Eighteen-year-old Keith Welsh of Westminster hit pay dirt two weeks ago. His victory was special because it came in his first season of racing.
Most drivers race several years before they experience the thrill of victory -- and some good drivers never do. Not only did Welsh win in his first year of racing, but he did it in only his 16th race.
Last October, Welsh went to the races at the Lincoln Speedway in Hanover, Pa., and when he returned home, he told his father he wantedto race. During the winter, Welsh, his father and friends began to build a car for the thundercar division, a class for rookie drivers.
It is a low-dollar street stock class with strict rules to keep thecars relatively inexpensive. Safety modifications, including a roll cage, are the only changes allowed.
Since they started building the car from scratch, the season was well under way before Welsh entered his first race. Before the first night was over, Welsh knew he had a long way to go.
"When I first started, I thought it was going tobe great," he said. "I had been sitting in the stands watching the races and thought how easy it was. But I quickly found out how hard itreally was."
Welsh had to take his share of hard knocks, like anyother rookie, when he started. The experienced drivers know who the rookies are and aren't afraid to lean on them and shove their way past them.
"He kept spinning out when he started," Welsh's father, Jerry, said, recalling the hardships in the beginning. "He seemed to bein the wrong place all the time."
Welsh had several frustrating nights, but he didn't give up.
"His persistence for wanting to do it just made him better," his father said. "He just tried harder each time he spun out or made a mistake."
Keith Welsh and his father always looked for ways to improve.
"He began to watch videos of his races and it really helped him," the elder Welsh said. "He's been running up front ever since. It is amazing how much it helped him."
Although racing was new to Keith, his father had been around racing most of his life. Jerry Welsh raced at age 15 at the now-defunct DorseySpeedway in Howard County. He later raced on and off for five years in the limited sportsman division at the old asphalt Beltsville trackin Montgomery County.
Jerry Welsh's asphalt experience helped a lot in building the car, but when it came to setting it up for the clay surface of Lincoln, he was a rookie just like his son.
"The tapes really helped me," Keith Welsh said. "I found that I wasn't going into the corners the way I should. I was using my brakes when I shouldn't have and wasn't letting off the gas at the right place. Each weekI learned how to drive more through the corners."
While Keith Welsh began to correct his mistakes by watching videos, his father was adapting to the difference of dirt in his chassis work. They were learning together.
As their knowledge increased, the communication between the two improved. Keith was able to convey the car's handling problems to his father and his father was able to change the car's setup to compensate.
It wasn't long before Keith Welsh was finishing races. And it wasn't much longer before he was beginning to place in the top 10.
When Keith Walsh won his first feature at Lincoln two weeks ago, no one was happier than his father.
"I was an asphalt racer. I never got a feature win, I just didn't have the car," the proud father said. "Seeing my son win his first feature was good for me too."
The win gave Keith Welsh confidence. The following week he raced Susquehanna Speedway in Newberrytwon Pa., a track he had never raced before. He was almost as pleased with his performance there as hewas with the win. He started last in a 24-car field and finished fourth.
"I was nervous when I started," recalled Keith Welsh of his Susquehanna race. "I didn't know what to expect. I was real excited and wanted to get out there. The nervousness stopped when I had to start thinking about racing.
"It was the first time I was on a full half-mile. I feel that I gained more experience there then I did in winning the week before. I was able to gain passing experience as I worked my way through traffic, staying out of trouble."
With the 1991 season coming to a close, Keith Welsh is looking forward to next year.
"I want to absorb all the learning of the first year. I don't want to repeat the mistakes that I made in the beginning."
Keith Welsh wants to run for the point championship and is looking for a sponsor to build a car with. Everything has happened so quickly that he hasn't had much time to think beyond this year.
If he improves at the same pace, Welsh may win the track title in his sophomore year. Then there's no telling what lies in the future. One thing is for sure -- he will have the support of his father, friends and family.
"Without Dad I couldn't have done it," Keith Welsh said. "He built the car. It takes so much hard work to build a top running car."