It is barely 11 a.m., but the morning coolness has long faded, replaced by a scorching, humid heat.
Trailers and trucks dot the grassy hills that sit behind Lanier National Speedway, the 0.375-mile race track in Braselton that, as of late, has been hosting local drag races but in its heyday was under NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.
The racers working out of and around the trailers on this particular July Saturday aren’t here to race on the big track though.
They’re all here for the smaller oval track, just up the hill.
The track only runs about 1/20 of a mile, but it doesn’t need to be much bigger.
After all, some of the racers are only 5 years old.
Right now, the track is quiet but there is a buzz around the trailers. Kids are everywhere this early afternoon, but they’re not just running around and goofing off (though there is some of that, too.)
Most are next to their cars, working diligently beside their fathers, mothers, sisters or brothers. Turning wrenches, sanding down tires, replacing nuts and bolts, all with an ease and deliberateness that makes it look like they were born doing it.
Up in the press box, Toby Hammonds, a self-proclaimed “local announcer guy” and father of a driver, escapes the heat between heats. His daughter, 16-year-old Kelli, a seasoned veteran of this event, has been racing for seven years or so.
“[Quarter Midget] racing is unlike any racing above this level,” Hammonds says.
The sport puts children as young as 5 and as old as 16 behind the wheel, driving at speeds upwards of 40-50 miles per hour, in cars resembling souped-up go-karts with roll cages. Jeff Gordon did it. Joey Logano did it.
But it’s not just the age of the driver or the size of the car that sets this level of racing apart, according to Toby.
“On the race track, when we are racing, if something happens to my daughter’s car, all the other fathers, the competitors, pitch in to help get my car repaired and back on the track to race their kid,” Toby says. “We call it a racing family, and we will do anything for each other.”
Although Quarter Midget racing is relatively popular among racing classes in the United States, the regional groups that compete with each other are tight knit communities. The Hammonds compete in the Southeast Regional Series that includes races as far east as Nashville.
Luckily for the Hammonds and the rest of the North Georgia Quarter Midget Association members, there are two tracks in Georgia: one in Braselton and one in Cumming.
Last year, Kelli competed in over 30 races.
“I’ve always been consumed with this sport, but last year was kind of a struggle; it was hard because it was so much,” she says, adding that a lot of times at the end of long days she questions why she is putting her family through this.
“We are sweating our butts off, sometimes they are about to pass out, then we end up in this bad hotel; I mean it’s so stressful, but it’s a stress that I love, it’s something that motivates me and pushes me … I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Neither would her family, according to Toby.
“It really is the glue that seems to hold the family together,” he says. “It grows your bond and straightens it, and it opens up lines of communication; I’m telling you - this racing thing, it teaches life lessons.”
Aside from the racing jumpsuit she is wearing, Kelli Hammonds comes off as your average 16-year-old girl. Giddy but sincere, unsure but positive.
She doesn’t remember her first race, but she does remember the first time she got in a car to practice. She was 9 years old.
“Lord, I was scared,” Kelli says, laughing. “I almost hit my dad and someone else who was out there to help out.”
The 16-year-old Kelli disappears after this sentence for a minute, and in her place a much more mature Kelli emerges.
“The lessons I learn here I use on and off the track the way I react to things emotionally, and I just feel like I take things in stride better,” she says. “I think this sport has really changed who I am and my way of thinking.”
Toby can’t ignore the maturity he sees in his daughter now either. Not that he would want to. His once timid 9-year-old has grown leaps and bounds mentally, and Toby says he owes a lot of that to racing.
Of course, every parent sees good things in their kids, but Toby also gets to see Kelli through different eyes: the eyes of the other younger drivers who look up to Kelli.
“Her little nickname is Hot Sauce,” Toby says. “It’s just been so cool to see her become sort of a role model.”
But all that will soon come to an end.
This is Kelli’s last year racing Quarter Midgets; she has decided to focus on getting into college.
“It’s a really hard topic,” she says, fighting back tears. “The fact that in a few months, I’ll have my last race, I’m not going to get back into the car; this will be somebody else’s, most likely a rookie or something, and I’m going have to watch that. That’s going to be hard.”
Next year will definitely be different than the last seven for the Hammonds family, but Toby doesn’t see it as the end of racing for them.
“We meet new people at every single race we go to now,” Toby says. “We sell the sport to them, too, and consider ourselves ambassadors to the sport.
“When I came in people helped me, so on my way out, I need to pay that forward.”
If you’d like to find out more about the North Georgia Quarter Midget Association please visit www.ngqma.com.