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Boy is too young to drive, but races cars

DETROIT (AP) — At age 12, Keegan Sobilo of New Baltimore carefully tucks his legs and arms into a fire suit, pulls on a helmet and climbs into a race car that exceeds 80 mph.

He has been doing this since age 8, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“I’d stand underneath the grandstand, and whenever somebody would get close to Keegan on the track, I’d have to walk away,” said his mother, Hillary Sobilo, 46, a kindergarten teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Port Huron.

“At first, I was scared to death. I was like, ‘Let’s do bowling or swimming.’ It’s still very scary. But he knows what he’s doing. Your heart goes out on that track every time he goes out there.”

The sixth-grader always arrives at the track in his pajamas. The first time he wore his choo-choo train jammies to the track, Keegan went from last place to ninth place. He decided they brought luck. Since then, he has racked up a series of championships.

With his first corporate sponsorship secured, Keegan is focused on NASCAR.

This year, he moves into a full-size race car — the kind professionals use.

“When I’m racing, I feel hot and tight in there, tight in the seat,” he said. “In the car, I don’t feel like I’m going that fast. When I go 90, it feels like you’re going 60. Sometimes when you’re going too fast, there’s not enough grip and you’re sliding.”

Passion for cars runs in the family.

Keegan’s father is a design mechanic at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. He knows what it means to have seats and roll cages built to fit his son’s body.

“My father was an employee at Chrysler and had an opportunity to get me into the factory. After I finished my degree, I moved over to Auburn Hills, working in a research lab,” said Roman Sobilo, 45.

“What I see in Keegan is passion, like how I feel about car restoration. But for him, everything has to align itself. I tell my son you have to be the perfect package. Winning races every weekend is not the (only) key. You have to have the right name, you have to look the correct way, speak the correct way, act the correct way. Then the rest of it is really luck, like the stock market. If you don’t put yourself out there, you’ll never hit it big.”

While Keegan’s classmates at Immanuel Lutheran School in Macomb County play basketball and volleyball, Keegan is at the Birch Run track — practicing, qualifying and racing until 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. While many children spend time playing video games, Keegan runs race simulation training with his joystick after school.

People sometimes ask whether Keegan pressures his parents to allow him to drive on regular roads.

“He has never mentioned anything about it,” said Roman Sobilo. “And what’s weird is I asked him to move his mother’s (Ford) Explorer two weeks ago on our property behind our garage, approximately 30 feet, and he was scared to do so. But he has no problem driving his full-size race car on the track.”

Like the professional racers competing at Daytona International Speedway, Keegan wears a headset.

He listens carefully to his crew chief, Tim Phillips, 59, of Otsego, who has won multiple championships as a driver and crew chief.

“I work on his car three nights a week and deliver it to the track,” Phillips said. “Mom and dad leave me alone and I talk to Keegan on the radio as he’s going around. I’m in the pits when he’s racing. It’s just like on TV. If lap traffic is coming up, you need to be prepared. If you’re coming up on slower traffic, you need to have a plan.”

Keegan may take corners at 65 or 80 mph, he said.

“Me and him will talk different strategy,” Phillips said. “He’s one of them little smart kids. He’s very intelligent. And he’s a good driver. He listens well. He wears those pajamas to the track every night and takes them off when he puts his race clothes on. He’s been doing that for the last four years. That’s his trademark. When he won the championship, he was shaking up little kid champagne.”

Phillips says the boy is tireless, staying up past 2 a.m. at Springport speedway in Calhoun County on the west side of the state.

“They made us race last,” Phillips said. “But he was ready to go.”

For four years, Keegan has raced mini cars from May through October.

“You’ve got to know what you’re doing. These cars have quick steering and they’re fast,” said competitor Mike Todd, 69, of Galesburg, Michigan. “I think I was into it a year before Keegan. It was like, really, I’m going to be racing against a kid who doesn’t have a driver’s license? Come on, now. I had to put myself in check. It was like having a grandson. I showed him respect and he showed me respect. The kid is cool. And he takes it very serious.”

Todd, a retired high school custodian, said he would never underestimate Keegan.

“I’d like to see him make it big. He’s got the willpower,” said Todd, a Marine who served in Vietnam and loves competing in the Great Lakes Super Mini Cup Series that Keegan won.

“He spun me out a couple times. He was a sportsman all the way. We were both going into the corner, he tried to put his nose underneath,” Todd recalled. “And the front end of his car would wash out, hit the end of my car and spin me. It was nothing intentional. You’re going to get this car to go as fast as possible. Everything is momentum. There are centrifical clutches so you have to build your speed up. We go into the corners full bore.”

Competitors meet on asphalt tracks in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. There may be nearly two dozen competitors or half a dozen. For Keegan, the 2020 season racing both half-size and full-size cars will require nearly 20 matchups that will consume all of his weekends.

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