At an age when most teenaged boys are just waiting to get a driver's license, Hunter Bates is wrestling a 2,400-pound race car around two of the trickiest asphalt tracks in the Northeast, and developing into one of the best young talents in the business.
Bates, a 15-year-old sophomore at Middlebury (Vt.) High School who spent his weekends racing in the sportsman division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway and Devil's Bowl Speedway, was named the 2010 Champlain Valley Racing Association Driver of the Year, and for good reason. In 27 races between the two tracks this year, Bates had 23 top-five finishes, including four victories.
And don't forget, this is only his second year behind the wheel of a race car.
"I really love this sport," said Bates while taking part in a tire-testing session at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in early October. "I'm happy as long as I'm racing."
Bates, who played youth hockey for six years before beginning his racing career, got into racing by chance. "I'm divorced, and he would spend weekends with me and we would hang out," said Bates' father, Mark. "One night, we went to Turkey Trot (Turkey Trot Raceway, a go-kart track near Argyle, N.Y.) to watch the races, and I said, is that something you'd be interested in?
"A couple of weeks later, we were racing."
That was in 2004, and Hunter Bates' racing career got off to a shaky start.
"The first night we went to race, it had rained pretty hard," said Mark Bates. "They did a good job getting the track ready, but it was real narrow. Hunter goes out and in the first turn, he gets into the mud in the infield and packs the cart with mud.
"After that, we started going to Ballston Spa. It was a little more forgiving on the asphalt."
Hunter proved to be a natural, and in 2007, the Bateses began chasing national points, racing in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and many tracks in between.
"I know he's my son, but very early on, I could see that he had a lot of talent," said Mark Bates. "I wanted him to go as far as he could."
Hunter Bates was in contention for a national championship in 2008, but came up short, and when the season ended, he and his father talked about moving from karts to open-wheel cars.
Mark Bates talked to CVRA founder C.J. Richards, a close family friend, to get some advice.
"We talked about putting Hunter in a four-cylinder car, but I thought we were better off putting him in one of these (a crate sportsman)," said Mark Bates. "I've been around racing all my life. I worked for the Stones (Gardner and Todd) and I've crewed for Wayne Ryan and drivers like Mike Ricci, Jack Johnson, C.D. Coville. I knew I could give Hunter a good car if he ran sportsman. I thought if he ran four-cylinders, he might learn some bad habits."
So Hunter Bates, who just barely met the minimum age requirement (14) for admission to the pits at the two CVRA tracks, got into an open-wheel car for the 2009 season, and quickly adapted to the additional power. Although he didn't win any races during his rookie campaign, he progressed to the point where he was a contender late in the season.
Then, to throw a little curveball at the Bates operation, the two CVRA tracks decided to go switch from dirt to asphalt.
"We were going to be on a two-year plan on the dirt," said Mark Bates. "But we decided to make the switch, and I'm really happy about it."
As well he should be. Asphalt actually fit more into Hunter's driving style.
"Even though I miss the dirt, this was a really good opportunity for me," said Hunter Bates. "I feel confident on asphalt. We finished strong last year, and I felt we could do really well this year. It took a couple of weeks to get adjusted, but from racing go-karts on asphalt, I think I already had the smoothness."
Mark Bates has also made sure his son knows driving the car isn't his only responsibility.
"He does all the mechanical work on the car now," Mark Bates said. "I taught him how to scale the car, and I really didn't work on the car at all during the week this summer."
Hunter Bates' potential is unlimited, but his future certainly isn't mapped out.
"I want to see him go as far as he can, but obviously, we're going to need more financial support," said Mark Bates. "We went to Thunder Road to watch an ACT race and that could be an option. We're definitely going to keep this car, but we might get an ACT car and do a couple of shows. Honestly, I don't know where we'll go from here. But I think with the right opportunity, he could go a lot further."
Paul Speshock and Donnelly Construction have been a major backer of the Hunter Bates' small block, whose other sponsors include Windy Hollow Homes and Bob Howard's Auto. But like Mark Bates says, the opportunity is there.
"I want to go as far as I possible can," said Hunter Bates. "I would love to get an ACT car. I just love racing, I don't really care where it is. It's an awesome feeling, especially when you win."
That's something Hunter Bates will be doing a lot of in the future.