Pay no attention to the yellow and black sticker affixed to the floor of Ryan Ellis's quarter midget race car. "CAUTION: This vehicle may wreck or explode for no apparent reason."
The sticker, explains Ellis, is just a joke, purchased at a racing store in North Carolina. His No. 71 white, blue and black Ellis Racing car will not explode for no apparent reason. "I don't like to explode," the 9-year-old said.
But here is what Ryan Ellis does like: racing, winning and flipping. The three seem to go hand-in-hand. When Ellis races, he often wins (more than 70 quarter midget feature races and, at last count, 116 trophies). When Ellis's car flips over, he also wins.
"Oh, that's the funnest part-flipping. It's like a roller coaster. I've done it once, and that's how come I know it's fun," said Ellis, who just completed the third grade at Dominion Trail Elementary School in Loudoun County. "I flipped in a race two years ago. . . . The announcer called it `the flip of the year.' I still won the race. That's the funnest part, too."
This weekend, Ellis is focusing on winning: He is in New Castle, Del., competing at the Region 2 Dirt Championships in an attempt to qualify for the 1999 QMA Dirt Grands, the national championships of dirt-track quarter midget racing. Ellis has raced at nationals in each of the past three years, placing in the top six each time.
Quarter midget racing is like the Little League of auto racing; NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, among others, started their racing careers with quarter midget cars. There are different classes, based on engine power, and Ellis competes in two of the fastest: modified and B modified, often against drivers who are four to five years older.
Ellis started racing when he was 5, in the novice program at the Hagerstown Quarter Midget Speedway. He was hooked from the start; he won the sixth race he entered and then quickly moved up to higher classes. When he was 6, he qualified for nationals and finished second in the junior stock class and fifth in the junior Honda class.
"What impressed me about Ryan is that he's moved up quickly," said Ryan's father, Jim Ellis. "At every stage, he hasn't just been competitive, he's won almost immediately. It usually takes a year to adjust [to a new class], but Ryan has won quickly."
Part of that success could probably be attributed to background -- Ryan Ellis is the third generation of his family to race cars. Vic Ellis, Ryan's grandfather, earned a living as a professional sprint car driver during the 1950s. When Jim was six months old, Vic was killed while racing, yet Jim still grew up around race cars and drivers.
Jim raced motocross for 11 years before an accident in college prompted him to switch to race cars. Jim then raced for 20 years with the Sports Car Club of America but stopped once Ryan became serious about racing.
"What Ryan does, he does naturally," Jim said. "We took him to a lot of races when he was younger, and I think he absorbed a lot [of racing technique] just by watching and without ever really being coached."
Indeed, quarter midget racing is not a sport that can be practiced at home. Most Friday nights during the summer, Jim and Ryan load two quarter midget cars into their 26-foot trailer (with "Ellis Racing, Ashburn, Va." painted on the side), and hop into their white Ford Expedition (with the license plate HQMA 71, which stands for Hagerstown Quarter Midget Association and Ryan's car number). They drive to the Hagerstown Quarter Midget Speedway, where Ryan gets to take practice laps before running in feature races.
"I learned by paying attention a lot and by watching other people race. I never really practice; I just race," Ryan Ellis said. "I don't really have a plan [when I race]. I try to get faster every lap, and I try to be smooth. My plan is just to win."
The speedway is tucked away in the corner of the parking lot at the Hagerstown Speedway. Like its larger neighbor, the Quarter Midget Speedway has a dirt track, lights, bleachers and signs around the track. The quarter midget track, however, measures only 1/15th of a mile around.
Quarter midget cars are open-wheeled, fully suspended cars that are designed specifically for such short tracks. The cars are approximately 80 inches long and 40 inches wide and contain what are essentially "lawn mower engines on steroids," in Jim's words.
The cars can reach speeds ranging from 20 to 50 miles per hour, depending on the engine class and length of the track. And, like in NASCAR, sponsors' logos are painted on the side of the cars. Ellis's car has a large logo for the Ashburn Ice House (Ellis also plays ice hockey for the Reston Raiders) on the front and for Kart Connection Plus on the side.
"Imagine the cul-de-sac at the end of your street," Jim said. "Now imagine yourself going 50 miles per hour around that cul-de-sac. That's what quarter midget racing is like."
Ellis has suffered no injury more serious than bruises while racing. He wears a full set of safety equipment -- helmet, neck collar, driving suit, gloves and arm restraints -- and his cars are equipped with a seat belt and shoulder harness.
"With the ice hockey and the auto racing, Ryan might seem like a wild and crazy guy," Jim Ellis said. "But he's not. He just likes speed, and he likes action."
And he especially likes to win. Ellis loves the checkered flag -- the black and white checkered design is present on everything, from the Ellis Racing trailer to his race cars and racing suit.
On a recent Friday night, Ellis won the modified class feature race at Hagerstown. He took his victory lap, carrying the black and white checkered flag, like all the other winners did.
There were no flips or explosions. Just a victory.
CAPTION: Ryan Ellis covers his ears as his father, left, and a friend start the engine during a pre-race test. Quarter midget race cars can reach speeds of 20 to 50 miles per hour.
CAPTION: Competitors at Hagerstown speedway, above, get ready for quarter midget car races. At last count, Ryan Ellis had 116 trophies and more than 70 victories in quarter midget feature races.
CAPTION: "He just likes speed, and he likes action," Jim Ellis said of Ryan's passion for driving the open-wheeled, fully suspended midget cars.