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NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Colin Heim drives through turn one during a hobby stock heat race June 16 at WaKeeney Speedway.

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Garrett Hager slides into turn one during a hobby stock heat race June 16 at WaKeeney Speedway.

A jump on the competition

Hopping into a dirt car, grabbing the wheel and driving to the front is never an easy thing.

If a person doesn't have any racing experience prior to doing it, the chances are a driver will have to pay his dues before becoming competitive -- let alone, successful.

But if a person has racing experience in some form, the transition to a larger car might not be as difficult to make.

It still will take time to get to the front consistently, but the learning curve isn't as large.

For former go-kart drivers and one motocross driver, that past racing experience is paying dividends on the 3âÑ8-mile dirt ovals of northwest Kansas.

Trenton Kleweno turned his share of laps on smaller tracks in the state for many years. He racked up several wins while becoming one of the better kart drivers in the state.

Now, Kleweno is finding success in his early seasons in the IMCA Northern sport mod class after catching on to the differences.

"It took me a little while to get used to everything,"  the Hays driver said. "It was totally different. There was more power and suspension. With the go-kart, you don't want to slide into the corners. You turn left, and the car goes left. With the sport mod, there's so many more things that can go wrong and things you have to do. With the go-kart, you could have a lead foot all the way around. With the sport mod, you can't put it all on the throttle. You have to use the brake."

Kleweno has had some bumps along the way, but he's caught on to the larger car quickly.

So have a handful of other former go-kart drivers, including Chris and Colin Heim and Clay Money. All cut their teeth as a driver in go-karts and eventually moved into larger cars.

"Where all karters get it better is that they learn a lot with a go-kart,"  Kleweno said. "You can learn how to set things up and how to be a smooth driver and where to run. You know where to be at on the track and how much space to put between you and another driver. Go-karters push the envelope on how things go. ... With go-karts, you can be right on someone's butt and try to screw them up anyway you can to get around them. That's kind of what you can try to do in the sport mod, too."

Chris Heim had approximately 50 wins in his go-kart racing career from 2004 to 2010 before switching to a sport mod.

Heim said his experience was valuable in the go-kart class.

He's a firm believer most drivers who want to start racing larger cars should begin in a smaller form.

"My honest opinion is it would be nice if they could start at a younger age and then work their way through it,"  he said. "But that's not for everyone."

While go-karts are much smaller than an IMCA division car, it's helped Heim learn the ins and outs of racing. It's also given him a feel for what is happening on four wheels.

"What always helped me is just being able to feel the car with your butt," Heim said. "You knew when it was slipping or not. You learn a feel for the car."

Heim's younger brother, Colin, is a rookie in the hobby stock class this season. He's jumped right into the mix and consistently ran up front most races, even capturing his first feature win a few weeks ago.

"With him when he was younger, I would hound him about stuff and about picking up the pace and to be on people's butts on starts and restarts," Chris Heim said about his younger brother, who's still in high school. "At his first race of the year in WaKeeney, I couldn't have been prouder of him for the way he drove and finished second."

Brothers Travis and Dylan Sherfick also began their racing careers with go-karts. Travis then moved onto the stock car class, where he found success. Now, he's one of the top modified drivers in the state.

Dylan jumped right into a modified after racing go-karts. It took a few seasons for him to get a feel for the larger ride, but he's since developed into one of the state's best, too. Both Sherfick brothers are consistently at the front of modified features now.

Garrett Hager of Hays hung around Travis Sherfick years ago. But Hager didn't follow that line. Instead, he was a seasoned champion in motocross racing.

"(Travis Sherfick) came and watched some motocross races, and I went and watched him," Hager said. "Then I got an itch to do it, and I jumped in and did it."

Hager competed frequently in a motocross circuit in Nebraska, winning a pair of championships in 2009 and 2010.

Then he made the leap into a hobby stock.

"It gave me a racing mentality,"  Hager said. "I knew what I had to do to win. I got a feel on my butt for what the bike was doing. It's the same type of feeling in a car a little bit."

While Hager's bike had only one shock on the rear, his hobby stock has more. That made some of the transition a bit harder as far as setup was concerned.

"There's similar comparisons between the two,"  Hager said. "But the setup, I was out of my ballpark on it at first when I got into a car."

Hager started out in an older hobby stock and now has a newer Bart Chassis he keeps at the front of the field. It's a car built by Marty Barth, who lives north of Hays and has built winning chassis for many drivers in the region.

He credits Barth with helping him get a better feel for the car and setup, and Barth can be seen hanging around Hager's pits at races providing insight and knowledge.

His previous racing experience on the bike, though, was a big reason he's made a quick adjustment, he said.

Hager sees the same thing with other drivers, too.

"It helps them guys out a lot,"  he said. "It's the same thing. You get a feel for it in your butt because karts don't have any suspension either. It's down a scale a bit.

"They knew what they were getting themselves into, too. A lot of those guys were good go-kart racers like the Heims and Sherficks."

While switching classes might provide some similarities for drivers, they also know they need to learn another key element -- patience. Going from winning frequently on a go-kart or bike to winning in a larger car at the same rate doesn't translate as well.

"For me, the hardest part was learning to be patient,"  Kleweno said. "You have to wait for the car to do its thing and others to get out of the way. I had to slow myself down, and I continue to learn that.

"From being as successful as I was in go-karts and winning a national championship and expecting to win every night and be in the top five to being there every once in a while to struggling at the back of the pack, it was tough. I had to learn to set up the race car and what to do at the track. The hardest part was not running up front."

That early racing experience helps build a competitive spirit as well. That's a key component for any driver at any stage of racing.

"I expected a lot out of myself," Heim said. "I expected to pick it up quickly. I have a real competitive nature, and I hate to lose."

NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net