16-year-old thrives in GRC Lites
For the mother of a child prodigy, there is likely a moment when she realizes her child is not like the other children. For Shelley deJong, mother of rallycross driver Mitchell deJong, that moment came when Mitchell was in first grade.
"We think there is something wrong with your son," Mitchell's teacher told her bluntly one day. "When the other children are outside at recess, Mitchell stays inside and does his homework."
Perplexed, Shelley deJong asked her son why he didn't want to play outside with the other kids. His response? "You told me I could only go to the go-kart track when my homework was finished, so it's done. Let's go!"
And just like that, the journey of raising an aspiring car racer had begun. Over the course of the next 10 years, the deJong household in Temecula, Calif., which also includes Mitchell's dad, Vince, and brother, Ryan, has revolved around one thing: cars. Those cars have come in all shapes and sizes, from karts to mini-trucks to big trucks to buggies and now rallycross cars. DeJong's racing accolades have come in all shapes and sizes, too.
In 2007, while his peers toted Star Wars lunch boxes off to the third grade, deJong won the Apex Kart Open and the CORR Off Road Trophy Kart Championship. What followed was a landslide of championship titles: LEMX Off Road Trophy Kart, BITD Primm Desert, Traxxas TORC Off Road Trophy Kart, Lucas Oil Off Road Modified Kart and TORC Pro Buggy. And that's just naming a few. In all, deJong's trophy case holds nine championship titles from 2007 to 2012. Not bad for a kid who turned 16 on Sunday and still doesn't have an actual road license.
Success can come with a price tag, though. At the end of the sixth grade, Mitchell had to stop attending public school as his schedule grew too demanding. He replaced it with the more solitary substitute of online classes and homeschooling. For Mom and Dad, it has meant juggling work schedules to hit the road almost every weekend. In 2012, the closest race they attended was in Texas.
While some might call this a sacrifice, the deJongs wouldn't have it any other way. "We just love it," Shelley says. So far, their efforts have paid off.
And they're not done yet.
So what does a kid with nine championship titles in his pocket do next?
"When I first saw RallyCross debut at X Games, I knew right away I wanted to do that," deJong says. "I just never thought it would be a reality."
Luckily for deJong, racing rallycross has become a reality sooner rather than later because of the "Lites" class -- a feeder series on the Global Rallycross Championship that is debuting this season with six stops. Using cars similar to the SuperCars driven by stars such as Tanner Foust, Brian Deegan and Toomas Heikkinen, but with half the horsepower, the intention of the series is to give young drivers a platform to gain experience and learn the sport. It's also a chance for the GRC to create its own stars from the bottom up instead of banking on the appeal of top athletes from other sports and disciplines.
That's where someone like deJong comes in -- a young face with heaps of potential.
"He's a professional. He knows what it takes to win," says Chip Pankow, CEO of GRC. "He's captured the attention of some major sponsors, and when you have someone who can win in one discipline, they can figure out how to win in another. He learns very quickly, which is what you look for."
Pankow didn't even have to try to sell the Lites series to deJong, though; deJong found them. It was his calling, in essence.
But with four races down, deJong, the youngest driver on the roster, has yet to post a win. His toughest competitors -- a posse of Scandinavians -- haven't let him. When the GRC wanted to recruit drivers to the series, they promoted heavily in places such as Sweden and Finland -- countries steeped in rallycross tradition. Here drivers get behind the wheel at a young age in disciplines such as karting and folk racing before moving up to feeder series for the World Rally Championship and European Rallycross Championship. Drivers who succeed on the WRC are especially well regarded in Europe.
So while the GRC may be on American soil, its roster is stacked with teenage drivers such as Joni Wiman of Finland, a protégé of WRC legend Marcus Gronholm; Sebastian Eriksson, a former Swedish junior rally champion; Kevin Eriksson, son of Andreas Eriksson, OMSE's team principal and the builder of the Lites cars; and Alexander Westlund, a veteran of the Swedish folk race circuit.
All of them drive like they look: cool and collected. Wiman's style is particularly reminiscent of Gronholm. His ability to get out in front right away and stay out of trouble is the reason he's captured four consecutive wins this season.
DeJong has had to work hard to hang with the foursome, but so far he's been up to the task. At X Games Los Angeles in August and the last GRC stop in Atlanta, he captured a pair of second-place finishes. It was his performance in Atlanta that turned heads, though. There he showed a glimpse of what to expect from him in the future.
With Wiman out ahead in first, the real battle in Atlanta was between Sebastian Eriksson and deJong for second. While Eriksson made up time on the pavement, deJong commanded the jump. "He was passing people in the air over the jump on the outside line," Pankow says. "That's him taking his truck experience and using it to his advantage. He's like Travis [Pastrana] that way; that's where he makes up time. He's not intimidated."
DeJong's efforts and doggedness on the track paid off: He passed Eriksson just yards before the finish for second. In the process, he aided the main objective of the Lites series.
"We didn't want to do a series where the cars didn't look fast and it was too far a jump to the SuperCars," Pankow says. "I think Atlanta proved we hit on the right formula. They really put on a great show."
With two stops left (including the next round at 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday at Charlotte, N.C.), deJong is just now picking up momentum. Ask him how badly he wants to win, though, and he'll respond only modestly.
"I just want to do the best I can," he says.
But he doesn't train like someone who is happy just doing his best. When he's not behind the wheel, deJong is a staple at Icon Sports Performance in Temecula, where he works with personal trainer Charles Dao. He's also conscious about nutrition, reading labels and passing on typical teenage staples like In-N-Out Burger.
"Sometimes I tell Mitchell, 'You know, it's OK to eat frozen yogurt,'" his mom says with a sigh.
And then there is the mental preparation: hours spent playing I-racing, a racing simulator, and hours watching YouTube videos of rally drivers such as French legend Sebastien Loeb. These activities are interrupted only by a passion to tinker. Like his father, a mechanical engineer who builds special ops vehicles for the U.S. Border Patrol, deJong has a knack for things mechanical. When he raced on the TORC series, he frequently worked on his own car.
"I think it's important to understand how your own car works," notes Mitchell, who considers it one of his strengths.
Perhaps the only thing that Mitchell is doing these days that's typical of someone his age is studying for his road permit. And even that he takes seriously, getting up early every morning to do the prerequisites online.
"Now he likes to tell me what rules I'm breaking when I drive," his mom says with a laugh.
As the Lites series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway, Wiman will be the man to beat. He has, after all, dominated all four races this season. But the Lites series wasn't created to be a one-man show.
"Joni started at a higher level," says Pankow. "He's good. He usually gets out front and stays there. This is a developmental series, though, where guys are learning quickly. He's been able to check out, but it's not always going to stay that way."
Especially with drivers such as deJong taking a calculated approach to the sport. In Charlotte, don't be surprised if deJong is Wiman's biggest challenger, especially on the dirt. Whether he upsets the Finn remains to be seen. What is for certain is that deJong will "do his best." And when he's done "doing his best," throwing his car sideways and boosting tabletop jumps at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he'll climb back into the passenger seat of his mother's car. Then, as they make their way home, he might have to remind her that she's driving too fast.