Benefield: Petaluma teen racer fast, calm on track

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When 16-year-olds get their driver’s license, it typically means a loosening of the reins to motor the family car to the corner store or to drive themselves to school.

For St. Vincent High School junior Zack Anderson, 16, getting his California state driver’s license in January meant all that but when, a few weeks later, he earned his racing license from the Sports Car Club of America, he was cleared to drive approximately 120 mph on the straightaways and 50 on the turns.

Anderson, who learned to use a clutch when he was 13 but was kicking around his dad Darrell’s shop at Sonoma Raceway since he was a tot, made full use of his first-year SCCA license, winning the San Francisco Regional Super Touring U (STU) Championship, the Racing Drivers Club STU Championship and being named Rookie of the Year by the San Francisco Region SCCA.

Not bad.

Of the rookie award, Gary Pitts, San Francisco regional executive of the SCCA, said the voting panel looks for two main things.

“Number one, he’s fast,” he said.

Well, yes.

“And number two, he didn’t cause us any problems.”

Now that makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to be going wheel to wheel at 120 mph with a hothead — a guy who can’t control his emotions or his machine. That might be asking a lot of a 16-year-old, but Zack Anderson is pretty steady. The guy says he gets more rattled driving on the streets of Petaluma, what with all of those pesky signal lights and stop signs.

“It’s safer to drive out on the track than on the street,” he said.

Zack’s dad and grandfather, Darrell and Darryl Anderson respectively, raced Zack’s rookie season right along with him, but in a different car category.

Darrell Anderson said he trusts his son on the track. He trains weekly on a high-tech simulator at Sonoma Raceway and seems to have a calm that belies his age. But as with anything, there is always a first time. And in this case, there was a first time of taking the car upwards of 100 mph, of letting him motor into turns or simply letting him drive solo on a technical, demanding motorway like Sonoma Raceway or Laguna Seca.

“He really surprised me how smooth he was,” Darrell Anderson said of his son’s first forays behind the wheel. “When things got a little out of control, it didn’t really phase him. He stayed calm and kept the car under control.”

That control earned the attention of the leadership of the regional club of the SCCA when they were considering the rookie honors. Zack’s results didn’t hurt either.

“We look for maturity,” Pitts said. “That would fall mostly into the general area of what we call race craft — it’s different from driving ability. Race craft is, ‘Do you know the strategy it takes to win a race?’ It’s not necessarily the fastest guy who wins the race, it’s the guy who crosses the finish line first.”

I’ll admit, I had to think on that one a minute.

But it’s safe to say that Anderson is smart and race-crafty. He’s been at this awhile, even if he’s only been behind the wheel for real for about a year.

His beginnings were humble. He’d follow his dad Darrell around his shop, helping where he could but mostly he’d just be underfoot. That is until someone realized the young Anderson had something to offer: his size.

“It was mostly like ‘Hey, I need you to clean the windshield.’ They’d pay me $3 to clean the back windshield because I was the only one that would fit,” he said. But Anderson, who hopes to study mechanical engineering in college, was a quick study. He’d build tool kits, clean up a bit, watch and learn.

His dad let him tool around in golf carts, and then the clutch lesson on their property and then onto the simulator. So it made sense that when Anderson turned 16 and got the license most of us get, he also got the license Andersons get.

“He was always helping as my sidekick,” Darrell Anderson said. “Working on cars, he’s a gearhead as well. When he got his car, he knew exactly what to do.”

Over the years, the SCCA has dropped its licensing age requirement first from 21 to 18 and most recently down to 15. All the while, a key to gaining a license is exhibiting composure behind the wheel.

Anderson has got that nailed.

“We think he is good enough and mature enough that we would feel safe with them out on the track with us,” Pitts said. “He looks like a racer. He doesn’t look like he’s fooling around.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield

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