Earnhardt family has new champion

There was one surefire way to melt the demeanor of the late Dale Earnhardt. Just ask him about his new granddaughter, Karsyn.

Boy, if he could see her now.

Karsyn Elledge was just 5 months old when the seven-time champion was killed while racing in the 2001 Daytona 500. Recently, Elledge, 12, won her first Mini Outlaw title in Box Stock division at Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, N.C. — a one-sixth mile dirt track about one hour north of Charlotte.

In typical tweener fashion, Elledge tweeted: "Box stock champ! 125 is great, but we still have work to do. We are getting there. #happygirl #bestfeelingever #champion #minioutlaws"

Two days later, Elledge’s accomplishment had yet to set in. As she finished her homework outside of her mother Kelley Earnhardt-Miller’s office at JR Motorsports, Elledge had mixed emotions about winning the championship but losing the season finale to 17-year-old Ford Martin.

“I was leading the race and I was getting passed,” Elledge said. “My seat belts were tight and then just (gestures ‘opened’). (On) one of the lap belts, you clip it and then Velcro it. I was in a clump of cars thinking, ‘With my luck, something’s going to happen to me before I can get off the racetrack.’ I pulled off in the hot pit and they buckled me really fast. I had to start from the back and I ended up finishing sixth.

“I wasn’t very proud calling myself a champion because I finished sixth. I only had two or three karts behind me. I was the champion and in the end it was great, but why should I call myself a champion? I’m over it.”

Earnhardt-Miller, a former racer herself, understands her daughter’s disappointment. Many drivers believe they’re only as good as their last race.

“She doesn’t like to get beat, that’s for sure,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “To me, she’s very fiery about it, energetic. Sometimes I can see that she’s a little cocky about it but she’s just kind of sassy. She’s got a little fire about her and I’m a mom so I’m going to critique it a lot more than people on the outside because I always want her to be a good girl.”

So where does Elledge’s competitive drive originate?

“Some people say my mom,” Elledge replied. “My mom is crazy competitive. She’s a racer mom. Most people say my grandpa. So I guess I’m going to go with my grandpa.”

Elledge has champion bloodlines on both sides of the family. Certainly, the Earnhardt lineage is better documented from patriarch Ralph to her grandfather Dale and her uncle Dale Jr. But her “Grampy,” Terry Elledge, built engines at Richard Childress Racing during part of Earnhardt’s title tenure. In his recent role as crew chief, he led Karsyn to her first championship.

Her father, Jimmy Elledge, also worked at RCR on Earnhardt’s No. 3 team before venturing out into the NASCAR ranks. He is currently the crew chief for Justin Allgaier at Turner Motorsports. When he first moved to North Carolina from California, Elledge raced Late Models. That’s where he first met and competed against Kelley Earnhardt. Elledge has often referred to his former wife as the most talented of Dale Earnhardt’s three children on the racetrack.

Earnhardt-Miller humbly acknowledges that she doesn’t “have the stats” to back that claim. However, Earnhardt-Miller believes that same tenacity she inherited from her father runs through Karsyn as well.

“I think she has a lot of similarity there,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “Just her drive — on the racetrack she’s really aggressive. She’ll put it right in there and won’t let anyone take an inch . . . ”

“Except for Ford,” Elledge interjects. “I have to be careful.”

For Elledge, understanding the competition is all part of the learning process. While she’s only raced for the last three seasons, her competitive nature has been tested in the past through a variety of activities such as horseback riding, dance, cheerleading and basketball.

“I still like to ride a lot, but my bigger thing right now is racing,” Elledge said. “I don’t know really what flipped the light switch. I think it was when my dad took me to his race, I saw there was a girl there and asked, ‘Can I do that too?’ I was interested immediately.

“At first, I looked at it as normal. It was just other people that raced. It was just recently that I realized this really is big. I have an opportunity that most people don’t have.”

The lessons on and off the track have been many as Elledge rises through the ranks. Although Millbridge Speedway recently added a beginner Box Stock division, in which Elledge’s sister Kennedy, 7, currently runs, the Box Stock cars that Karsyn debuted in are 290 pounds with dirt-bike engines that reach approximately 40 miles per hour.

In Elledge’s first outing at Millbridge she outran a woman who was in her late 20s.

“It was kind of weird,” Elledge admits. “She really didn’t talk to me a lot. It was like ‘Wow, she just got beat by a 10-year-old. I’m sorry.”

Over the last two seasons, Elledge has added the 125 series with 350-pound karts which reach 50 mph to her schedule. Racing on dirt has allowed Elledge to develop car control at an early age due to the variations in the dirt and how dramatically the surface changes.

“The funny thing about racing on dirt is you can go to the same track every week, but you won’t know what track it is until you get there because it’s different every time,” Elledge said. “It can be smooth as butter one week and rough the next or it can be in the middle. It can be dry or slick.

“You never know until you get there. The groove is the same most of the time. We’ll go out and test. The other week I made hundreds of laps — just trying to figure out where I needed to run, where I could get faster. Practice makes perfect, so I guess we’ll have to see if it pays off.”

In order to raise the bar beyond the talent level of Millbridge, Elledge accompanies her father to tracks in California where she races against much deeper fields. There, Elledge is grateful that each class had age limits so she wasn’t “racing against a 16-year-old or a 4-year-old.”

“It’s definitely a lot more competitive,” Elledge said. “Outlaw Kart racing is really big out there. It’s huge. There’s a lot of people out there. At Millbridge, we have one main event, we have one feature. Out there, they have A-Mains, B-Mains, C-Mains, sometimes even D-Mains if they have that many karts. It’s just that popular out there.

“They didn’t have beginner when I started and they only had three karts in the Box Stock class when I started. It wasn’t like it was dangerous when I did it.”

Jimmy Elledge understands there’s a fine line in his daughter’s progression. While he doesn’t want to push her too quickly, the elder Elledge doesn’t want Karsyn to become complacent either.

“We’ve been trying to keep the challenges in front of her steeper,” Jimmy Elledge said. “When she gets good at something, we try to push her along a little faster. I kind of had to push her into the 125s. She thought it was just a big motor car and it was going to be scary. But I knew that we weren’t getting anywhere with her where we were. The next step in her development was going to come from running something else — something faster. That would make the Box Stocks seemingly easier.

“Her friends in California are really driving her to the next level because they’re all so much more advanced. They’re running the Box Stock division at 5 and 6 years old. They’re running 250s at 8 and 9 and then 500s in the summertime when they’re 12 and 13 years old. Having friends that are running the higher classes are making her want to progress and move up faster. She’s asking to do those things now — especially the 500.”

Elledge has tested an Open division kart which weighs 430 pounds, including the driver, and uses 500cc engines. On the same night that Elledge won the Box Stock Series at Millbridge, her father was crowned the Open champion.

“It was actually really cool. It felt nice that both me and my dad won,” Elledge said. “I guess you can call it an Elledge sweep — minus Kennedy.”

Ironically, the burden was heavier on her father, who was trying to balance the responsibility of teaching his daughter about the nuances of points racing and not taking unnecessary risks while keeping an eye on his own series battle as the season wound down.

“I tried to mold her and tell her we needed to start thinking about the big picture — running for the championship,” Jimmy Elledge said. “How do you tell an 11-year-old how to do that? It took some time to absorb it. Then the emotions started kicking in. ‘How cool would it be if she could make this a part of history?’

“As it got closer and closer it got very stressful for me because I wanted her to be able to accomplish this. I wanted to try to guide her in the right direction without putting so much pressure on her that it would derail her from the job at hand.

“I tried to be really easy with it and ease her into it. She had it locked in by the final race but the race before that and the race before that were real nailbiters for me. Everything was close. She had a real shot at it. We just didn’t need to make any mistakes. That’s what I was worried about. She had a good chance of winning it. I didn’t want to lose it for her.”

Earlier in the season, Karsyn was penalized 100 points for her car being too light.

Understandably, Jimmy Elledge was cognizant of not repeating previous mistakes.

“It was evolving into something special — and very high priority,” Elledge said. “But I had to keep reminding myself that we were running for the go-kart championship at Millbridge, we’re not going for the Sprint Cup championship.

“Just to go there last week knowing that she had won the championship was really cool. It put more emphasis on my class . . . I was able to concentrate on my class. She was in good shape. My class was pretty close. Then a little part of me wanted to win the championship as well to be able to do it with her. I was able to win the championship when she won her first championship, how cool would all that be?

“It’s all still sinking in. I think she’s done something really special. Now I have to teach her how to enjoy it a little bit and give her a little confidence for the accomplishments she made. It’s a huge accomplishment. It ranks right up there with anything I’ve ever done in racing, seeing your own child winning their first championship.”

Elledge has also taken an active interest in working on her own equipment. She realizes understanding how her car works will help her solve immediate problems and offer her crew chiefs solid feedback from the seat to improve her performance when it counts.

“I actually learn from experiences at the racetrack,” Elledge said. “My car just stopped one time on the track and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ An ignition plug came off. Now I know if my car shuts off, I can check that or check this or check something else. It definitely helps a lot, because when you know where everything is and if something breaks or falls off, you know where it goes.

“If your car is loose you can say, ‘It’s loose’ and they might know what to fix. But a better way is to say you can adjust this or you can adjust that to help this. But it definitely helps to know the parts.”

Elledge has now begun the Winter Series at Millbridge — a five-race interim run before the real season begins in the spring. What path Elledge elects beyond running Mini-Outlaws is strictly up to her.

“It’s starting to sink into me that it is something that I could do,” Elledge said. “I’m really not quite sure I want to do it yet. I do want to move up to maybe like to a Late Model or something like that. I’ll see how that goes because I’ve never driven asphalt before and I don’t know what it’s like. I think a Late Model can be as close as I get for now. I can’t get into NASCAR right now — I wouldn’t want to anyway.

“But I want to try that out and see if it’s something I want to do. Right now, it’s really fun. And I want to keep it that way because I don’t want to get pressured and I don’t want to get overwhelmed because my week is busy enough right now. The racetrack schedule can pretty hectic but I can handle it on a weekly basis pretty well.

“The best advice I’ve been given was to have fun. Every time before my Grandpa pushes me off or starts my car up he tells me everything I need to do, but most of all have fun.”