Locally, midget racing is making a comeback. Chris Slay said Ocean Speedway at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds plans to hold a 12-race midget race series in 2019, after the cars have only been visiting the track once for each of the past few years.
For now, Ocean Speedway is in the midst of its weekly race series. For a schedule, visit www.racepmg.com/oceanspeedway.