Zach Lightfoot has left a disability in the dust
Published 12:12 pm Saturday, January 16, 2016
There’s no secret to why Zach Lightfoot enjoys racing go-karts.
“Honestly, I like going fast,” he said in between bites of a blizzard at Dairy Queen in Windsor.
Driving the mini-cars is not merely a temporary childhood pastime. Since Zach first stepped into one 3 1/2 years ago, he’s gone farther and further with the activity to the point that he’s seriously planning a career with NASCAR.
That ambition has a modest beginning. His father, Tom, said that the family — including mother Amber and daughter Madison — had gone camping in the Adirondacks those few years ago and came across a go-kart racing course. Everyone was taken aback when Zach asked if he could try one. They got an even bigger surprise at how well he did then.
“I finished first and passed my family,” Zach said matter-of-factly. “I had no previous experience.”
“He was so laser-focused,” Tom remembered.
All that might seem like beginner’s luck, but there’s an ingredient to the story that gives it a unique flavor.
When he was 5 years old, Zach was diagnosed having Asperger’s Syndrome, which is considered to be an autism spectrum disorder as defined at www.autismspeaks.org. In his case, the condition is on the “high functioning” end of that range. Behavior, communication and relations with other people can be affected.
This was learned a couple of years after examinations indicated he had a 25 percent delay in his development. Most notably, the child didn’t speak until he was 4 1/2 years old. Another symptom was Zach’s intense reaction to loud noises. A trip to Walmart, for example, could put him in a tizzy.
Yet, there he was at the racetrack, 8 years old and driving round and round to the sound of buzzing engines that are anything but subdued.
Though everyone was thrilled with this initial success, the parents wisely didn’t immediately indulge their son with a kart of his own. But after proving himself again and again in karts at Langley Speedway, they moved up to the next level by participating in Hampton Roads Kart Club at the track.
Also in 2012, Smithfield Family Automotive Racing was formed by Tom and Amber as a way to professionalize the racing.
By 2013, the 9-year-old won nine out of 13 races. He even got the 2013 HRKC JR 1 Sportsman Championship and Rookie of the Year honors.
In 2014, Zach moved up to Bandoleros, scaled-down versions of NASCAR automobiles, and earned the titles of the Langley Speedway Rookie of the Year and Track Champion. The transition to the bandeoleros has been a way to prove to himself and others, that his skills and past victories haven’t just been what he calls “a fluke.”
In October 2015, Zach became the Langley Speedway INEX Bandolero Track Champion for the second consecutive year. He also earned his third karting title.
Come Saturday, Jan. 30, Zach will be awarded the 2015 INEX VA State Bandolero Championship at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Tom has kept statistics through it all. In the past three years, the boy has participated in 75 races with 40 wins, 15 in the top 3; 12 in the top 5; four in the top 10 and four in the top 15.
“Racing has brought me out of my shell,” the boy said, acknowledging that the sound of the motors isn’t disturbing. Indeed, the loud buzz of people around at the DQ didn’t phase him in the least.
“God’s grace” is how he attributes this change in his life.
When people ask how all this is possible, Zach will reply, “I get my inspiration from God.”
“We always pray together before racing,” Tom added. “We use it as a motivator.”
To help along that divine intervention, father and son work together in maintaining the two vehicles the family now owns.
“If I’m in the garage, you’re in the garage,” Tom said, adding that Zach pulls up a stool to watch and learns what he cannot yet physically handle; otherwise he’s engaged in cleaning tire rims or whatever needs to be done.
Though there have been many successes, there are also losses and he’ll admittedly “get a little upset and disappointed in myself.”
To discover what might have gone wrong, video recordings are made of each race, and they’re studied intently.
“I remember my opponents’ weaknesses and remember them,” Zach said.
Tom remembered an example of his son’s confidence: “’You get me on the track, and I’ll get it to the front,’ he told me.”
The family’s life is not all on the racetrack, though. The nearly 12 1/2-year-old student at Georgie D. Tyler Middle School also excels in academics; he was recognized the school board meeting in November.
There are other pastimes as well.
“I always build Legos in my spare time when I’m not busy hunting.”
As mentioned above, Zach takes his racing very seriously.
“I want to get into NASCAR,” he said.
In the meantime, there are other races to consider. If you ever go to see Zach race, you’ll know him by his trademark number 7 and the unmistakable 2010 Camaro Synergy Green color of his outfit and vehicle.
After awhile, you’ll forget about his diagnosed condition.
Zach said that he doesn’t think of having Asperger’s as a disability.
“It’s an ability!”
To follow Zach, visit weww.zachlightfootmotorsports.com. The Twitter account is @sfaracing; YouTube at SFARacer; and there’s also a Facebook page.