Renton’s Ryan Warnke, above, duels Bobby Burkevies Jr., during a qualifying run in the Junior Dragster Lightning category at Pacific Raceways last Saturday. Area teams converged at the drag strip for the inaugural Mark Lyle Junior Invitational, a tribute race for the late NHRA chief official starter who began his career at the Kent track. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Renton’s Ryan Warnke, above, duels Bobby Burkevies Jr., during a qualifying run in the Junior Dragster Lightning category at Pacific Raceways last Saturday. Area teams converged at the drag strip for the inaugural Mark Lyle Junior Invitational, a tribute race for the late NHRA chief official starter who began his career at the Kent track. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Youth served in the fast lane

Boys, girls race responsibly through Junior Dragster program; teams come out to honor Mark Lyle, beloved NHRA chief starter | PHOTOS

She’s an energetic, fun-loving teen who morphs into a focused, fierce competitor behind the wheel of a sleek dragster.

They call her JoJo.

And she’s fast, wow, is she fast.

So fast, the competition seldom catches up to Jordan Dooley and her purple blur of a lightweight race car. A flawless, routine run covers a one-eighth-mile, asphalt drag strip under eight seconds at a top speed of 85 mph.

And she’s just getting started.

“It’s fun. It’s the feeling of having the power,” said the 14-year-old Port Orchard girl, moments before her qualifying run at the inaugural Mark Lyle Junior Invitational at sun-doused Pacific Raceways in Kent last Saturday. “When the (starting) light goes on and you’re off, it’s hard to pick yourself back up in the seat because you get pushed back into it from all the force. And I love that feeling. It’s so cool.”

Even cooler when she beats the boys.

“Oh, yes,” she said with a wide smile, hair dyed in bright purple to match her machine. “But at the end of the day, we’re a group of friends who have the same interests. We get together … have fun and talk about racing.”

Like her competitors, Dooley is learning to drive responsibly, race safely under expert supervision. Her father, Mark, tunes the race car, a scaled-down version of a Top Fuel dragster, powered by a single-cylinder, Briggs & Stratton engine that roars on methanol.

The Junior Dragster program, tooled to introduce kids to the family-embraced, fast-lane sport of bracket racing, has done wonders for Dooley and other youngsters with ambitions one day to compete professionally on the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) circuit. The program offers kids ages 5-17 a crack at racing half-scale dragsters in a controlled environment at many of NHRA’s 130-member tracks throughout the United States and in Canada.

Dooley and her friends dream of following the likes of the legendary Shirley Muldowney and consummate pros Shelley Anderson and Brittany and Courtney Force.

Working next to fathers, mothers, uncles and siblings, the young pilots pick up driving skills – long before they get a driver’s license – and learn some mechanical know-how.

Ryan Warnke shadowed his dad in the garage and racetrack when he was younger and soon caught the race bug. Warnke, a seasoned driver today at 13, is a third-generation racer, who has been competing successfully at regional tracks for several years.

“He got his hands dirty,” said Jeff Warnke, a pro-bracket-series racer himself, of his wrench-ready prodigy. “He was always helping out.”

Now dad helps son.

“They are the future of racing,” Jeff Warnke said.

Ryan Warnke, who attends Kent’s Northwood Middle School, can’t get enough of racing. He won the Junior’s Thunder class Division 6 points title a year ago and returns to the truck always hungry for more.

“I like the adrenaline,” he said. “It’s fun, but you have to be on your toes all the time. You have to pay attention. You can’t go out there and fool around. You’ve got to be serious.”

Like NASCAR, the MelloYello NHRA circuit has grown younger and more diversified in the driver’s seat. The Junior Dragster program is offering opportunities for young guns to get started.

Auburn’s Jacob Laitila, 14, races with pride and purpose, with his dad, James, nearby.

“It’s fun,” said Laitila, who attends Cascade Middle School. “It’s a family tradition.”

The Northwest continues to produce talented drivers. One driver with a bright future is Olympia’s Raylee Higgins, who at age 9 gained national notoriety a year ago by becoming the youngest known driver to post a perfect light with a .000 reaction time at the starting line. Higgins, a class champion, punched the throttle to perfection during an exhibition pass at the NHRA Northwest Nationals.

“It was great,” she said.

Higgins’ favorite NHRA driver, Erica Enders, a former Junior racer and world Pro Stock champion, was there to stage her at the starting launch pad. She was there to congratulate her at the end of the pass.

“She even signed my time slip,” Higgins said. “It said, ‘Go girl.’ “

Higgins, driving the pink Killer Kitty dragster, continues to make plenty of noise while graduating to the 8.90-second index class this year.

Keeping speeds in check and costs reasonable, the Junior Dragster program allows racing families to travel far and wide to compete. The Division 6 landscape for Junior racers takes teams to Kent; Yakima; Woodburn, Ore.; Boise, Idaho; and even to Mission, British Columbia.

Some teams are just content to stay close to their home racks.

Regardless of class and track, families understand the sport works on being safety-first.

Jen Benda has two boys in the Junior Dragster ranks – O’Riley, 12, and newcomer Bailey, 5. Mom grew up in the sport and knows it’s a safe experience for her sons.

Young drivers cover the one-eighth mile track in speeds ranging from 35 to 85 mph, depending on their age. But they do so, as Benda explained, cautiously.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Are you scared seeing your kids going down these racetracks?’ ” Benda said. “I’ve said, ‘No, I’m not because of all the safety equipment that they have and the standards the NHRA has for kids.’ … Our kids grew up in racing. They know how to be safe, follow the rules and also how to help the next driver out.”

The weekend race at Pacific Raceways, which attracted one of the largest Junior Dragster lineups in the program’s Northwest history, had special meaning for racers and families. The invitational ran in memory of Lyle, only the third chief official starter in NHRA national circuit history. Lyle, who began his career at the Kent track, was on vacation with his wife two years ago celebrating his 59th birthday when he died trying to save another man’s life

“He was very important to this track and very important to all of us here,” Benda said. “He gets to live on through the kids. It’s really special that these kids get to follow an incredible leader.”

Jordan “JoJo” Dooley shines her purple Junior Dragster before qualifying at Pacific Raceways last Saturday. Dooley, 14, enjoys the sensation of speed and beating the competition, including the boys. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Jordan “JoJo” Dooley shines her purple Junior Dragster before qualifying at Pacific Raceways last Saturday. Dooley, 14, enjoys the sensation of speed and beating the competition, including the boys. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Raylee Higgins, 10, is an up-and-coming driver who proudly wears the pink of the Killer Kitty 8.90 Junior Dragster. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Raylee Higgins, 10, is an up-and-coming driver who proudly wears the pink of the Killer Kitty 8.90 Junior Dragster. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Oak Harbor’s Bailey Benda, 5, give the thumbs-up before qualifying at Pacific Raceways. He joins his brother, O’Riley, in the Junior Dragster ranks this season and enjoys the sport. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. “I wish the track went to infinity.” The Benda family frequently makes the trip to the Kent track to compete. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Oak Harbor’s Bailey Benda, 5, give the thumbs-up before qualifying at Pacific Raceways. He joins his brother, O’Riley, in the Junior Dragster ranks this season and enjoys the sport. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. “I wish the track went to infinity.” The Benda family frequently makes the trip to the Kent track to compete. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Auburn’s Jacob Laitila, 14, looks on, as his dad, James, prepares his Junior Dragster for a day of qualifying and eliminations at Pacific Raceways. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Auburn’s Jacob Laitila, 14, looks on, as his dad, James, prepares his Junior Dragster for a day of qualifying and eliminations at Pacific Raceways. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Renton’s Ryan Warnke is a third-generation drag racer who has raced for several seasons in the Junior Dragster program. The 13-year-old drivers says he races for family pride. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Renton’s Ryan Warnke is a third-generation drag racer who has raced for several seasons in the Junior Dragster program. The 13-year-old drivers says he races for family pride. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

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