When Billy Gibson stops to think about how he got started racing, he can't help but laugh, and then be embarrassed. It's not the go-carts he began racing at age 7 that provoke laughter, but the memories of his next ride: a bathtub boat.

For about three years, beginning at age 11, Gibson would climb into a vehicle he describes as "literally a bathtub with pontoons on the side" and compete in tri-county races against drivers from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Gibson -- a native of Avenue in St. Mary's County -- promises to be moving a little faster in his purple and white 1997 Camaro this weekend at Maryland International Raceway, when he competes in the eighth annual International Hot Rod Association President's Cup Nationals.

The President's Cup Nationals, MIR's premier event, is expected to draw more than 20,000 fans from Friday to Sunday. Drivers will race in 13 different class, including five professional classes and eight sportsman divisions. Gibson will drive an Alcohol Funny Car and hope to make Sunday's pro eliminations, which will be televised by ESPN.

"Those bathtub boats were a long time ago, and it's pretty embarrassing . . . but it is where I got my start," Gibson said, laughing. "I went back to go-carts for a while, until I was 16 and old enough to race legally. I haven't stopped racing ever since."

Gibson races almost everywhere -- from the local tracks at MIR and in Colonial Beach and Manassas to the IHRA national circuit -- and he drives a lot, too. Gibson is a truck driver, so when he's not on the track, he still is often behind the wheel.

"When you love it, you love it," Gibson said. "It's not glamorous, but it's me."

Gibson began racing Alcohol Funny Cars on the IHRA circuit about five years ago and finished 15th in the points standings in 1998 despite missing four races. He has competed sparingly this season, choosing instead to focus on moving up to the Top Fuel Funny Car division of the National Hot Rod Association next year. A move to the NHRA means putting together a new car and reorganizing his racing team -- both of which take time. If he becomes a member of the National Hot Rod Association next season, Gibson, 24, will be the youngest male driver on the circuit.

"The NHRA is like the NBA or NFL of racing," Gibson explained. "It's the professional level of the sport, the granddaddy of everything. It's on TV every weekend, has national sponsorships, the whole works."

Gibson has raced in six of the last seven President's Cup Nationals -- advancing to the quarterfinals more than once -- and expects to move past the qualifying rounds this weekend. He also relishes the chance to race close to home. If he's racing on the NHRA circuit next year, he'll be on the road about 35 times per year.

"It's so nice to be able to race and still sleep in your own bed at night," Gibson said. "I won't get any of that next year. And having all of the local fans there to support me, plus my friends and family -- this is what racing is all about."