Speeding to stardom
Behind the wheel of a go-kart that can top 90 miles per hour, there aren't many drivers better than Lake Oswego High senior Sammi VanEaton
What do Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick and Lewis Hamilton have in common?
Well, all three are professional race car drivers and are considered among the top athletes in the world. And they also all got their start behind the wheel of go-karts in the International Karting Federation (IKF) the same racing league thats been dominated in recent years by a Lake Oswego High School senior.
Seventeen-year-old Sammi VanEaton started racing in IKFs Region 6 also known as the Great Northwest Region about four years ago, around the time her older sister got her drivers license. Sensing that his niece was feeling somewhat left out, VanEatons uncle, Rich Kupczynski, decided it was time to introduce her to the world of go-karting.
What he didnt expect was for VanEaton to take to it as quickly as she did.
We would go after school, on days off, on Saturdays, to the track in McMinnville. And she put in many, many hours, falling off the track, breaking things on the kart, Kupczynski jokes. She got in her fair share of crashes early on, but I would tell her to go as fast as she could before falling off the track. After that, try to go just a hair slower, and thats what she did.
When it became clear that VanEaton was meant to compete, Kupczynski became her sponsor, coach and mechanic. He taught her everything he knew from his own experience racing go-karts while ensuring that her custom vehicle was always in top running condition before races.
VanEaton, meanwhile, quickly learned that the races she would soon enter werent exactly the same as the go-karting you might find at your local family fun center.
Even in the Junior Class for ages 16-and-under, go-karts raced in the IKF reach speeds of 90 miles per hour or faster, depending on the track and weather conditions. But while that might have seemed daunting for a 14-year-old racing for the first time, VanEaton immediately took to the high-speed thrills, thriving from the onset.
I wasnt really scared, because you get used to it pretty quickly, she says. Its just a lot of fun. Its an adrenaline rush for sure. ... Ive had a few crashes, but never anything that bad.
Despite being the only girl in most races and competing against people who had been racing twice as long, VanEaton continued to improve, rising to the top of the Junior Class in the Sprint and Roadway divisions. Traveling to Washington, Eastern Oregon and even Northern California a few times a year for IKF races, VanEaton became enthralled with the go-karting community, one she fast learned was incredibly inclusive and supportive.
We go all over the place to Northern California, to parts of Oregon, to Seattle. So its like youre a big race car driver on a little budget, Kupczynski says.
VanEaton endured her fair share of lumps in the first two years, but also experienced triumph, too. And then everything changed after the 2013 Grand Nationals a championship race that brings all the top racers from the West Coast to the same place.
Racing on one of her favorite tracks at Portland International Raceway in a torrential downpour, VanEaton drove one the best races of her career. The poor conditions made finishing the race a feat in its own right, as the majority of the pack hitting speeds close to 100 mph in rain that prevented racers from seeing more than 20 or so feet into the distance spun out or found themselves falling off course at some point during the 40-minute-plus sprint.
But when it was all over, VanEaton was victorious, becoming the Junior Division Grand Champion and new owner of the Duffy the award given to the best driver in each respective class and an achievement that could be equated to winning the Heisman Trophy in college football.
She didnt even realize what it was she had won, really, until afterwards, with all the feedback and support she received, says Marie VanEaton, Sammis mother. We didnt really know how big of a deal it was.
The significance quickly became apparent.
Ive had 55-year-old men come up to me and ask, Youre the girl that won the Duffy, right? Ive been working my entire life to get one of those, Sammi says.
The win only solidified VanEatons drive, prompting her to move from the Junior Class to the Adult Class, where she would have to switch to shifter cars an entirely different animal.
Now she races in the 125-Shifter class, which is basically a Honda motor that has been modified to put on a kart, Kupczynski says. It has a five-speed transmission, so its basically a little car that does upwards of 100 miles per hour.
The move worried Sammis mom a bit.
When she changed to the shifter karts, it was intimidating, Marie VanEaton says, because its supposed to be such a learning curve, and shes young, so she didnt have any experience with manual cars.
Practicing in a giant vacant parking lot in Washington, where Kupczynski lives and stores the kart in the offseason, Sammi learned to drive her new shifter kart. Within no time, she was ready to race with the big boys.
When she entered her first 125-Shifter class race just a few months after leaving the Junior Class, she was the youngest driver in the field and one of just a couple of girls. The majority of her competition had been racing for more than 20 years. But just as before, VanEaton outperformed expectations.
We thought it would just be a learning year, but she ended up winning her class for the whole year, Marie VanEaton says. She was the champion of her specific class, so it was a huge surprise for all of us.
As the youngest and smallest driver in any given field of racers, VanEaton has to add weight to her kart usually around 50 pounds of lead so that shes competing under the same conditions as the other drivers. Taming a 50-inch-wide kart without power steering for 30-40 minutes at a time can be grueling, but VanEaton says she relishes the challenge.
Now in her senior year at Lake Oswego High School, VanEaton has been busy as the coxswain of the varsity mens rowing team, making it harder to get to McMinnville for practice time. But with the racing season fast approaching and college looming on the horizon, she says shes looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.
Shes shown she has a natural talent and propensity for the sport, but isnt sure what lies ahead after this season. She could continue racing go-karts, which she says she plans to do in some capacity well into the future, but will also consider moving to different forms of racing if the opportunity presents itself. Leagues such as IndyCar Racing and NASCAR require major amounts of sponsorship, as well as finding a team willing to take a risk on a driver.
If you really want to go big time, you probably have to go to Europe. Theres 10 times more racing there, Kupczynski says.
Were at the point now where she realizes she loves it and has a natural inclination towards it, but youve got to be discovered and youve got to be willing to do whatever is necessary, Marie VanEaton says. Youve kind of got to be in the right place at the right time.
On the track, Sammi is always looking for her next move, waiting for an opportunity to slingshot past the kart in front of her or take a line on a turn that will allow her to overtake a competitor. Her ability to see things unfold on the racetrack before they actually happen is one of the traits that sets her apart. Its one she hopes will propel her forward in the future too.
I definitely plan my moves during the race, plan where I want to be going down the final lap and final straight, she says. Im not sure what will happen from here, but Im sure Ill figure something out. Hopefully it involves racing.