Big-time auto racing started in February in Florida, and racing at Northern California’s short oval tracks is only a few weeks off. One racer from Redding who should be looking forward to the 2011 season is, unfortunately, still looking for a ride. That’s a shame, but it’s likely to be only a temporary setback.
In 2010, Alex Schutte, a Shasta High School graduate now attending Sonoma State University, won the U.S. Auto Club’s Western States midget championship, a series of 16 races in California, Nevada and Arizona. Although Schutte’s midget success in 2010 and earlier road racing championships have not translated into an immediate ride this season, the 21-year-old is hardly despairing. It’s likely he’ll find his way into either a midget or a sprint car by the time the season begins at Silver Dollar Speedway quarter-mile dirt oval in Chico on March 11.
“Have helmet, will travel,” Schutte says. “The reason I’m taking marketing in school is to learn how to sell myself and put deals together.”
Schutte started racing with the Shasta Kart Klub on short road courses when he was 7 years old. After collecting many race wins and series championships, he advanced to Formula Fords in 2006 and won a Sports Car Club of America regional championship. Rather than continue in road racing, however, Schutte turned left.
Prior to the 2007 season, he attended a sprint car driving school on the quarter-mile dirt oval at the Ventura fairgrounds. The difference between racing a rear-engine machine on road courses and racing a front-engine sprint car on short dirt ovals cannot be overestimated. Road racing involves braking, shifting, accelerating and holding the car to a precise line around the track. Sprint cars are powered by huge 360- to 410-cubic-inch engines and have no gear box (midgets are basically a four-cylinder version). There’s no shifting, braking is minimal, and the cars slide sideways through every turn.
However, Schutte made the transition so seamlessly that driving school owner Cory Kruseman, a champion sprint car and midget racer himself, quickly signed the Redding racer as a developmental driver. Schutte spent most of 2007 through 2009 racing sprint cars and midgets up and down the West Coast for Kruseman.
“He did an exceptional job right from the get-go,” Kruseman says. “He was able to run high speeds immediately. He works harder at it than almost anyone I know.”
Adds Schutte, “Through watching film and Cory’s help, I learned something every time I was on the track.”
In 2010, Schutte hooked up with a different Southern California car owner, Jerome Rodela, and they ran a Toyota Racing Development-sponsored midget to the Western States championship. The second place driver in points last season? Schutte’s mentor, Kruseman.
“I’d like to take credit for it,” Kruseman says, “but Alex was the one with the steering wheel in his hands.”
The midget series involves both dirt and asphalt ovals (Schutte raced a midget at the asphalt Shasta Raceway Park oval in Anderson in 2009). Surprisingly, Schutte feels more at home these days on the dirt.
“We get all our best results on the dirt,” Schutte says. On asphalt, he explains, passing is at a premium and drivers concentrate on holding their position. On the dirt, there’s more going on – sliding around, passing, lapped traffic. “It seems to put it more in the driver’s hands,” he says approvingly.
“I like the big dirt half miles that are fast, like Calistoga. To be quick, you have to be on the ragged edge, and if you go over the edge, the consequences are severe,” he says.
Schutte has enjoyed his time in midgets, but he sees an immediate future in sprint cars, which have more races, offer larger purses and attract a bigger fan base. “The midget deal, they are changing the (car) rules. It’s great racing, but it seems like it’s dying off. The health of the series is unknown.”
It’s not easy, but it’s possible to earn a living racing primarily sprint cars, especially for drivers based in the Midwest. Alex says that after he graduates from Sonoma State this coming December with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing, he may consider relocating to Indiana. That move would make sense, because Indiana is home to many U.S. Auto Club sprint car owners. As Alex’s father, Carl, notes, those owners are always looking for young drivers, especially if they can bring a little bit of sponsorship.
Most importantly, Carl says with a laugh, is halting the use of dad’s checkbook as a primary sponsor. Last year’s assistance from Toyota Racing Development was “a gift from the heavens,” Carl says.
Seriously, though, money is an issue. Even short-track racing at places like Silver Dollar and Shasta is frightfully expensive. Alex Schutte is not a rich kid, and he doesn’t possess a famous name like Andretti or Earnhardt that attracts corporate dollars. Schutte has opportunities in big-time American road racing, Carl says, but those rides would cost 10 times what a sprint car venture costs. The difference, really, is between checks with five figures and those with six.
Kruseman, who had brief opportunities to race Indy cars and NASCAR trucks, knows the situation a rising talent such as Schutte faces.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got to be able to write big checks. If you can’t do that, it really hurts where your career can go,” Kruseman says.
But enough of racing’s depressing fiscal aspects. Auto racing is about passion. Once racing gets in your bloodstream, you just have to be at the track, whether it’s as a driver, mechanic, car owner, official, fan, sponsor or scribe. It’s no surprise that Alex Schutte is the third generation of his family to race.
“The family has had a passion for racing,” says Carl, who owns and operates Aircraft Electrical Components, off Eastside Road, in Redding. “Mom was on board, Dad was on board, and the kid enjoyed it. It was a wonderful experience. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again.”
Interestingly, neither Carl nor Alex talk much about NASCAR stock cars, the country’s most popular form of auto racing. “There are probably millions of kids his age that want to race NASCAR,” Carl says. “So the line is really long.”
Yet it’s also true that success in U.S. Auto Club short track racing helped open the NASCAR door for Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Mike Bliss, Kenny Irwin, Ken Schrader and others. Alex has tested a stock car at All American Speedway in Roseville. Maybe one day, Alex Schutte will race in the Daytona 500. Or maybe he’ll spend 30 years wheeling sprint cars and midgets, a racing pursuit in which passion means a lot more than money does.
“I’m up for trying anything,” he says.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and got an F in Cory Kruseman’s driving school. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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