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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."

Mom the bookkeeper and dad the plumber can understand the skepticism. Youth sports, especially in Sonoma County, have more than their fair share of helicopter parents who push their kids where they don't want to go.

"There's no way an 11-year-old has enough maturity to race sprint cars, that's what we hear," Michael said.

It's as if the perception is this: Mom and dad plop Buddy into a sprint car because he got tired of riding his tricycle.

The skeptics should take a look inside the family home. That would be a good place to begin to gauge his commitment. In the garage, the family room and his bedroom there are 162 trophies, beginning when he first started racing at 5. Some are called "perpetual" trophies, with Buddy's name permanently inscribed as the event champion of that year at a particular dirt track. And it's not like the Kofoids work one track because it's their lucky track. Buddy has raced in Chico, Red Bluff, Ukiah and Lakeport. He has raced in Bullard, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C.

Buddy was on a gas-powered dirt bike when he was 2. He has been racing adults since he was 8. Until 2013, he was racing go-karts that would reach 80 miles an hour. During the summer of 2011 and 2012 he would run practice laps in a much more powerful sprint car at Marysville Speedway. The state of California prohibits someone under 16 from racing sprint cars. Young Kofoid raced this summer in Nevada where there is no such restriction, and only after testimonials, volumes of race-result documents and investigations took place.

Caution has followed Kofoid wherever he has raced, especially from his parents, who do not view their son as a prized bull to be put on display. The family would not reveal how much money they have spent on Buddy's passion, only for Michael to say, "This is not a hobby." Rather this is a family, with relatives putting in as much sweat equity as cash. Grandpas Gery and Mike have played key supportive roles.

In 2010, Michael dedicated nearly all of his free time to Buddy's racing, curious to see if his son would burn out from a typical weekend like this: compete Friday in Ukiah, Saturday in Chico and Sunday in Lakeport. Buddy ran in 95 main events that year. If anything, father noticed son to be even more immersed in the sport.

"On the weekends when Buddy didn't race," Michael said, "he wanted to go to a race track and watch a race."

Because Buddy cuts a non-threatening profile that belongs at a frozen yogurt shop as opposed to a thundering race track, he's had trouble convincing people he can drive at commercial amusement parks. He was not allowed to run the go-karts at Scandia Family Fun Center in Rohnert Park because he wasn't tall enough. For two years he was turned away, permitted finally to race there this summer. Snicker at the irony of that one.

Kofoid's age, his zest, his skills, his success and his demeanor have made him a racer of note at tracks. He has been pursued to the point, his father said, that adults have asked Michael for permission to talk to Buddy.

Which led to an obvious question.

One I have never asked of an 11-year-old.

"Have you ever been asked for your autograph?"

From under his baseball cap Kofoid looked down and replied softly, so quietly it almost was indistinct.

"A lot," Buddy Kofoid said with a shrug.

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