Coming out of a turn, Matt Solarczyk tightens his grip on the steering wheel as a straightaway tempts acceleration. This practice session is already two hours old, but Solarczyk is patient and resists the urge to put too much pressure on the gas.
Testing limits is an obsession for him because his sport — go-kart racing — is all about finding the maximum without burning out.
Solarczyk, 16, has raced all over the United States and Europe, but to develop the skills required at the international level, the Westfield High School junior doesn’t leave home. Instead, he walks down into his basement, straps into a racing seat on a metal kart frame complete with faux pedals and stares up at a big screen. Solarczyk is not playing a video game; he’s practicing on one in preparation for the real thing.
This weekend, Solarcyzk will represent the United States at the Rotax MAX Championship grand finals in Portugal. The competition will be real, but without a venue in the area, virtual reality is the only way he can consistently re-create the intricacies of racing karts at 75 mph through 14 turns of a half-mile track.
“I tell kids I race, and they say, ‘Oh, you run?’ ” Solarczyk said. “I don’t show off about it, but people definitely don’t understand the difficulty.”
Solarczyk’s dream is to use the kart racing circuit as a springboard to a career in IndyCar, but he’s a realist.
Solarczyk started racing at age 8 and has overcome geographical hurdles to succeed in a sport dominated by traditional racing hotbeds that stretch from the Carolinas to Florida and from the Midwest to California. The closest tracks are more than three hours away in western Pennsylvania and North Carolina, so Solarczyk spends his weekends traveling with his father to races. Weekdays are for school and his basement practice sessions.
“I play more than I like to admit. Recently, I’ve been popping in and messing around on the kart for a couple hundred laps each day,” Solarczyk said. “It helps with reaction time and finding out how hard I can push the kart.”
Solarczyk qualified for the grand finals in Portugal by finishing second at a super-national event in Las Vegas last summer, but since school started in August, he hasn’t had time to go practice on a real track. In this race, drivers will not be allowed to use their own karts — a manufacturer will provide them to even the playing field. The simulator allows Solarczyk to randomize a kart’s setting to practice getting used to a kart he has never driven before.
“There’s a fine line between under-driving and over-driving. If you give 110 percent, you’re trying to make the kart do things it can’t,” Solarczyk said. “Driving too fast causes sliding that prevents the engine from accelerating at full power. The first driver to find the middle ground between not using the full potential of the kart and over-driving usually wins.”
At least for the next year and a half, Solarczyk will balance high school life with dreams of driving professionally. The cost of racing is prohibitive, but Solarczyk has a role model nearby.
Ryan Ellis, an Ashburn native and 2008 Stone Bridge High graduate, has pooled resources to go from unknown racing hopeful to NASCAR’s senior circuit. Ellis, 25, will make his debut on the premier stage for stock car racing Sunday in Phoenix at the Sprint Cup Series’s Race for Heroes 500.
As a teenager, Ellis helped manage an indoor go-kart track where he took apart engines and gave driving lessons to beginners like Solarczyk. It was after one of these sessions that Ellis introduced Solarczyk to kart simulators as a way to practice from home.
Ellis attended George Mason, where he studied marketing so he could pitch himself to potential racing sponsors. After more than five years as a college student, he left the classroom for the cockpit without a diploma.
“In college, there were two classes that I could never miss, but it was either go race in Miami with the NASCAR Nationwide series or take an exam,” Ellis said. “I chose racing every time. I’ve always viewed school as a backup plan.”
In 2012, while he was still at George Mason, Ellis got his first start in the Nationwide Series but could afford tires to last him only a few laps. Last month, after bouncing around several teams during 49 starts on the XFinity (formerly Nationwide) and Camping World Truck Series, Ellis secured a sponsorship agreement with Reston-based software company ScienceLogic, whose name will be plastered all over his No. 33 Chevy in Phoenix.
For Solarczyk to take the next step, he will need his own benefactor.
“The next step is finding a sponsor. Right now, a racing team helps transport and maintain my kart, but in order to move up, I need somebody to pay for the car,” Solarczyk said. “The grand finals in Portugal is good exposure and good for my resume, but the reason I’m going is to have fun and compete with the best.”
Unlike Ellis, Solarczyk’s immediate plans include getting his college degree. Right now, he’s just happy to race.
“I spend so much time with my dad traveling from coast to coast to race, so obviously this is my passion, and I want to continue racing as long as I can,” Solarczyk said. “But there is a lot of factors out of my control. I can’t worry about which sponsors might be watching. All I can do is drive.”