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Dominic Portera, a 13-year old Mini Cup Racer; with his half-scale Winston Cup car at his home in Morgan Hill. Photo by AEON HOPI SCHMOOCK

Fast kid, fast car
Morgan Hill teen points leader in mini-NASCAR racing

By JOHN BAGLEY
Pinnacle Staff Writer
     On the street, it’s illegal for him to drive. On the track, Dominic Portera is an up-and-coming star.
     When most kids his age are fielding grounders or running out to the ice cream truck for a summertime snack, the 13-year-old Britton Middle School student has tunnel vision for one thing: auto racing. NASCAR specifically.
     “I’m planning on doing it,” he says without hesitation as he stands beside his mini Winston Cup car.
     And he’s well on his way.
     For the last three years on Saturday mornings, Portera and his family load up the truck and trailer and head for Altamont Raceway Park in Tracy.
     “We get a lot of flak for doing this,” said his mother, Laura. “But it’s really no different than playing baseball or basketball. He loves it, and it’s what drives him. It also keeps him out of trouble.”
     Driving mini racers on suburban tracks is the same way Vallejo native Jeff Gordon and many other professional racecar drivers got their starts. Live Oak graduate Jimmy Vasser, class of 1983, who races the Formula One style cars, also got his start in midget racing.
     During the races Dominic’s father, Frank, and grandfather, Frank Sr., work as the pitmen. Laura is in the cheering section and his younger sister, Natalie, often videotapes the races.
     “He always has a lot of family and friends who come out to watch him,” said Laura.
     The Portera clan usually arrives about 10 a.m. on race day.
     “We check out the car, the nuts and bolts,” said Dominic’s father. “Then we’ll have two 10-minute practice sessions around 1 p.m. Then we’ll do time trials for the pole position.”
     So far, Dominic’s fastest qualifying time has been 16.38 seconds around the quarter-mile oval.
     From there, the family hangs out and waits for the 30-lap race to start, which can sometimes be as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Races usually last a half-hour but can go longer, depending on the number of caution flags.
     “It’s definitely a big commitment,” says Frank Jr., who has spent close to $10,000 on his son’s rig.
     But it’s a lot less burden financially than it is for the men of NASCAR. Although corporations pick up the tab in today’s racing, just the motor for a top NASCAR team can run upward of $700,000.
     “At that point, he’ll definitely need sponsorship,” said Frank Jr. with a smile.
     He already has sponsors now.
     Hale Lumber in Morgan Hill recently paid $1,000 to put its name on the rear fenders of Portera’s miniature version of an actual NASCAR car.
     “That helps with paying for crashes and putting it back together,” said Frank Jr.
     His No. 12 car comes complete with a five-point racing harness, roll bar and a fiberglass body that is removable.
     Like the big boys of NASCAR, Portera’s car is loaded with stickers and insignias of local sponsors and major racing products.
     The car’s GX 390 1-cylinder engine pegs out at 70 mph, but it can be modified for adults to reach 110 mph.
     The half-scale version also has no power steering and comes complete with four-wheel independent suspension.
     “They use the same rules as NASCAR does for its races,” said his dad. “That’s why we like it, because safety is a priority. We started him in go-carts a few years ago, but said no way after a few races. Those were all in the open air.”
     While Laura likes to attend the races and watch her son whip around the track, she isn’t exactly relaxed while the race is going on.
     “Oh my God, it’s very stressful to watch him do this,” she said. “Last year, he was in a bad accident. His car was like the meat of a sandwich. He hit the wall and walked away unscathed. Then, wouldn’t you, know he falls off a fence at the house and lacerates his spleen and spends four days in the hospital.”
     In addition to the enhanced safety measures on his car, Portera also wears a helmet, and a fire retardant suit and racing gloves.
     On hot nights he even puts an ice pack on his chest to keep cool inside the car.
     Evidently cool all the way to the checkered flag. This year, Portera is the leading driver in three different points series.
     Portera is No. 1 in points at Altamont. He is also tied with last season’s winner for the most points in the Miniature Motorsports Racing Association. And, although he has yet to race at the higher levels, he is the leading point getter on the West Coast for the Valvoline Cup Series.
     Most recently Dominic took first place in his Big D Motorsports Monte Carlo on May 17 at Altamont.
     Portera started third in the 13-car field and took over first place after just three laps. He held onto the lead for the remainder of the 27-lap race that was bogged down by four restarts.
     His parents allow him to continue to race as long as he maintains a 3.0 GPA.
     He plans on competing in nine more races this summer before entering the MMRA National for the West Coast in Rochester, Wash. on July 9.
     Dominic first was introduced to the sport by his dad. The elder Portera was a former drag racer who also started at a young age. Before that, Frank Sr. was also heavily involved in the sport.
     “I guess it’s just a family tradition,” said the youngest Portera.
     Ultimately, Portera would like to be a big time NASCAR driver. His idol in the sport is the late legendary driver Dale Earnhardt.
     “I liked his rough style on the track and his good sportsmanship,” said Portera.
     “He likes to pass on the outside, like Dale did it,” said his dad.
     In a sport where the cars travel at speeds of 60-plus mph, drafting is the key to success.
     “We race bumper-to-bumper,” said the younger Portera. “We rub bumpers a lot as we go around the track.”
     At speeds of 60-plus mph around small tracks, the sport isn’t without danger.
      “Once you make contact, your heart freezes,” said Portera. “You don’t know if you’ll go around in circles or hit the wall. But it happens so fast you don’t really have time to think about anything out there but how to go by the driver in front of you and keeping a good line. It takes a lot of concentration.”
     Although the 60-plus mph is a far cry from NASCARS’ 180 mph laps, Portera’s dad recently developed a newfound respect for what his son goes through during a race. Frank Jr. was able to get behind the wheel of another scaled-down mini that he could fit in and took it out for a spin.
     “You’re constantly driving for position into the corners out there because the track is so small,” said Frank. “What these kids do out there is impressive. I’m excited about what my son has done, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. He’s just got a natural knack for it.”
     By the time he turns 15, Portera would like to race in the full-size pro truck series. At that level, he will compete on a ½ mile oval in a 600-horsepower truck powered by a supped-up Chevrolet small-block engine.
     Out there the goal would be to get noticed by some of the bigger sponsors and driving teams.
     “It’s all about his ability to sell and market himself,” said his dad. “There’s really no exact way to qualify for NASCAR. I don’t know exactly how it works. It’s more about getting someone to back you and catching someone’s eye.”
     After racing the truck, Portera would like to race in the Busch Racing Series—kind of like NASCAR’s version of AAA baseball.
     “He’s really got a focus and really loves it,” said Laura.

 

Link to original article in The Pinnacle - Click here

Link to The Pinnacle newspaper website - www.pinnaclenews.com