Go, Speed Racer

Photo by Parker Stewart
By Wade Livingston  
Photography by Parker Stewart

A blue-red-black blur of Mazda Miatas zip past the man waving the white flag, signaling the start of the final lap.

The three roadsters zoom toward Roebling Road Raceway’s first turn and into the second, their engines barking as drivers work clutches and downshift to fourth gear, then third. The gravelly buzz of more than 30 other Miatas echoes through the pines.

The black Miata’s driver, Michael Carter, closes on the two frontrunners as he heads into the third turn at 95 miles per hour. Like any racer, he pushes his car to its limits—it’s easy to forget he’s just 17 years old and a rising senior at Benedictine Military School. And then he says this: “I forgot to wash my stuff when I came back from a race in Wisconsin. So I don’t know what I smell like—a bag of trash?”

Michael is looking for a sponsorship and a path to pro racing, but on this day during a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race in early July, he is driving for bragging rights, a prize of $600 and two new tires.

He’s in his third season racing in the Spec Miata class. Known for its popularity—and affordability, compared to BMW or Porsche spec leagues—the class is “pure racing,” he says. The Miatas are production-line models and, by rule, can’t be heavily modified. Races are often decided by the one or two extra horsepower a crew chief can squeeze out of a car, coupled with a driver’s grit and timing.

In this field of drivers—many double and triple his age, some who’ve been racing longer than he’s been alive—Michael finds himself in the last lap of the last SCAA race of the U.S. Majors Tour’s Southeast Conference season, with a chance to win.

He has about 60 seconds to make something happen.

As Michael nears the third turn, he watches the two cars ahead of him touch. A puff of white smoke shoots past the boy’s cracked windshield. The red Miata swerves, slowing just enough. Michael passes him, chasing the blue car through the turn. He’ll later say he was smiling the whole time.

That cracked windshield happened the day before, during a qualification run for a different race.

When Michael slid off the damp track, lost control in the grass and shot into some nearby trees, his father, Mickey Carter, wasn’t worried—he’d been talking to his son on the radio when it happened and knew he was OK.

“I didn’t know the extent of the damage,” Mickey says of the car that he has built and rebuilt from the ground up. “So I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to need to haul it back to the shop and put a new front end on it tonight?’ Because I can do that.”

Mickey—tall and lanky, with work-worn hands and grease under his fingernails—is his son’s mechanic and crew chief. He owns and operates Asian Automotive in Thunderbolt, a fixture of Savannah’s automotive community for two decades.

He’s a high-school dropout, a kid who was making good grades his junior year when the truancy officer figured out his game. He’d show up on Monday to learn what would be on the Friday tests, skip school for the rest of the week to tinker with cars, then reappear on Friday to take the exams. The officer, Mickey says, gave him a choice: transfer schools or quit. He chose the latter, got a gig as a mechanic and raced on the side. In the mid-1980s, he became the manager of Roebling Road Raceway, later opening his shop. 

Michael began racing in the parking lot of Asian Automotive, at its old location near Oglethorpe Mall. At 4 years old, he’d buzz around a custom-painted track in a go-kart-like “quarter midget.” His dad had installed a remote-controlled kill switch that would stop the engine if the boy lost control, and he only had to use it once—just to tell Michael to slow down. “He had that instinctual car-control feel from the beginning,” Mickey says.  

Denise Carter was initially nervous about her son racing, but she allowed it. “Our first two dates were at a race track,” Mickey says. “She knew I was a racer, and a racer’s going to take his son racing.”

Most of the guys I race against don’t have their dads there—they’re usually the dads in the family.

At 5, Michael began racing quarter midgets competitively. By the time he was 10, the kid had gotten over his fear of passing opponents, and clearing this hurdle boosted his confidence. At 15, he started driving Spec Miatas.  

Last year, at the SCCA National Championship Runoff, he came in second—right on the bumper of 26-year-old, Michigan-based driver Justin Hille “He’s one of the best,” says Justin. “He’s consistent, tenacious but clean. I’d rank him in the top five of Spec Miata drivers I know.”

In June, Michael picked up his first national tour win. His dad crammed inside the black Miata for a father-son victory lap. The teenager keeps a photo of the moment on the home screen of his phone. “It was pretty cool,” he says. “Most of the guys I race against don’t have their dads there—they’re usually the dads in the family.”

Fellow drivers say Michael has what it takes for the next level. But the Carters know that involves more money, an estimated tenfold increase over their current annual $20,000 racing budget. Moreover, college is priority, and tuition payments loom. Plan A is a double-major in business and engineering, perhaps, and probably a lot less racing.  

This year, though, he’s balancing his studies with a full slate of extracurriculars. As of August, Michael was ranked sixth nationally. At the end of September, he’ll travel to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 2017 national championship runoff.

When he’s not on the track, he drives a 1998 BMW M3. It’s his grandfather’s old car, with a manual transmission and tape player. He’s disconnected the muffler on occasion to make it louder, but he does not speed. A ticket might warrant a father-enforced suspension from racing. Michael lives in two worlds, and to the uninitiated, racing might seem like the bigger risk. He sees things differently.

“Driving on the street, an 18-wheeler could come around the corner,” Michael says. “On the track, the worst thing I can get hit by is a Miata.”

When the white puff of smoke shoots past Michael’s cracked windshield, there is hope, but he’s still stuck behind the blue Miata.

He tries to pass, but his opponent—decades older and an international racing veteran—blocks him. Complicating matters is the red car, still in Michael’s rearview mirror and trying to charge. Michael describes the race for the top three spots as “a chess match at 100 miles per hour.”

As the cars jockey for position, Michael knows he’s running out of track. He manages to holds off the red Miata and crosses the finish line in second.

After the checkered flag, Michael unfolds his 6-foot frame from the car. He takes off his helmet and black balaclava. He shakes hands with the other drivers.

Later, in the shade of a pop-up tent, surrounded by pines in the track’s infield, he uses his hands as cars to illustrate what happened, where and when. “It was a hell of a race,” he says.

He points out that, through it all, he was the quickest driver on the track. That’s true: At 1:23.346, Michael’s was the fastest lap. “If there was just another one… ” he says, still grinning.

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