Daytona bound: Darren Pifer isn't your run-of-the-mill go-kart driver

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Every NASCAR-loving youngster dreams of strapping into a car and driving around the turns of Daytona International Speedway when he or she grows up. One local 18-year old is grown up, and is going to have the chance to live out that dream. Well, sort of.

2011 PAHS graduate Darren Pifer has been driving a race car since he was six years old, but the type of car he drives runs on dirt, not pavement like Daytona International.

Although it has a few less horsepower than the Sprint Cup cars, that doesn't mean there's not an element of danger and excitement in his sport.

Pifer drives a go-kart, but don't mistake the kind of kart he drives for the type one would hop into at the local go-kart track.

Pifer's go-kart typically averages speeds of 65 mph, and at larger tracks, like Clearfield Mountain Speedway, they've been known to reach speeds of 85 mph.

Oh, and there's no seatbelt.

"There really aren't any safety features," Pifer said. "There are no seatbelts. They actually want you to come out of the kart if you wreck, because it weighs around 150 pounds, so they don't want it to land on you. All you have is your helmet, gloves, shoes, jacket and neck brace. So, the helmet technology is important. You have to have a good helmet."

Pifer and approximately 1,500 other kart drivers will be given the thrill of their lifetimes when they make the trek to Daytona to participate in the World Kart Association's annual event at the dirt track just outside the Daytona Speedway made famous by the annual season-beginning 500-mile race for NASCAR. The event runs Dec. 27-30.

Pifer's road to Daytona began at the age of six after watching his cousin race a kart at Race One, a track in DuBois.

"Mom and Dad took me when I was about five, and I decided that's what I wanted to do, so when I was six, I started and that's what I've been doing since then."

Pifer started out in the youth classes, which run with restrictor plates and don't reach the speeds of the adult karts, but now, he races in the adult classes, which are separated into 10 weight classes.

Although Pifer isn't exactly over-sized, he races in the Super Heavy division of WKA's dirt kart series.

It was in the Super Heavy class at Selinsgrove Speedway in eastern Pa. that Pifer earned his starting spot in the coveted Daytona race, which is scheduled for Dec. 27-30.

"They had a national race up here at Selinsgrove, and we decided to go to that," Pifer said. "I won that, and it gave us a free starting spot down there. Last I heard, there were 1,500 go-karts listed there. I didn't have to qualify for Selinsgrove. Anyone who showed up there could race, and I didn't expect to win, but I did."

Pifer didn't expect to win, but he does recognize the honor it is to receive the free entry pass to the Daytona race.

"It's such a big deal to even make the race that they give you a sticker just to make it," he said. "Usually, you have to win a race to earn one. It's a pretty big deal to be considered to go down there. There'll be a couple NASCAR drivers, so you have the chance to race against the best in the world."

It turns out several NASCAR drivers even link their beginnings to racing in the kart series.

"It's the first step for a lot of the NASCAR drivers," Pifer said. "I mean, I don't plan on going to NASCAR or anything, but a lot of driver development people see that you won a WKA race, and it really helps you get noticed."

There is one thing about the kart series that is very similar to NASCAR racing: Tire selection means everything.

"This is all about the tires," Pifer said. "We have 10 sets of tires we're taking down with us, and it's a lot of money. You put chemicals on the tires to treat them, too, and every day of the week, we're in there working on them. It's pretty much a job."

Tire selection is especially important in the bigger races, as qualifying comes down to split-second differences.

"At qualifying out of 150 karts, they could all be within a second of each other," Pifer said. "The pole position can be determined by thousandths of seconds."

Pifer's been racing go-karts since he was young and he's been fortunate enough to be involved in just one serious accident, but that was one too many for his family's liking.

"There is very little as far as brakes go," Pifer's mother, Penny, said. "Someone checked up or something in front of him, and he went to avoid him, ended up in the loose stuff, hit the dirt, and it threw him right out of the kart. It was very scary."

Fortunately for Pifer and his entire family, including father Rod, who serves as his crew chief, and his sister, Jeane, who serves as photographer and helps out with the car, and his grandparents, who are big fans, Darren's helmet did its job.

"It actually broke his helmet," Penny said. "We always buy good helmets, and we actually sent that helmet back to Simpson, because they wanted to make sure it worked properly, and thankfully, it did."

Unfortunately, Pifer ended up with an ambulance ride, but he was fortunate enough that his injuries were limited to a messed-up shoulder.

"A lot of people say it's dangerous, but we're the ones who sign in every week, and you live for a little bit of a thrill," he said. "They're so low to the ground that it takes a lot to wreck real bad. So, it's not as dangerous as it seems."

Another similarity to stock car racing that adds to the thrill-factor is drafting on larger tracks.

"On the quarter-mile or bigger tracks, you have to draft," Pifer said. "You concentrate on the person right in front of you, and you wait to make your move. The drafting really came into play at Clearfield. You could pick up a half of a second per lap."

One thing Pifer confessed is that he's not in the racing for the money, as it's an expensive hobby.

"There are lots of money shows, but you have so spend money to make it," he said. "Around here, there are classes where it's just more for fun. We go out east where it's a little more common. Around here, it's a hobby, but out there, everyone does it. It's nice traveling to different tracks. We couldn't afford to go to some of the tracks we do with a stock car."

Although it's a financial investment for the entire family, Penny and Rod said the family element of going racing makes it all worth it.

"It's a family event," Penny said. "We have guys down in the Selinsgrove area that help us out. We do spend a lot of money, but we do it all as a family. We have to clean the tires after each race, and so we all do that."

Mom even confessed that she has a bit of a thrill for the race.

"I actually race against him when we're at Blairsville," she said. "I've beat him once or twice. He doesn't like that too much. But it's a good thing to do as a family. I know where my kids are on the weekends, so I know they're not getting into any trouble."