It is time for Todd Cray, 17, to go to work. He climbs into his Buick Skyhawk and drives off—accelerating to a tire-burning 160 mph. But there will be no speeding ticket for him. High school senior Todd's after-school job is racing cars; he's the youngest driver in NASCAR's 16-race Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series. And his parents, Mary Ann and Barry Cray of Trenton, N.J., are not alarmed at their only son's running with such a fast crowd. After all, Todd has been racing since he was five.
In 11 years of racing quarter-midget cars—they resemble scaled-down Indy Cars of the '50s—Todd has won roughly 700 of 800 races. He once simultaneously held 22 records at almost as many tracks. He has won the Grand Nationals, the Quarter Midgets of America's annual championship, five times. The most memorable of those titles came in 1984, in Meriden, Conn., when he drove from last on the starting grid to first in seven consecutive races to claim championships in both the Senior and Class B divisions. And all this was accomplished before Todd was old enough to earn a New Jersey driver's license.
But by last season, Todd, then 16, was getting anxious to move up to more challenging racing. So he and his parents sat down and mapped out the next phase of his career. The plan called for Todd to obtain a license to race in NASCAR-sanctioned events at the earliest age possible, which just happened to be 16. The series Todd would enter, the C/DD, is contested on NASCAR oval tracks ranging in length from? mile (Southside Speedway in Richmond) to 2� miles ( Daytona International Speedway). But the Crays decided Todd would enter no more than five events in '87 to keep him eligible for the NASCAR Rookie of the Year award in '88.
All of which seemed fairly straightforward, except for one thing. C/DD cars can hit speeds of 160 mph, more than twice what Todd was used to in quarter-midget racing. Obviously, he would have to learn fast, so to speak.
The Crays sent their son off to a school for aspiring oval-track drivers run by legendary NASCAR driver and hell-raiser Buck Baker at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. "He was about the most aggressive little fella I've ever seen on a racetrack," Baker says of his young student. "That's what it takes to win. I let my son, Randy, run with him, and Todd stayed right with him—inside, outside, everywhere." Even more impressive, the younger Baker was driving a Winston Cup car powered by a 366-cu-in. V-8, while Cray was driving his four-cylinder Buick. Steve Porter, a former instructor at Baker's school, says of his one-time pupil, "Todd has the ability to understand what the car is doing."
Cray has been demonstrating that ability since his go-kart days. Even then, five-year-old Todd would tell his dad what the kart needed to improve its handling. At first, Barry was dubious. "But I made the adjustments he wanted," he says, "and right away you could see from the stopwatch that Todd had picked up speed." That's when Dad learned to have faith in his son's advice.
But where did young Cray pick up the ability to hit an apex perfectly or to squeeze on the power at just the right point to pull a car out of a turn at maximum acceleration? "There's some talent," Todd says, "but basically it's been the repetitions, the hard work."
The repetitions and work have been orchestrated by Barry, who sat Todd down behind the wheel of a go-kart at age three. While Dad straddled the kart to control the gas and brakes, his son steered. Once that was mastered, the next stop was the big open parking lot of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Trenton.
"We worked on smoothing out his speed," Barry recalls. "You can't jerk the wheel and you can't go through corners at a big angle. I set up pylons and had him go around them—nice and sm-o-o-o-th. Then I took out a pylon here and there so he could get up some speed. Soon he had the pattern drilled into his mind. Then I let him put the pedal down.
"We had 'races.' I put a megaphone tail pipe on his car so I could hear the instant when he accelerated. If I didn't hear the pedal go down when I gave him the green flag to start the race, then I knew he hadn't been anticipating. If I heard the pedal go down at the right time, I would give Todd a checkered flag to carry around the track like a winner—if he got his speed up."