Go-kart competitor gears up for future 'Top-notch' racer seeks shot at Indy

August 29, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Shap may not be old enough to drive legally on the highway, but behind the wheel of a 160-pound, metal-framed go-kart he hits speeds of 80 mph -- as a top national racer.

From trips to the racetrack as a toddler with his father, Jonathan -- known as Jon -- fell in love with racing. At age 9, he got his first go-kart, a used $1,000 model. A few months later, he won his first go-kart race.

In the past six years, he has collected more than 50 plaques, medals, ribbons and gold and silver trophies from national and local competitions. Most of them are for first- and second-place finishes.

"The feeling of driving a fast machine around a tight track gives such a thrill and emotion," he said while adjusting one of his go-kart's tires in the garage of his family's home in Clarksville. "Watching races when I was young was always exciting to me, but the action of getting out there myself, sitting in the kart, low to the ground with the whole track in front of me really gets my adrenalin pumping."

Jon ranked 10th and seventh in two races in last year's junior divisions of the World Karting Association, said Henry Mills, the group's operations director in Concord, N.C. Jon is rising rapidly through the ranks of older and more competitive drivers and holding his ground, Mills said.

"Jon is competing with the best of the best, and not just younger people, but 19- and 40-year-olds, and he's really showing he's top-notch," Mills said. "If he wins at his local track, that's a good thing, but to win a race and place in the top five of competitors from Florida to New York in a national race is something of an accomplishment.

"He's accomplished races that would be similar to a baseball team winning a World Series."

Just as Jon graduated from a play motorcar to a 22-inch-high go-kart with a lawn mower motor, he wants someday to jump from racing go-karts to racing cars. His dream is to race in the Indianapolis 500.

"I love to race now just for the fun of it, but to race in the big leagues of the Indy would be a real challenge," he said. "I could do what I love so much for my whole life and get to drive fast cars. I couldn't ask to do much more."

Jon has never raced a car, but he and his father, Frank, 51, are sprucing up a Mazda RX-7 that Jon might race next year.

For now, the River Hill High School junior considers go-karts good training for racing cars -- and a good test of some of life's lessons.

"Maybe it was a normal 9-year-old thing for a boy to love the loud sounds of engines revving and the smell of gas and oil, but it's gone beyond that," Jon said. "I've learned sportsmanship, teamwork and probably some driving skills that could help me when I'm out on the real roads."

With at least two races a month -- from Florida to West Virginia -- Jon and his father spend about four hours a week adjusting tires, frames and engine parts in their garage.

The family spends thousands of dollars each year for tires, chains and flashy racing suits. Jon typically leaves for a race with five engines, two go-karts and 20 tires -- all in a big red trailer.

His logo printed on the trailer is "JFS -- Just for Speed." The "J" also stands for Jon, the "F" for Frank, his father, and the "S" for Steve, an uncle who helps prepare his go-karts.

"It's not toys he's out there on; it's a real race machine," said his father, who occasionally races Porsches. "I guess I see part of the competition and desire to race I have in him, but with the personality and sense to drive responsibly of his mother."

Jon's pit crew -- his father, his mother and his brother Marc, 13 -- say Jon's love of competition is worth every hour they put in helping him.

"I have a lot of people who say to me, 'Aren't you so scared letting your son race those fast go-karts?' But it's such a strong dream of Jon's, and he has such a desire to race," said his mother, Carol, 43. "And you can't imagine the intensity and excitement that light up his face each time he goes to a race."

Jon's driving record -- no major accidents or temper flare-ups on the racetrack -- has earned him the sponsorship of a Frederick go-kart store.

"The first thing you notice about Jon on the racetrack is his good manners and sportsmanship," said Stephanie Davis, co-owner of Kart Connection Plus. "He's not a hotheaded kid who doesn't take advice from adults or other racers. Everybody can be a good and fast driver, but Jon really has the determination of someone who will make it."

In a few weeks, Jon will race in the senior class of the Super Stock class at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia. He was track champion in the Junior Box Stock class last year.

As with any sport, Jon has had winning and losing moments on go-kart tracks.

"There's been times when I was thrown completely out of a race trying to avoid an accident, but I just remember that I can't win every time," he said. "You have bad luck, and other times everything's working for you and you feel like you're flying."

Even in the disappointing times -- popping a chain, hitting a bump or losing a race -- he hasn't considered quitting. Instead, he turns for inspiration to his hero, Ayrton Senna, a race car driver from Brazil who died in a 1994 crash.

"He had intensity, a focused attitude behind the wheel and a lot of commitment to racing that I want to follow," Jon said.

"I look at him as being my dream racer, just like other kids look at Michael Jordan as their dream player."

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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