PENNGROVE — At the dirt tracks where Buddy Kofoid races, the whispers don't take long to gain root and spread.
What was that you said, the kid is just 11 years old? Really? Just 11? Racing against adults? And winning? No way. "Can we come down to the pit box after the race?" the adults ask his parents. We need proof. We don't believe it so we have to see the boy.
"You should see their eyes when Buddy gets out of the sprint car," said his father, Michael. "They get really big. They stare."
Buddy Kofoid is a kid all right. He is 5 feet tall. He weighs 67 pounds. He is a sixth-grader at Corona Creek Elementary School in Petaluma and looks every part of 11 years old, scrubbed clean and neat and, for the want of a better term, innocent. There's nothing visually present to make you believe this gentle-looking boy could take a 550-horsepower machine and slide it through a dirt corner at 90 miles an hour.
"Sometimes the sliding feels so natural, so normal," Kofoid said, "it feels like I'm walking."
If someone could walk 90 miles an hour.
Speed is not what Kofoid experiences but, rather, the smooth, effortless movement through space. It's a gift, at any age, to see speed as an ally to embrace, not a fear to overcome. A gift, his dad remembers, that was first seen when Buddy was a year old and in a stroller.
"Buddy kept looking down at the wheels turning," Michael said. "That's all he did. He was fascinated by the wheels turning."
It would appear to be a stretch — OK, it would even sound stupid — to take that stroller image and imagine that 10 years later Buddy would win the 2013 King of the West Lites championship at Reno's Fernley Speedway. But that's exactly what Kofoid did Oct. 5. To be clear, Kofoid didn't beat elementary school kids sucking on popsicles. Of the five drivers he beat in his last race to clinch the title, two of them were 31 years old. The others were 34, 37 and 69 years of age.
When asked what it felt like to be a kid beating adults, Kofoid shrugged and didn't say a thing. It wasn't an ego shrug. It was an oh-well shrug.
"He's been doing it for quite a while," his dad said.
An 11-year-old boy racing and winning sprint car races against grown-ups typically evokes two responses. "Wow" is the first one. "The parents are living their lives through their kid" is the second response. The first reaction is accurate. The second one, say Michael and Jennifer, is not.
"It's like people think that the day Buddy was born we wanted to turn him into a NASCAR driver," Michael said. "That's just not true. I just open the door for him. Buddy made it a reality. It's always been up to Buddy to decide whether he wants to race or not."
Buddy's parents frequently talk to him to judge his interest, motivation and determination. After all, this is car racing, not soccer. This is a sport that requires a harness and fire extinguisher and track-side ambulances. Buddy replies with the same answer: "I don't ever want to stop racing."