There’s a certain stigma that goes with the territory of any type of auto racing: it’s all a bunch of dirty rednecks wrenching on some grungy, greasy cars just to watch them floor it left around a circular track the whole time. Here’s the thing: that stereotype isn’t completely offside. However, it takes a whole lot more to be competitive in the world of racing than most people think.
Derek Miller, 21, and Ryan Wilson, 24, know what it takes, and they’re working hard to pursue their dreams of racing sprint cars. Both Miller and Wilson graduated from Donegal High School in Mount Joy, PA; Wilson in 2008, and Miller in 2010.
As with many racers, both drivers have been around the sport in some capacity since they were kids. Miller’s father used to race in the 270cc division (back when they were 250cc) and then moved up to run a 358 sprint car for a couple years. Miller said he attended his first race when he was only a couple months old. “Since then, I haven’t wanted to do anything else,” he said. Wilson’s father also raced, which was where his interest in the sport developed. “I just wanted to see what it was about,” he said.
Although Wilson and Miller currently run different divisions, they both got their start in go-karts, which is the ground level for most drivers. Miller’s father bought him his first go-kart at the age of seven. His very first race was at Motorama and he won. Out of the 14 races he competed in his first year, he won nine of them. Wilson got a later start in karting at the age of 11. Throughout his time running karts, he won two championships and claimed 73 overall wins.
Their experience beyond karts is where the two differ. Miller moved up to a 600cc micro sprint car, then went to a 125cc micro, and is currently racing a 270cc micro sprint across Central Pennsylvania. The 270cc micro sprints run on what is essentially a 250cc dirt bike engine with a couple tweaks to make it a 270cc.
Wilson, however, moved from a kart to a 270cc micro, where he won the Rookie of the Year title, along with 12 wins. He then moved up to a 600cc micro and claimed one championship, along with 21 wins. From there, Wilson went to a 358 sprint car in 2012, officially leaving the micro divisions. The 358 sprint cars are much bigger than micros, with their engines typically generating around 700 horsepower. They go up to speeds of around …. Wilson claimed Rookie of the Year in the 358 division his first season, along with five wins. This season, however, Wilson debuted his new 410 (900+ horsepower) sprint car after only one season with the 358s. He ran both his 410 and 358 sprints this season and even dabbled in the 360 division.
Racing season starts in February and ends in November, and both drivers are out there every weekend, weather permitting. Wilson frequents Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA) most Friday nights and Lincoln Speedway Saturday (Abbottstown, PA) nights. Miller tries to race at least once a weekend, but as with all types of racing, money is a big factor. “We are a low budget team and do this for fun so if we take a weekend off we do…if we have to,” he said. As with many race teams, Miller’s team is a family deal. One of the many things he loves about racing is that it’s a passion he shares with his father, who is also his main sponsor and supporter. “Our racing is primarily my dad and myself,” he said. “My uncle and my cousin also race the same class as me so it’s a big family deal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Wilson’s team differs from Miller’s in that it’s not so much a family deal. While his family is very supportive of his racing, Wilson has a car owner, lessening the financial burden on himself. His car owner is from Greensboro, NC and supplies the cars, as well as the monetary support needed throughout the season (along with additional sponsors).
Although they race in different classes and a lot of the fundamentals of their setups vary, both drivers share the same passion for racing. For Wilson and Miller, there’s nothing more exciting than wheeling a sprint car around a dirt track. “There’s nothing better than strapping into a racecar, whether it’s a full-sized sprint car or a micro sprint,” said Miller. “The adrenaline rush you get is the greatest thing in the world. We obviously want to do the best we can but a bad night at the races is better than a good night anywhere else in my opinion.”
Both drivers hope to continue living out their racing dreams. Wilson already took a major step toward that this season when he went up against some of the best sprint car drivers in the country in the World of Outlaws races at Williams Grove and Lincoln speedways. The World of Outlaws is the traveling 410 sprint car series. They travel and compete all across the country and are considered the “best of the best.” Wilson’s racing idol growing up was Stevie Smith, an Outlaw driver who also frequents the local Central PA tracks. “My racing role model growing up as a kid was Stevie Smith and to be racing wheel to wheel with him now is something I never thought would ever happen,” Wilson said. Wilson’s highest goal is to be able to turn his racing into a full-time career. “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid in the stands,” he said.
Miller also dreams of turning racing into a full-time gig, although it might be a bit more difficult for him. “Unfortunately I don’t have the experience or money to jump into the sprint car ranks and try and go that route,” he said. “The only thing I can do is continue to learn and wherever it takes me, it takes me. I dream about being able to travel and make a living in racing whether it’s driving or wrenching on a car. Just being around cars makes me happy.” Growing up, Miller not only looked up to his father, but also Fred Rahmer, known to fans as “Fast Freddie.” Rahmer is a regular at Williams Grove and Lincoln and just claimed his 11th track title at Lincoln Speedway this season, his final season before retirement. “Fred Rahmer is my hero in the racing world. I grew up with him winning all the time. His skill behind the wheel is incredible and I’ve always dreamed to be able to race like him.”
As with any fast-paced sport, there is always the risk of injury, especially with cars racing so close at top speed. Sprint car racing has resulted in many injuries; many minor, some as serious as paralysis, and unfortunately, even death. This season, the sprint car community lost three drivers to fatal wrecks, one being NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, also a personal friend of Wilson’s. This risk, however, is something drivers acknowledge every time they strap into their cars. The real testament to their passion for the sport is how they deal with that risk. “I don’t really think about it too much,” Miller said of the danger racing presents. “It’s always in the back of your mind but when you strap in it all goes away. There’s always that risk and every driver knows that when they get behind the wheel. The possible chance of injury definitely doesn’t keep me from doing what I love.” Wilson’s views are similar. “The danger is what it is,” he said. “I’ve seen people get seriously hurt in racing and I’ve seen people get seriously hurt just driving down the road. It’s something I definitely never think about once I strap into the car. If I were to be seriously injured but could race again, you better believe I’ll be strapping back into my sprint car!”
In Miller and Wilson’s cases, it’s safe to say that racing is in their blood and courses through their veins. Between the countless hours a week they put in at their shops, to the money they pour into their cars, to the pure joy it brings them to strap into a machine and hurdle down a straightaway, racing is what they know and love. It’s what they do. As former NASCAR driver Richard Childress once said, “Once you’ve raced, you never forget it…and you never get over it.”