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Secret life of Timberlake High senior: Setters races sprint cars on weekends nearly half the year

James Setters is a sprint car hobbyist and wants to be a professional racer. The Timberlake High School senior also plans to study mechanical engineering.  (Andrea Jensen Photography)
James Setters is a sprint car hobbyist and wants to be a professional racer. The Timberlake High School senior also plans to study mechanical engineering. (Andrea Jensen Photography)

James Setters is graduating high school with a list of accolades and trophies that the majority of his Timberlake High School classmates are likely unaware of.

In fact, Setters is quick to point out, most of his fellow students have no idea he spends more than 20 weekends a year racing an 800-horsepower sprint car around a dirt oval.

And if they do, they might confuse sprint car racing for go-kart racing.

“Nobody up here knows what it is,” Setters said.

Now, the 18-year-old Setters can add Timberlake High School graduate to a resume that already includes a host of top finishes at tournaments across the United States and Canada. He’s already competed in more than 300 racing events and won more than 70 of them, across more than half a dozen states.

In 2019, Setters won five of six races in the Rocky Mountain Sprint Car Series.

But his parents and school teachers are perhaps most of all gobsmacked by Setters’ ability to maintain good grades while spending weekends whipping around the track – not to mention the preparation that goes into a race. And he’s done it all without needing prodding to stay on top of his school work, they say.

“He’s pretty well-rounded, he’s a good student, he works hard, and you never have to discipline him hardly,” said his mother, Kelley Setters. “I don’t know how we got a kid like him.”

Despite his successes, Setters has remained humble. He’s rarely one to brag to other students about his extracurricular achievements, noted Renee Vordahl, his school counselor at Timberlake High School.

In fact, Vordahl only learned about Setters’ racing career because he asked to schedule some classes around it.

“I don’t know that a lot of students know what he does,” Vordahl said. “He’s very humble about it, he’s very sweet and kind.”

Setters has been competitively racing in one form or another since he was 5, starting at the Salem Indoor Track in Salem, Oregon, with a love of racing inherited from his father.

He reached the highest level of sprint car racing when he was 15, now usually racing against competitors much older than he is.

“It’s like the funnest thing I’ve ever done – you’re going 120 mph … racing with 20 other idiots,” Setters joked.

It’s a lifestyle that requires an awful lot of travel, with races as far away as Florida. All the while, Setters has to not only find the time to not only complete his schoolwork, but to excel.

The expectations have always been clear, Setters said, that it’s “grades first and then racing, and so if I didn’t get A’s then I couldn’t race.”

Like so many others, Setters’ routine was thrown askew by the COVID-19 pandemic. While races were mostly canceled, Setters had to get his adrenaline fix wherever he could find it.

“I bought a longboard and started going downhill,” Setters said.

It should come as no surprise that Setters tracked his maximum speed – 35 miles per hour, so far.

Luckily, races are starting back up, and Setters will soon return to the track.

Long term, Setters wants to eventually own his own sprint car, have a trailer and a team, and continue his racing career. But it’s an unstable life that can come with a six-figure paycheck one year and nothing the next, a fact Setters is well aware of.

“You need to have a good backup plan,” Setters said.

That’s why Setters plans to study mechanical engineering, first for a year at North Idaho College to obtain an associate degree and then for two years at the University of Idaho.

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