FREMONT - Kathi Kern was suffering. Her 6-year-old daughter had just finished back in fifth place in a race that included less than a dozen kids running around a track on four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles.
Maternal instinct surged, and she was ready to wrap her arms around her daughter, Ali, and console her.
"I thought, 'my poor little girl', but she took that tiny trophy and held it up and she just smiled," Kathi Kern said.
The equipment changed from quads to go-karts to those freakishly powered modified race cars. The races got faster, and the overwhelmingly male rough-and-tumble competition got tougher, but Ali never wavered.
"From the moment when they put that little trophy in her hands, she was hooked on racing," Kathi Kern said. "And she's never looked back."
Ali Kern is now 16, and the walls of the race shop behind the family home are filled with championship trophies, a number of them taller than Ali. Her prowess on the race track has taken her to North Carolina and Virginia, where over the past five days she has been part of an elite field of young drivers who were selected to audition for a part in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program.
The initiative, set up to provide female and minority drivers a boost on the path to racing's upper echelon, conducted a nationwide search and chose 30 individuals to put through additional on-and-off-track screening. Just 10 from that group will move on in the program and receive funding and team support for further racing options.
"The goal is to create opportunities for these young racers to take their careers as far as their skills and commitment will carry them," said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's managing director of public affairs. "We're working to create a broad pipeline."
Ali said she found the chance to take part in the prestigious effort exciting, but not intimidating.
"I have been passionate about this ever since I've been around racing, so an invitation to go and be a part of a NASCAR program is great, but I'm not nervous about it," she said. "You can't ever have fear and be in a race car. I trust the people I'm racing with, and I trust the car. It should be a lot of fun."
Ali's dad Mike raced trucks and motorbikes in the past, but he has spent a lot of time working in the shop and in the pits since his daughter started racing.
"From the time she was young, whatever she was racing in, her dad made her work on it, so she knows the car and she can communicate what is going on during a race," Kathi Kern said.
"I've been nervous as heck a bunch of times, but the faster the race, the more she seems to like it," Mike Kern said.
Veteran driver Bill Burba, who has raced against Ali at Sandusky Speedway the past couple of seasons, said he has been impressed with her track savvy.
"It's just unusual to see so much patience in someone so young," Burba said. "I've always hated to race around other kids because they're so squirrely and erratic, but not her. Ali knows what she is doing out there."
Ali, who will turn 17 next May, said she has tried to leave the gender differences out of the discussion.
"Instead of being a girl racer, I try to always be a smart racer. I know what I can do, and what I can't do," she said. "There's still a lot of guys out there who just don't want to get beat by a girl, but most of them congratulate me after a race. That novelty is gone once we start flying around the track."
Ross teacher Beth Muffler had Ali as a freshman in honors biology, and this school year Ali is in Muffler's anatomy and physiology class. She also takes advanced courses at Terra Community College.
"She has never shied away from a challenge in the classroom, so I'm not surprised that she jumped at this opportunity to further her racing," Muffler said.
Ali's mother admits second thoughts about the whole racing deal are a regular companion, but her daughter's commitment has the ability to override those concerns.
"It's not my life, it's hers. This is who she is, so this is what we do. We're along for the ride," Kathi Kern said. "We're humble, but we said let's take a shot at this. If all of these experts in NASCAR look at our daughter and say she is worth the investment, then we'll pursue that."
ARCA president Ron Drager said that for some time motorsports has been very conscious of making itself as inclusive as possible. He said efforts like the initiative Ali is taking part in provide that crucial link between skilled racers from all backgrounds, and the funding they need to make racing a profession.
"Good, bad or indifferent, our sport has evolved to a point where you can't just be a great talent - you need to have an opportunity," Drager said.
Mike Kern said that despite all of the influences tugging at kids today, Ali has been able to put in the time and work diligently at becoming a better driver.
"The light went on for her pretty early, but there are a whole lot of distractions for kids today. Racing is demanding, and if you're good at it, you better be committed to it," he said. "That's my daughter, and I know this is a rough sport, but it was clear to her at some point that this is what she wanted to do. We've been off and running ever since."
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