Landon freshman wheels into success
Feb. 17, 1999

Aschenbach wins at world karting championships

by Janet Rathner

Staff Writer

At 5 feet 4 inches and 105 pounds, Lawson Aschenbach is, in the words of his mother Joanne, "like a bean pole. You look at him and he's got no curves."

But in the world of go-kart racing, this 15-year-old is no lightweight.

He has a slew of trophies to prove it, the most recent acquired at Thanksgiving when the ninth-grader from Landon School in Bethesda won the World Karting Association's Gold Cup Series.

From March through November, in a series of five races held in as many states, the Darnestown resident edged out hundreds of youngsters ages 13-15 to become the champion of an event that is a stepping stone to professional car racing.

Aschenbach, who would like to do just that, speaks of the event and the sport with the confidence of the veteran driver he is. He's been competing since he was 8, after his father, Bill Aschenbach, introduced him to the sport.

"I knew I could win it," he said of this latest accomplishment. "[Karting] is really fun. I like the speed and the competition."

According to the World Karting Association -- the membership-owned, non-profit corporation based in Harrisburg, N.C., that regulates and promotes the sport of competitive go-kart racing -- the go-kart phenomenon began in the late 1950s.

It was a fun, affordable form of motor sports. Karts can be purchased for as low as $1,200. Go-karting events were initially held in parking lots, but have graduated to organized competition on specifically built tracks, according to the association.

Participants can start as early as 5 years of age. The sport is popular around the world although it doesn't receive a lot of press, said Tony Barton, who works in the association's sponsorship services.

"It's the best-kept secret in racing," Barton said. "People think it's a bunch of kids in little go-karts in a field. It's not. We have 11,000 members and 160 divisional and 35 national races."

He said approximately 60,000 people race worldwide.

Barton has been watching Aschenbach compete and said a professional career is a possibility.

"He's gonna move up," Barton said. "He has the driving ability."

Aschenbach is aided in his quest to become the next Jeff Gordon by his father. In addition to building a 65-by-45 foot "barn " behind the family home that houses go-karts in various states of assemblage, Bill Aschenbach, the general manager at King Pontiac-GMC Truck in Gaithersburg, is responsible for the 22-foot-long, 8-foot-wide trailer that hauls his son's karts from one race to another.

Bill Aschenbach said he loves the hours he spends with his son going to and from the competitions.

"It's a lot of time to talk [and] we talk about everything. The difference between this and soccer [which Lawson also plays] is that this [involves] all of us," said Aschenbach comparing the experience of observing his son verses acting as a long-distance chauffeur and mechanic. "We have to drive and then [at the track] we have to dial [tune] the kart. He explains to me what needs to be done."

Tuning is a fine art. It can make the difference between winning and losing, and Bill Aschenbach said the karts are susceptible to the weather.

"You fine tune them all day long. As the temperature changes, so does the kart. [It's because] they don't have suspensions," Bill Aschenbach said.

While the kart itself is not overly expensive, maintenance and competitions can become costly. A built-to-order engine can run upwards of $800. All the racing paraphernalia -- the suit, helmet, gloves, and shoes -- costs hundreds more. Most karting events do not award prize money so it falls on the participant to fund the activity.

Sponsorships are helpful and since winning the Gold Cup, Lawson has picked up a few. One of them is Coyote Products, the manufacturer of the karts he drives.

At Coyote Products' headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., general manager Sandy Gregory said she believes Lawson Aschenbach will be a name in the race car field.

"He's natural talent. He will be a driver," Gregory said.

Gregory also said a large part of Lawson's success is due to the support of his family, particularly his father.

"They work really hard at the track," Gregory said. "They're the first ones there in the morning and the last ones to leave in the evening."

But it's a commitment that can get overwhelming. Lawson's older brother, Conrad, 17, used to race and then stopped. Younger brother, Dustin, 12, has never raced and has no plans to ever start.

Bill Aschenbach said that's fine with him and all Lawson has to do is say the word and that will be the end of it.

"It can be very intense and some parents push their kids so hard. We don't," Aschenbach said.

But Lawson isn't showing any signs of walking away.

In March he head to Palmetto, S.C., for the World Karting Association's Speedway Pavement Series, and the following week, the Gold Cup Series begins again in Jacksonville, Fla.

Lawson said he go there too. His father, of course, will also be with him.

"I get nervous [when he competes]," Bill Aschenbach said. "[But] as long as [he's] happy, I'll drive him."