Ian Sexton knew what he wanted to do when he was 5 years old.
He took his savings — even as a 5-year-old he had been taught the savings habit — and bought his first go-kart.
He knew other kids raced competitively, and that's what he wanted to do. His parents, Randy and Cynthia Sexton of Lexington, made him wait for four years. In his first race, at age 9, he placed second.
Then in 2012, Ian saw a NASCAR race, and his career path became clearer. He was going to race in NASCAR. He was also going to be an engineer. He thought the two would complement each other nicely.
Racing competitively at a young age is a subculture that even many fans of adult NASCAR might not recognize. Jeff Gordon won a Quarter Midget race car championship at 8. In April, Gordon's 6-year-old daughter Ella took a turn on the track in a quarter midget car, which can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.
Skills that lead to NASCAR careers are nourished young — and can be sponsored liberally.
Sexton's Bandolero car racing — one of four racing divisions overseen by U.S. Legend Cars International — is sponsored by Valvoline, with secondary sponsorships from the Bank of the Bluegrass and UAW Local 912.
Although many fans know NASCAR through its more established races and older drivers, younger racers are making their mark as well. Among them are Ryan Reed, 20, of Roush Fenway Racing; Erik Jones, 17, of Kyle Busch Motorsports, and Ryan Blaney, 20, of Penske Racing.
Already, at 12 years old, Ian is one of the best junior-level drivers in North America and has a coach, Matt Erich, in Indianapolis.
"He really helps me with how I drive on the track, when to know what is too much," Sexton said.
Sexton has never been seriously hurt in a race. Required equipment for junior drivers includes the Head and Neck Support, or HANS, device, which reduces head and neck injuries in racing crashes.
So far this year Ian has raced 10 times, winning twice. Last year he drove in 21 races, winning seven. The track on which he races is a quarter mile.
"Once you get going, there's no space between the leader and the rest of the field," Ian said, so maneuvers have to be precisely executed.
Ian will race June 28 in the Bandolero Nationals at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, in the track's 1/4-mile "Thunder Ring" flat racing surface.
Bandolero racing has two formal divisions, for ages 8-11, and 12-and-up. But Bandolero cars can be used by anyone who can fit into their snug confines.
"I've raced against 50-year-old men," Ian said.
Winners in Bandolero races generally go about 60 to 65 mph, he said.
Ian is ninth among 61 racers in his Bandolero category in the United States and Canada.
He is extraordinarily poised for 12, deliberate with his words. He plans to race at the adult NASCAR level, but he also wants to get a degree in aerospace engineering and is a fan of the car-centric TV program Top Gear.
He is a straight-A student at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School, where he participates in the student technology program. Ian sees racing and education about the mechanics of transportation as complementary. "It helps you understand the cars better."
Ian and his fellow competitors on the U.S. Legend Cars International Bandolero circuit drive what the U.S. Legend Cars International website refers to as "thumping Briggs & Stratton 570cc Vanguard engine mounted behind the driver" with "small modifications ... made to the engine to bring the once 20HP stock engine to nearly 30HP."
Sexton credits his parents with helping him in his NASCAR ambitions, telling him they would support him for as long as he wants to continue — and if he ever wants to quit racing, that's OK, too.
"They're very supportive, and I couldn't do it without them," Ian said.
Ian's mother, Cynthia, gives credit to others.
"He's had really great teachers," she said, particularly at Squires Elementary.
About her son's maturity of expression she said: "I think he was like that when he was small."
Ian just finished sixth grade. In addition to race cars, he's fascinated with all facets of transportation and would also like to learn to fly an airplane.