Sam Mellinger: Teen racer has drive to make a difference

Jun 1 2012 - 3:43pm

KANSAS CITY, MO. - Tyler Nelson is 15 years old and wears silver braces and Super Mario high-tops. He is 5 feet 2 and weighs 105 pounds even though he eats like a garbage disposal. Maybe that means a growth spurt is coming. Maybe that means he'll start shaving soon.

For now, the biggest thing about being small is that Tyler has to put lead into his race car to make the weight limit and, yes, you read that right.

Tyler is not only a race-car driver but one who needs artificial assistance to make weight so he can race against the middle-aged men who probably wish they were on Tyler's side of the weight problem.

One other thing about Tyler: He is a kid you've never heard of doing something thoughtful, heartwarming and meaningful as any local athlete you've cheered on TV.

He is responding to a tragedy with warmth and generosity.

"That very well could have been me and my car," he says. "And then my family would have to go through that. I was just thinking about that. Their world just stopped right there."

Tyler is talking about an awful dirt-track wreck at Valley Speedway in Grain Valley that left a 38-year-old man named Jeff Osborn dead. Osborn's wife, Tina, watched from the stands that night along with the couple's two boys - about Tyler's age.

Osborn's car flipped at about 100 mph and hit a pole. His car was revved up even after the crash, a bad sign to people who know racing. The news turned worse when a life-flight helicopter was called off. Osborn was pronounced dead that night at a nearby hospital.

Freak accident, they say. Nothing that could've been done. But racing is a tight community, and so Tyler and everyone else who won a race that night at Valley Speedway is donating his purse to Osborn's family.

Tyler's taking it a step further, actually. He and his family and friends held a fundraising raffle at Fuel in Overland Park. Everything they made, they gave to Osborn's family.

"I just think they can use the help," Tyler says.

If this sounds like someone very different than a 15-year-old boy who finished his freshman year at Olathe South High School, well, yeah. Tyler says he hears that just about every day, that he carries himself much older than his age, and maybe it's because he's waist-deep in exactly what he wants to do for the rest of his life.

And to bring up the obvious, yes, Tyler says he is fully aware of and understands the risks. He's reminded every race when he signs waiver forms and sees a wreck and especially when he sees the exact thing he loves to do lead to a man's death.

But the boy is hooked. This is something a lot of us might not understand, but maybe it's instructive to hear Osborn's kids are building a race track on their farm in northwest Missouri. The older one is already racing himself. The younger one will probably start soon.

Tyler has the same bug. He's a smart kid, mostly A's and B's in some advanced classes, and speaks of racing in the lingo of the adults. When he talks about his races, he says "we won" and "we kept going" and "our car" because he has a team of his grandparents and mother and family friends helping him out.

In his biggest dreams, Tyler will do this professionally. He's getting pretty good, too. His first year of racing go-karts he finished dead last, but the second year never lost a race. He wants to move up a size in cars and maybe catch on with one of the minor-league teams where NASCAR stars like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart got their starts.

In the meantime, this is an expensive hobby. Tyler's car cost about $10,000 and needs constant and sometimes expensive maintenance. His mother is disabled, on her worst days in a wheelchair and even on her best days unable to work. So Tyler lives with his grandparents, who cover the sizable portion of upkeep not covered by his winnings.

And about those winnings - Tyler planned on putting the $300 toward a new race suit and helmet.

That'll have to wait, at least for a bit, because this is the life that Tyler has chosen, the one where being this close to a fatal crash inspires him to put a sticker of the deceased on his race car and figure out a way to help.

Whatever your feelings about a kid not old enough to drive racing cars against adults, you do have to concede two points from Tyler's story.

This is exactly the kind of thing we hope to see from our famous athletes.

This is exactly the kind of thing we hope to see from ourselves.

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