On most cold winter evenings, kids involved in varsity sports around the country can typically be found on a basketball court, ice rink or wrestling mat.
But for 22 high school-aged kids in Maryland, a cold January evening is less typical. They prefer the rev of an engine to a ball bouncing on the hardwood. They prefer speeding around a race course to skating around a rink.
Every Tuesday from Jan. 20-Feb. 24 at Autobahn Indoor Speedway in Jessup, Md., high schoolers get the opportunity to compete in the Maryland High School Varsity Karting League. Kids from schools around the state -- Mount Saint Joseph, River Hill, Bowie and Old Mill High, to name a few -- compete against one another in intense races on one of Autobahn's two race tracks.
"The adrenaline that you get when you're on there is pretty awesome," Hunter Cestone, 16, of Mount St. Joe said. "When you're actually out there, you can't hear your surroundings. You're just concentrated on the race. It's competitive out there. It's pretty fun."
Racers drive electric pro-karts around the tracks, which are laid out like a Grand Prix event. Each racer is guaranteed three races per night as part of the Varsity Karting League. Each race consists of 14 laps around one of the tracks, with about seven drivers sharing the track at once. Racers are fighting for the best possible times around the track -- on Jan. 27, some racers completed laps in less than 23 seconds -- which makes a well-executed strategy vital to success.
"It's so much going on so fast because you have to think about every turn," Zack Spicer, 17, of River Hill said. "Who's behind you? What's going to happen to the person behind you? How are they trying to pass you? How are you going to try to pass the person in front of you? And a million other things going on at once, and it's just like tunnel vision."
Setting up a high school league has long been a dream for Jordan Wallace, the 27-year-old competition director at Autobahn. The league costs $240 per racer.
"This has been one of my dreams since I was in high school," Wallace said. "I've raced all over the country. I've been racing for about 10 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
There are 11 teams in the league, with two racers on each team. The first two weeks of the league were clinics, so the racers could get familiar with the tracks and equipment, but the latter four sessions count toward the league championship.
Starting Feb. 3, racers earned points during their final race of the night. The scores from each set of teammates are combined for a team score. River Hill's team -- which includes Ben Punsalan, 15, as well as Spicer -- figures to be one of the teams at or near the top of the league leaderboard throughout the season. But no matter where racers may be on the leaderboard, they're benefiting from the experience.
"They're each getting over a half-hour of track time a night, three races a night and the racing is just incredible," Wallace said. "The nose-to-tail action, it's just like you watch on TV. You can't compare it to anything else out [there]. This is not amusement park. This is no kiddie ride. These are real race karts, and these kids are out here to do it. They're out here serious as all heck, and they want to win, so it's cool."
Ages and experience levels of the racers vary.
Cestone, for example, has been racing since last summer, but Punsalan has been racing even before Autobahn opened in Jessup. Meanwhile, Kelan Amin of Howard High is one of the younger racers in the competition at 14 years old. But what they all have in common is the love for racing.
"We're seeing a lot of diversity in the series," Wallace said. "[There are] a lot of young kids, too, only a couple seniors out there, so we're hopeful for the future. That's the cool part. This is all about the future. A lot of these kids don't play traditional sports -- football, baseball, basketball, those sort of things -- but they are incredibly talented behind the wheel."