Pint-sized power, big fun

Ten-year-old Henrico arena racer Aubrey Hill with his car at the Richmond Coliseum.

While it will not become the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame (which landed in Charlotte N.C.) Henrico County may yet be able to claim a unique racing legacy.

Henrico business owner Ricky Dennis, who grew up near Nuckols Road and attended J.R. Tucker High School, has founded the popular and fast-growing sport of arena racing, in which half-scale stock cars circle a specially built indoor track.

Although he has been around racing all his life (his father was a champion racer), Dennis did not get the idea for arena racing until a few years ago.

“I went to my first ice hockey game at the [Richmond] Coliseum,” he said, “and all I could think of was racing in that venue.” The next weekend, Dennis was at a race and spotted some small cars, and the idea was born.

“So you could call Short Pump,” he mused, “the birthplace of arena racing.”

The cars in arena racing consist of nine-foot-long, cup-style stock car racing bodies and are equipped with 22-horsepower, rear-mounted Honda engines. Outdoors, they are capable of speeds up to 100 miles per hour; inside the arena, they may hit top speeds of 55 or more.

The race series that began Dec. 29 and finishes in March has drawn racers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as all parts of Virginia. Dennis has had numerous inquiries about establishing arena racing abroad, and within the next few years, he hopes to take the sport to the international level.

In addition to providing wholesome family entertainment for all ages, said Dennis, the growing youth division also provides a chance for youngsters to take a crack at becoming future NASCAR winners.

A Henrico ten-year-old, in fact, could be one of the rising stars Dennis is talking about.

‘Don’t get ideas’
At the Dec. 28 practice session, the underground tunnels of the Coliseum hummed with activity as Aubrey Hill prepared to get behind the wheel of his car for the first time.

A fifth-grader at Colonial Trail ES, Hill had been working toward this moment since seeing arena races last winter with some neighbors and his mother, Sharon.

“Everyone loves the wrecks,” explained his mother wryly. “It’s exciting. After the first accident of the first race, I said [to Aubrey], ‘Don’t get any ideas!’

“I think that’s when he decided to do it.”

At first, Sharon Hill was adamant that Aubrey would stick to traditional sports, such as the basketball, baseball, soccer and football he has pursued so far. But she gradually came around -- even sponsoring her son’s car through her business, Hill Storage in Mechanicsville.

What changed her mind?

“The statistics on accidents,” she said. “No one [in arena racing] has ever been seriously injured enough to stay in the hospital.” Not too many sports can claim statistics like that, she reasoned.

Noting the five-point harness and steel roll cage that protects drivers, she added, “They have him secured with several seat belts, restraints on his arms, restraints on his head.

“He’s not going anywhere.”

Better than video games
To prepare for driving in an arena, Aubrey made several trips to G-Force Karts in Henrico. “The first time, he was nervous,” said his mother. “He was like Driving Miss Daisy.”

But as Aubrey gained confidence and speed and prepared for his first arena race, the Hills ran into a new obstacle: their lack of knowledge when it came to equipping the car.

On the day of the Dec. 28 practice, Sharon Hill called Carl’s Racing, a store in Ashland, to ask about some components she needed for the vehicle.

Carl Blohm answered the phone, asked a few questions, and promptly closed the store to go to the Coliseum and help prepare the car.

“He’s a godsend,” said Sharon Hill, gesturing toward Blohm and a couple of her neighbors who had installed the mike set in Aubrey’s helmet and were now bustling around his car.

Recalling Hill’s phone call to the store, Blohm shrugged and said there was just no fighting the impulse to help her.

“Her 10-year-old son is coming [to the Coliseum] to do this for the first time. Nobody [of the helpers] has been to a race before,” he said. “And there are a million things you can do wrong.”

Besides, he said with a laugh, the president of Carl’s Racing had told him to close up shop.

“Danny Corker looked at me and said, ‘You gotta go. You can’t just leave him.’”

As a member of the first crew when arena racing made its debut at Norfolk Scope, Blohm said he is delighted to see the addition of a youth division.

“What we’re doing is putting families back in racing,” he said approvingly. With a nod toward Aubrey, he added, “This is better for him than playing a video game. He’ll have to learn to work on the car; it’s all about responsibility and commitment.”

“Somewhere in this group,” he predicted, “is a future star.”

Two-wheeled birthday present
Also participating in the Dec. 28 practice was Dystany Spurlock, a 2009 graduate of Highland Springs High School who recently discovered arena racing.

Spurlock, now 20, played corner and safety for the HSHS football team, then moved on to a career in modeling and motorcycle drag racing. In a trackside interview, she said that the seeds of her racing career were planted when she was age six.

“I would ride on the back of a motorcycle with my mom,” she said, “so I had always been around [motorcycles]. Then my goddad raced, and I wanted to race too.

“Mom got me a motorcycle for my 17th birthday.”

In just two years of racing, she has already achieved fame in motorcycle circles and is featured regularly in magazine articles. The arena racing caught her eye, she said, when she and her agent strolled by the display window in West Broad Village and her agent suggested she look into it.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s different. The speed is out of this world. Also, it’s very competitive, and I’m competitive. We’re in a small coliseum with a lot of cars packed together, and [I’m thinking], ‘How am I going to pass?’

“It’s a challenge, and that’s what I like.”

Currently in search of a sponsor, Spurlock said she plans to race in the NASCAR ARCA Series in 2013.

“And I should,” she said confidently, “be in the Nationwide Series by 2014.”

Looking ahead
And what’s in the future for Aubrey Hill?

Like Spurlock, he has his eye on NASCAR.

“I’m really into it,” said Hill, who notes that his favorite NASCAR racer is Carl Edwards -- in part, he said, because he favors the number nine and Edwards’ number is 99.

He has attended several races at Richmond International Raceway with his uncle and cousin, and notes that NASCAR driver ranks among his top two choices of professions.

But another career choice has appeal as well: focusing on his favorite subject of social studies. Aubrey said he has especially enjoyed learning Henrico history, and was impressed to learn that the Richmond region was one of the first areas to be settled in the new world.

“So I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it,” he said, “but I’d also like to be a social studies teacher.”

For the immediate future, however, Sharon Hill noted she and Aubrey will need to focus their efforts in an altogether different “arena”: finances.

“We are looking for sponsors,” she said with a laugh. “Mom’s money has run out!”

For details about upcoming races, visit arenaracingusa.com. For information on Dystany Spurlock, visit http://dspurlockracing.com/site#!__site.
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