Southern Arizona's biggest little secret is hoping to finally get noticed, beyond just being known as that odd red-and-white structure we've all passed countless times driving along Interstate 10 northwest of Tucson.
The Tucson Quarter Midgets Association has operated its all-volunteer race track in Marana since 1994, when longtime Marana councilman Herb Kai built the complex on some of his land to allow his grandchildren to race go-carts.
To this day, though, the facility has hardly registered more than a blip on the local racing map.
"There is a lot of racing in Tucson, but I don't think a lot of people know about this kind of thing for the kids," said Randy Kempton, TQMA's treasurer and — like many of the parents of TQMA racers — a self-professed go-cart racing novice prior to bringing son Tristan to the track for the first time a year ago.
"My son just loved cars, and he told me he wanted a go-cart," Kempton says of Tristan, who was 6 at the time. "I looked around on Craigslist and bought one on a whim, not knowing anything about it."
But when he brought Tristan to the TQMA track he was greeted with open arms by a collective of parents and children more than willing to show a new family the racing ropes.
"Everyone is willing to help when you're learning, which is good, because there's a lot to learn," said Paula O'Brien, whose 7-year-old daughter, London, is set to make her competitive racing debut this Sunday, Feb. 17. "There's a lot more to learn than you think, but someone has always been there to lend a hand."
Many of the kids in TQMA racing participate in other sports, but the consensus among parents is that the quarter midget community is the most family friendly because everyone is willing to teach and help.
And another other advantage over other sports? Speed.
"I just like going out and fast, and doing loud stuff," said 10-year-old Estevan Silvas, who has raced at the Marana track for four years. "I'm like Ricky Bobby; I want to go fast."
With all that speed — the carts can go up to 35 mph on an asphalt track with high-banking curves — comes the possibility of crashes. Many of the carts on the course last week had dents and scratches aplenty, not just on the front and sides but also on the roll bars thanks to occasional flips.
The likelihood of a crash is offset by an abundance of safety measures meant to keep the kids—who range in age from 5 to 17— as secure as possible in their carts. Bill Foss, who helps train first-time drivers when they join the club, needed about 90 seconds to tie, snap and connect all of the straps and harnesses onto his 9-year-old son, Wyatt, before sending him out for a practice run.
"The cars are so safe," Foss said. "They have the same safety devices as adult racing."
Added club president Ramon Silvas: "I'm always worried, but as worried as I am putting (my son) out on the track, it's probably the safest thing out there."
Silvas recalls the first time Estevan crashed — "I was on the track before the yellow flag came out," he said — but it was much ado about nothing because of how strapped in his son was. "When I got to him and flipped up his visor, he was grinning from ear to ear."
Estevan had a more kidlike take on wrecks: "When you flip it once, it's really fun. When you flip more than once it feels kind of weird."
New drivers go through three novice training classes before getting out on the course for full-fledged racing. Those classes involve learning the ins and outs of the vehicles, as well as knowing which kind of flag waved on the course means what. To add to the family dynamic of TQMA, parents in colored vests are stationed on corners of the course with flags and often have to jump out to stop kids from racing if a crash occurs.
"The good news is, the families are all so close," Foss said. "We all work together to make it fun for everyone. (My son) Wyatt has played football, baseball, basketball. Out of all of those sports, this is the most family friendly."
Kempton, the TQMA treasurer, said the organization's shoestring budget consists almost entirely of racing fees because no admission is charged to attend races. TQMA does a few fundraisers, too, including the Touch-A-Truck event on March 9, in which police, fire and construction vehicles will be on display to help raise money for the club and for the Northern Tucson Firefighters Association.
TQMA also plans to hold more of its "Arrive and Drive" outings, which allows any of-age child to get 10 laps in a modified (read: not as fast-moving) club vehicle for $15.
The last Arrive and Drive event, held in January, is the reason Paula O'Brien expects her family to be making a lot of trips from their Vail home to the TQMA track.
"(My daughter) started saying, 'I wish I could race,' so we came out to the Arrive and Drive and she was in love," O'Brien said. "And my husband was in love, so now here we are."