Kyle Kalish looks like he's been through the wringer after finishing a race.
Every time he takes one of the 15 or so turns scattered throughout the milelong track, the Mundelein High School junior uses his body to maneuver his vehicle's heavy frame.
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Kyle KalishAge: 17
School: Mundelein High School
Who inspires you? My dad
What's on your iPod? Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Eminem
What book are you reading? "Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton" by Walter Payton with Don Yaeger
The three words that best describe you? Fast, Focused, Upbeat
Kyle battles through G-forces that saddle him with four or five times his body weight during each of the 20-plus laps. He shrugs off speeds of up to 85 mph and the unforgiving Fiberglas seat that leaves his back and ribs bruised.
His mind takes a beating as well, constantly running through a slew of strategies that could shave off crucial tenths of a second.
By the time he flies past the waving checkered flag -- usually at the front of the field -- Kyle is a sweaty, exhausted mess.
Welcome to the wholly unexpected and largely unknown world of competitive go-kart racing.
"I get off the track and I'm just dying," Kyle said. "A lot of kids think it's a Six Flags theme park type of thing where you just drive around in circles. There's a lot more to it than that."
The Wauconda teen would know.
The four-time national champion sprint racer recently capped off his rookie season in the senior class, the highest in karting, by winning the U.S. Pro Kart Series Leopard Pro National Championship. He secured the title in the final race with a come-from-behind victory that ekartingnews.com called "brilliant."
The 17-year-old, a veteran with more than 200 races under his belt, hopes to use kart racing as a launchpad to a career as a professional race car driver.
His journey began when his father, Scott Kalish, gave him a mini kid kart at age 6. The elder Kalish grew up racing motorcycles and a friend introduced him to karts after Kyle was born. After a few years of both father and son racing in their respective classes, Kyle's raw talent was clear to everyone. So, Kalish decided to stop and focus his energy into grooming his son.
The financial and time commitment are hefty. The price of parts, event entry fees, transport and travel amounts to thousands of dollars. Kalish spends a few nights a week working on the kart's mechanics. Even practices are quite the undertaking since the closest suitable tracks are in Wisconsin and downstate Ottawa.
Kyle relishes every second of it.
"He's very focused and he listens," Scott Kalish said. "And he hates to lose, which is more important than wanting to win."
Each season kicks off in December with a week of races in Daytona, Fla. After that, Kyle mostly sticks to the Midwest and East Coast, competing in Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Next month, he'll face some of the country's and Europe's best in Las Vegas at the SKUSA SuperNationals XVII.
There aren't any pit stops or two-way radio communication, so Kyle is on his own come race time. But he's supported by a team of people and sponsors that he's quick to credit. Among them are Jamie Sieracki, co-owner of Franklin Motorsports in New Berlin, Wis., which supplies equipment for Kyle's kart.
Sieracki, whose company will help transport several karts out to the Nevada event, estimates Kyle is among the top 2 percent of racers in the country.
"In karting, you always look at the total package," Sieracki said. "It's been fun to watch him develop. He's the one that all the younger kids look up to."
Kyle is smart both on the track and at Mundelein High School, where he takes Advanced Placement classes and maintains a near-perfect GPA. He also plays on the lacrosse team and mountain bikes.
Scott Kalish, who's Kyle's coach and the team mechanic, said his son has become a pro at technically relaying how the kart is handling. Adjustments to tire pressure, rear width, the axles and wheel alignment elements such as caster and cambor angles are key to the kart's performance.
"When he comes off the track, we debrief and he tells me what the kart is doing so we can decide what changes to make," Kalish said. "He's really come into his own that way."
Kyle has managed to escape serious injury despite crashing and getting run over. Drivers wear protective gear and the karts are built with some safety features. Crashes aren't uncommon, however, and the death of one of Kyle's racing friends several years ago rattled him.
Still, he maintains the sport is safe despite high speeds and tight spaces on the track. It helps that drivers know what they're doing.
"Everybody understands the danger of it," Kyle said. "You occasionally get the one guy who does something crazy, but most people respect each other and the result is good, clean racing."
Which isn't to say the races don't get rough with plenty of bumping and rivalries. But Kyle focuses more on the decisions he needs to make throughout a race.
"The biggest thing is the mental factor," he said. "It's about more than trying to go as fast as you can. It's hitting your lines, hitting your braking zone, when should I pass this guy, should I work with a driver to get to the next kart or go it alone and pass him myself."
Though Kyle wants nothing more than to have a pro career in auto racing -- Formula 1, Grand-Am and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race are his favorite -- he knows it's a long shot. A ton of financial backing is needed to break into the industry, where there's been a long history of animosity between drivers who come from means and those who don't.
"A lot of pro drivers in the country come from rich parents," Scott Kalish said. "As a father I'd love to say we'll do whatever it takes to fulfill his dream, but we can't risk everything. Kyle is very realistic."
Kyle is contemplating spending time next year racing in Europe but already has made the difficult decision to go to college after graduation, barring an unforeseen opportunity. He sees himself studying marketing and working in the business side of racing.
Whatever the future holds for Kyle, it's a safe bet he'll find a way to get behind the wheel.
"It's not just the speed of the car that I love," Kyle said. "It's how you interact with the car and really become one with it."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.