Starting Them Young

When Jerry Kunzman began to consider the possibilities of a youth program for NASA, he took plenty of time to think over exactly how it could affect other drivers, rules, safety, legal and insurance matters, and the very essence of NASA as a whole.

It went without saying that if a minor should be involved in even the slightest incident on track, there would be hell to pay. Jerry once told me the only way he would consider someone under the current age requirements would be after giving serious scrutiny to each applicant. He would have to evaluate their ability to make good decisions, their driving ability and school grades. It just so happened that I knew a certain teenager who would be a perfect candidate. He was a quarterback for his Pop Warner team, dominant in karting at the time and his grades were good.

So, it all began one weekend when I showed up with my son at Buttonwillow Raceway Park for a NASA event in my Viper GTS coupe. Jerry looked at my car and asked why I didn’t have my race gear with me. I explained I had to come late because I had stayed to watch my 13-year-old son’s football game.

With that Jerry said, “Go get my driver suit and helmet and get out there!” It didn’t take long to get the loose CDs out of the car and tape some numbers on the doors. By then Jerry had returned with two helmets and driver suit. When I asked why he brought two helmets, Jerry replied, “Well, I assume after you run with the race group that Will may want to do the HPDE events, and that will require you both to have helmets.”

Immediately I began to daydream about a father-son team for the upcoming 25 Hours of Thunderhill, but a new rule stating that each driver had to have a minimum of eight incident-free races logged in their book meant we were running out of time. Will would have to run eight races in only two NASA events, and there were only four races he could run in my PS2 Pro Sedan. To help out, Jerry brought his Thunder Roadster to the next event for Will to drive, but he still needed two compete in two more races, and one of the CMC teams said, “Hey, we have a car Will can use!”

After a hectic day getting in and out of Pro Sedans, Mustangs and a Thunder Roadster to make the grid, all Will had to do was finish one last race in the Thunder Roadster. I leaned in through the window net and looked him in the eye and said, “Now son, all you have to do is stay at the rear of the pack and out of everyone’s way. Once this race is over, you’ll be able to run the 25 Hours of Thunderhill with my team.”

About 20 minutes later, a friend came running over and said, “Looks like that boy of yours will get to run the 25 this year after all.” I said, “Yep, all he has to do is finish this last race incident free and it’s a done deal. But there’s nothing to worry about because I told him to just stay at the back.”

“Then you may not want to go watch this race because your son is in second place and he’s gaining on the first place car!” he said.

Not only did Will log his eighth official race that day, but he actually went on to finish that race in second place. It was because of Jerry Kunzman’s attention to detail and his willingness to take a chance on someone he trusted that Will became instrumental in helping NASA develop one of the finest driver-development programs anywhere.

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