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PETALUMA -- The following paragraph will have a happy ending. If you're a parent, however, it's the beginning you won't like.

On Oct. 3, 2011, a 16-year old boy with the need for speed slipped behind the wheel of a 2000 Pontiac Firebird. It had 775 horsepower. It looked like it was going 100 miles a hour, standing still.

The boy had never driven the car before. He was told to stomp the throttle.

Thus begins the description of every parent's worst nightmare. A teenager hits the gas hard on a car totally unfamiliar to him. The potential for awful, hideous tragedy is high. The level of disbelief registers incalculable. This is teenage testosterone in full bloom.

The kid is 16!

Clearly, this teenager on this day is in way over his head.

Until we find out how Marko Perivolaris reacted after he reached 147 miles an hour.

That's the speed he posted in the quarter-mile that October day at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That was the sixth of six runs Perivolaris made down the track. Six flawless runs. Six runs that produced this: Perivolaris earned his NHRA driver's license. Running this coming weekend at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, Perivolaris passed the test to run cars at America's top drag racing series.

At 16 years old.

So how did he react? Scream? Do a dance? Did he punch the air? Spike the car keys? High-five and dislocate the wrists of grandmothers?

Perivolaris shook his dad's hand and then hugged him.

Teenagers were thinking of making Perivolaris an honorary adult after that stunt.

Whereas some teenagers you wouldn't trust them to ride a tricycle, so wild is the glint in their eye, Perivolaris creates the opposite effect. Nothing about him screams unrest. He has the passion of a cool calculator, down to his inspection of every bolt, nut and washer. In fact, he keeps more things hidden than he reveals.

Like The Wally.

The Wally is the most prized and sought-after possession in NHRA. It is a 12-pound, 18-inch statue representing Wally Parks, the sport's founder. Even though the statue actually is the likeness of another NHRA member, it nonetheless represents a singular nod of praise. Most drag racers never get a Wally, given to a winner of a NHRA-sanctioned event.

"Oh, here's his Wally," said Lela, Perivolaris' 16-year old sister. Lela reached into a dining room shelf inside the family home and removed the Wally. Her brother nodded once. Perivolaris won the Super Street competition in Fallon, Nevada, on June 9 in his 2000 Chevy S-10 black pick-up truck.

It is an accomplishment brilliant for any age and that Peri-volaris is but 18 makes him someone who now is being seriously tracked by NHRA.

Yet Perivolaris doesn't act like a hot commodity because that would violate his personal code of conduct. For 23 years, his father, Nick, was a dirt racer with late models and modifieds and didn't display attitude.

Respect the equipment and your competitors. Perivolaris learned sportsmanship at the feet of his father. Keep perspective, not everyone will enjoy what you enjoy.

Which of course is what flabbergasted everyone at Petaluma High School last May. School would be over in two weeks. Perivolaris was graduating with a 4.0 GPA. He had friends and a nice reputation but hardly was the type to call a parade in his honor. So he was a little surprised with the stir he created on Car Day.

Perivolaris thought it would be nice to bring a couple drag racing cars from home: the 850 horsepower blue Corvette and the 1,125 horsepower Sarmento 2009 dragster.

Perivolaris stole the show, those '57 Chevys unable to keep up, and the first question was always the same question: Dude, what are you doing with these cars? And don't lie to me!

"I really didn't tell that many people I was a drag racer," he said.

About the only Petaluma High School kids who didn't see those cars were the ones home sick that day. And about the only kids who immediately believed Perivolaris were the ones who knew beforehand. And the ones who did knew his backstory was extensive. One doesn't learn how to handle those machines through Wikipedia.

"'Ray-Car' was Marko's first word," said his mom, Ellen. "He was nine months."

By the time Perivolaris reached the ripe age of three, Nick fashioned a harness that had Marko strapped to his chest as Nick cruised on his dirt bike.

A paint contractor by trade, dad knew his son was loving the experience for one very simple reason: "He had a smile on his face the whole time."

Perivolaris had his own dirt bike by six, learned to ride it before he learned how to ride a bicycle. He stayed a recreational dirt biker until Feb. 6, 2011 (yes, Perivolaris is good at remembering numbers). It was High School Class competition at Sonoma Raceway.

"I made my first pass down the quarter mile in a Camaro Z28 and I was hooked (on drag racing)," Perivolaris said. "You get slammed back in your seat. I liked the sensation of being shot out of a cannon. And you can't think of anything else. You don't want to think of anything else. It's pure adrenaline."

Soon drag racing became a family affair. Lela, an upcoming junior at Petaluma, would be in charge of the on-board computer and the car set-up. Ellen would be organize events. Nick and Marko would set up a television in the garage and watch the History Channel as they worked on the chassis, engine or exterior of the race cars, which now number four.

Nick never once second-guessed his decision to allow his son to pursue his dream.

"What gives me the greatest pleasure is watching Lela and Marko work so closely together," the father said. "It's a dad's dream to have his children get along so well. I stay out of the way on race day. Lela takes over. I worry about Marko, my son. But I don't worry about Marko the driver."

Although there was this time last August at Sonoma Raceway. Perivolaris was three-quarters down the drag strip when the Corvette suddenly lurched to the right, the car facing the retaining wall. He estimates he was going 130 at the time. His right side tires lifted. It was close to a wreck but then Perivolaris made an adjustment, the car straightened out, the 'Vette wobbled to the left and to the right three or four times and then settled down.

"Thought my heart was going to burst through my body," Nick said. "But Marko did everything I taught him, kept his eye on the horizon, did a great job."

Perivolaris took the car back to the pits, heard his name called for another race, jumped out of the Corvette, when Nick appeared. He stood in front of his son.

"What are you doing?" he asked. "Dad, they called my name for another race," Marko said. "I gotta go."

"Wait," Nick said. Basically he wanted to look at his son, to see if he was all right. He eyeballed Marko and then came to a startling conclusion.

"He was calm, totally calm," Nick said. "You would have never known what just happened. Never."

Dad shook his head. It's been almost a year since the incident and he can still see his composed kid straightening out Corvette at 130 miles an hour like a veteran, then wanting to jump back into another ride. How do you teach such calm, cool dispatch? Should you even try?

Asked if he has the gift to race, Marko Perivolaris just shrugged. Of course he did.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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