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Quarter midget racing keeps Polce family on track

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — Sportsmanship. Accomplishment. Handling disappointment. Commitment. Focus. Responsibility.

Jennifer and Tony Polce Sr. are working hard to help their boys develop these qualities on the racetrack.

Tony Jr., age 8, and Maddox, 5, race quarter midgets at the North Carolina Quarter Midget Association track, the only quarter-midget track in the Carolinas.

The boys also compete in Nashville; at two tracks in Georgia; New Smyrna, Florida; and Huntsville, Alabama.

If you live in Rowan County, it’s likely you’ve driven by the track a thousand times and never known it. It’s on the east side of Interstate 85 on a small road between the Julian Road and Peach Orchard exits. A sign visible from the interstate announces “Race Way Industrial Park.”

The Polces have four quarter-midget cars, a fancy box trailer for hauling them, spare tires and parts, a trailer for hauling those, and all the tools to keep them in top shape.

Dad Tony is an accountant and freely acknowledges he’s never been mechanically minded.

“But I’ve learned quickly,” he adds.

He laughs as he looks down at his blackened hands after replacing the chain on Maddox’s car.

Two years ago, a co-worker invited the family to an “Arrive and Drive,” and Tony Jr. drove a borrowed car. The family was hooked and eventually bought that borrowed car.

Tony Jr. remembers that night well.

“It felt like driving a real car,” he says. “It was fun. When you’re only 6 years old and you can drive, it’s pretty amazing. I felt excited. We were wanting to race. We found the perfect one. I was saying to my dad, ‘This is amazing. I want to race other people. I’d love to do it again.’

“We didn’t have a (race) car, so I asked if we could get a car. He said, ‘You have to do good in school to get a car.’ So I did good in school and he surprised me with a car.”

Tony Jr. is a competitive driver. He raced his rookie season in 2017 and had eight wins and was awarded the Rookie of the Year award. He moved into the competitive junior class late that year and held his own against older kids. It was there that he brought home two championships.

Maddox started driving this year. He, too, has some wins under his belt.

“When you win, you get a medal and a trophy,” he said. “You get to hold the checkered flag and take a lap. The caution flag is yellow. The red flag means stop. It’s important to follow the rules so you don’t get in trouble. They wave a green flag to start the race.

“To race we wear a fire suit. It’s hard and bendy. My suit is red and black. Tony’s is blue and black and white.

“When I’m driving, I think about going fast. If there’s a car in front of me, I try to pass. My parents tell me, ‘Keep your foot in it!’ We run the bottom. If everybody’s at the bottom, the guy at the top can hit the wall.”

Maddox’s parents smile when he says, “Keep your foot in it.” That’s track talk for keeping your foot on the gas.

An article on the sport’s website says racing quarter midgets takes the whole family as a team. It’s certainly the case with the Polces.

“The entire family is the team,” Jennifer says. “Quarter midget racing is really an extended family. Kids forge friendships across the country. We’re a club-run organization. Families organize race-day events as well as see to facility maintenance. It’s all up to the families. For most teams, it’s mom and dad running the team. Dad is the crew chief. You see moms strapping kids in the cars, taping numbers on the cars, taking photos, scraping tires. Mom preps for race day, making sandwiches, packing coolers. You’re here from 8 a.m. and oftentimes staying until 10 p.m.”

A quarter midget track is 1/20 of a mile with banked turns. Speeds for the tiny cars top out at a little over 30 mph.

Bobby Labonte had the local track built in 2004, and if a racetrack can be beautiful, this one certainly is. Everything is well painted, even the waist-high chain-link fence around the track. Multiple small buildings provide the essentials, and electronic lighting signals the drivers when to start, slow down and stop.

The site is 20 acres total, and when kids aren’t racing, they grab a friend and ride bikes or play on scooters. No alcohol is allowed, and the families are close.

“We may be competitive during races,” dad Tony says, “but we are extended family. If anybody needs something, everyone steps up.”

Jennifer agrees.

“The kids want to win, but it’s not unusual to see five, six families crowded around a car helping to repair it,” she says.  “We’re in the heart of racing country. Nearby we’ve got race shops, parts providers, graphics companies, safety equipment companies.”

The boys have sponsors, including Talon Chassis, Panther Graphics, Charlotte Wire & Cable, Tri Star Racewear, SunTrust, Experiential Events Group and Elliott Beach Rentals.

“Motorsports gives kids the chance to have hands-on exposure to motors and safety,” Jennifer says. “For Maddox, it’s just beginning exposure. He’s learning the rules and learning the track. We’ve seen a lot of growth over the first year. For Tony, it’s velocity, acceleration and friction. He’s really getting the science of it all.”

Tony Jr. thinks about racing a lot.

“We try to be smooth,” he says. “Don’t jerk the wheel. Just go down easy. I’ve flipped upside down before. One time I just plowed into the wall. I passed someone and I ran right into the wall. It was irritating.”

His mom smiles.

“That’s when we knew he had a talent for this. We were in Georgia practicing rookie for a Dixie race. Another car went in front of him and he flipped over. His dad ran out to him and Tony yelled, ‘Flip me over and push me off!’ He had no fear; he just wanted to get going again.”

Despite the busy race season in the Southeast, the Polce family is traveling this weekend so the boys can race at Daytona.

“We’ve been prepping off and on for a couple of weeks. … Travel planning, getting cars ready for the new season, and traveling there and back — it’s a lot.”

Tony Jr. was geared up for the trip.

“When I grow up, I want to be a NASCAR engineer. That’s someone who works on cars, designs cars, or serves as crew chief. You take engineering at college.”

Jennifer had to complete paperwork for the boys to miss school for the trip.

“They’re going to miss three days of school. It’s always a consideration when families are engaged in a sport,” she says. “You have to have a conversation with the school about their missing and what they will learn.

“You hear a lot about STEM these days. Motorsports gives kids the chance to have hands-on exposure to motors.”

She recalls a big race last summer.

“It was the Junior Honda cup race. It was a full field, because everyone wants the cup. It was incredibly hot and the longest race I’ve ever watched. The kids were out there maybe 50 minutes. There were a lot of cautions. At the end of the day, Tony brought home the cup. Just goes to show, quarter midget racing is all highs and lows.”

Quarter midget racing starts at age 5 and kids age out at 16. What then?

“We’d love for Tony to have an opportunity to race in a higher series,” Jennifer says. “A big part of it is partnerships and sponsorships for the team. That’s hard nowadays. We are thinking, ‘How can our team promote local businesses to grow together?’”

Later in the year, the Polces will travel again — to Indianapolis. The Brickyard race there will easily have 500 kids.

Neither Jennifer nor Tony Sr. mentions the sacrifices they’ve made for the boys: money, time, energy and devotion. They’re just focused on their boys.

“We’re very blessed to give this opportunity to our kids,” Jennifer says. “You hear lots of parents tell their kids, ‘You don’t realize how lucky you are.’ We just try to impress to our boys, ‘Enjoy it.’”

Tony Jr. sums it up: “My dad is my hero.”

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