When Joey Bird, 16, picked up his learner’s permit a couple of months ago he was already a much more experienced driver than the average Spokane chauffeur. He had six consecutive go-kart championships and the 2011 MMRA Junior Pro Division Championship and Rookie of the Year award under his seat belt.
“All I think about is racing,” said the sophomore from West Valley High School. “I was 8 the first time I raced a go-kart and I got second.”
Bird transitioned from go-karts to the Miniature Motorsports Racing Association baby grand series in 2010 and he’s been very successful.
Baby grands are scaled-down cars, outfitted with street-bike-size engines, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go fast.
“Stateline is a quarter-mile track and you can go 90 to 100 mph there,” Bird said. At the Baby Grand Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Bull Ring he raced at more than 100 mph.
“I just love being out there,” Bird said. “Winning is nice, but I just love racing, being on the track – it’s all I think about.”
Bird’s mom, Mary Alexander, said watching can be a little scary, especially as the cars get bigger and faster.
“This year is going to be a big transition,” she said. “The cars are so loud – it’s like the loudness scares you more than anything else.”
For the 2012 season, Bird is moving up to a late model car much like the ones raced in NASCAR.
“It’s a 2010 Ford and it has a full roll cage and everything,” said Bird. His first race is April 7 at the Stateline Race Track in Post Falls, but the season also includes travel to Montana and maybe California.
“The goal is to get into the NASCAR sanctioned events,” Alexander said.
They estimate the upcoming season will cost them between $50,000 and $60,000.
“There are tires and gas and all the other stuff to take care of,” Alexander said. “We can only do this because we have great local sponsors and a lot of family pitching in.”
Bird’s uncle is Jeff Bird, of Jeff Bird Race Engines in Post Falls. He raced for 25 years with NASCAR NW Tour, winning Rookie of the Year and placing top five in points.
“My uncle is my main crew person,” Bird said. “He builds the engines. He keeps everything running, He’s taught me so much about racing.” Bird’s dad, Shawn Bird, buys and sells cars at auctions all over the Northwest and once worked so late into the night on his son’s car that he fell asleep underneath it.
“I told him he probably shouldn’t be working on my car if he’s that tired,” said Joey Bird, laughing.
He has always raced under the number 24 – which is also NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon’s number. Gordon is Joey Bird’s biggest idol.
“I met him once at an event and got my picture taken with him,” Bird said. “He’s a great driver and he’s also a really nice guy.”
Racing isn’t just about getting into the car, stepping on the gas and turning left. Bird said it’s a very physical sport – drivers have to be strong and have good stamina to stay alert through a whole race.
“It also gets really hot in the car because the engine is right there,” said Bird, motioning to his right knee. “The only thing between you and the engine is the firewall.”
Safety is a high priority. Bird wears a full suit and fire protective gear as well as a neck brace, and everything is approved by NASCAR.
“You also want to have a really good seat,” Bird said. “They cost a lot of money, but you want to make sure they don’t bend if you are in a wreck.”
When he was much younger he used to wear his lucky Jeff Gordon underwear and stick his Jeff Gordon house key in his shoe for go-kart races. Now, he just gets out there.
“I want to be a NASCAR driver,” said Bird. “That’s my goal. That’s where I want to be.”