Nick Neri Might Just Be the Fastest Kid in America
Road Atlanta, last lap, hair on fire, chin strap between his teeth, trying an outside pass at 10A. Next frame heās bouncing across the sand and grass like a damn dune buggy.
With that, Nick Neri, a then-15 year-old from Palmetto, FL, won the first car race heād ever entered. In the entire history of auto racing, I canāt even name another driver that won their first race against legitimate competition in equal cars. (Clubbing baby seals at an SCCA Regional or winning anything with less than a 10 car field doesnāt count).
āWell, heās just basically the fastest karter weāve ever seen.ā Todd Kovi, president of the Florida Kart Championship Series, summed it up when asked how heād characterize Nick.
I first heard about Nick at the opening round of the FKCS series in Homestead last year. There was a kid in Rotax Junior who couldnāt race because heād gotten shelled at the Winter Tour event the week before and Kovi figured that seeing straight was pretty much mandatory. Good kid, fine driver, but not a podium threat up to that point.
Kidās dad is a lifer so he goes looking for a stand-in superhero, and Nickās just hanging around the pits. Nick puts the kidās gear on and tells the appropriate official thatās heās a sub, which he knows means he has to start from the back.
Three laps into the final and Nickās up to seventh or something, in a 25 kart field.
āLadies and gentlemen, Bobby Smith is having the RACE OF HIS LIFE! Heās up to sixth- heās passing people EVERYWHERE- this is UNBELIEVABLE!ā
People start dropping their tools and heading to the fence to watch- itās like a goddamn flying saucer just landed in the infield; people are drawn.
āBOBBY SMITH FOR THE LEAD!!!ā The announcer screams before falling so silent that itās possible heās passed out. He comes back on a few minutes later with that voice. You know the voice. The voice TV cops use when theyāve made a terrible mistake
Thing is, he wasnāt disappointed because Nick won, but because while winning the race from the rear was the most surprising thing Bobby could do, it was the least surprising thing Nick could do.
In karts, Nick Neri wins more often than a slot machine. Itās only news when he doesnāt win, and then thereās usually a pretty good story. Like the Winter Tour event where he was leading one of the most competitive fields in the world when his throttle cable snapped. Nick pulled off the track, diagnosed the problem, re-fired his TaG kart with one hand on the wheel and the other on the carb butterfly before pulling back on the track.
Most people would be happy to get back to the pits like this.
Nick rejoins the race and starts passing people, eventually finishing mid-pack.
Jorge Arellano, owner of Ocala Gran Prix, and the regional Patron Saint of Karting, got down on his hands and knees when Nick pulled in. Jorge is a 6ā2ā, 300 pounds and an heir to something ridiculous. Jorge doesnāt do this very often.
āWe got tired of him beating our drivers,ā Jorge explains, when asked how Nick came to be OGPās factory driver and de facto poster child.
Each season, OGP āhiresā the fastest kids in the region to go to war for them. Nick is the fastest of them all. Jorge focuses on Rotax machinery, where Nick has won the national championship.
Jorgeās ultimate goal is to have an American win the world championship. Nick came within a whisker of doing this by winning a heat race and setting pole before getting taken out from behind in the first corner of the final in Italy last year.
Locally though, Jorge focuses heavily on the Florida Winter Tour, a three-race series that typically draws the best karters in the world to compete. You know, guys like Rubens Barrichello. This isnāt WKA use-your-turn-signals stuff; itās European style full contact karting, and the level of commitment required to win is nothing short of astonishing.
āFor each class, you need four frames, three motors, and good health insurance,ā one father explained.
The paddock at the Winter Tour has almost as many semis as the IndyCar paddock, and most of itās karting talent; Alex Tagliani and Jay Howard participated last year, as did the late Dan Wheldon who was Nickās team-mate on the OGP squad.
I had the opportunity to speak to Dan about Nick this Summer as he was testing the new Dallara IndyCar that would come to be named after him. He was gracious and open as always when talking about Nickās greatest strength.
āHeās just flat out fast, you know. Sometimes itās not harder to answer than that,ā Dan answered with a laugh,ā adding that, āEven when the kart is not right he can produce a lap time.ā
In fact, at Danās Indy 500 victory party in St. Petersburg, FL this year, he personally introduced Nick as a future Indy 500 winner. Wheldonās death at Las Vegas last year hit the Neri family very hard, but it ultimately didnāt change Nickās perspective. He wants to race, and win.
Dan had done exceptionally well at the Winter Tour, but Nick finished ahead of him in every race except one he didnāt finish at all.
The Winter Tour is arguably the hardest championship in to win in U.S. karting.
Fast Forward to November of last year and the other hardest trophy to grab in karting, SKUSA SuperNationals.
The sanctioning body wouldnāt let Nick race in the full Pro S1 class because he hadnāt raced in a SKUSA event before, had limited shifter experience, and possibly because they donāt get highlight reels on the West Coast. In any event, the organizers placed him in the Semi-Pro S2 class.
There were 53 karts entered in S2. Only one saw the top of the timesheetā¦ the entire week. Fastest in every warm up, practice, qualifying, and winning every heat, Nick put in a jaw-dropping performance, winning the feature by over five seconds and taking fastest lap.
I saw the helmet video from the karter that finished second. Nick wasnāt in it.
Nickās middle name is Rayce. His dad, Marty, a former racer whoās got the disease as bad as anyone (if you have to ask what the disease is, you should be reading Sports Illustrated, not this), used to tell him racing stories night after night when he was little. Womb and crib little.
Their story is like any other where a father with a love of the sport takes his son karting, except, where most dads work feverishly for their kids to deliver good, but not great results, Nick just started winning everything in sight.
Itās what every kart dad dreams of, but rarely ever gets. For various reasons, this never happens to rich dads. Itās actually impossible. Against the laws of physics. Which means, of course, Marty isnāt rich.
They say to be careful what you wish for, but that doesnāt begin to cover it. Itās easier to pay for racing with Krugerands than dollars because it takes so damn many of them that itās a nuisance. Marty doesnāt have any Krugerands. Nick is going to have to get there on talent and merit.
The landscape is wall-to-wall with the shredded dreams of kids who tried to make it in racing on merit. You know who they are, but youāve forgotten their names. You see them on Facebook now and then; many went to college, others are instructing at a racing school, selling real estate, or possibly even asking what sauce you want with your nuggets. But theyāre not racing.
It will only take most of them twenty years to get over it.
Nick though, might be the one. The one to prove that it can be done. That talent in racing does matter. That people are paying attention and winning still counts.
Nick Neri might just be the fastest kid in America.
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