Tim Benz: 13-year-old Franklin Park kart star looking for major win
It could’ve been really bad.
A blow to the face after a Little League game. Right around the eye. He got knocked out.
“I was walking home, drinking my apple juice,” said Franklin Park’s Luca Mars, describing the worst injury of his life. “And a girl on the swings with cleats hit me right in the eye.”
The 13-year-old kart-racing champ lists that as his biggest mishap. Not one of his three racing-related ambulance trips, including the time he flew out of his car at high speed on the final turn and skidded across the pavement.
“I don’t know if my dad freaked out,” Mars said of his parents’ reactions to the spill. “My mom wasn’t there. But another time I crashed when my mom was there, and she flipped out.”
Mars wasn’t rattled by the wreck. He was just mad he didn’t finish the race.
Cleated girls on swing sets at Little League fields? Different story.
“So I guess that’s the justification,” laughed Brett Mars, Luca’s father.
Justifying — or embracing — the inherent dangers connected with auto racing is what has made Mars one of the fast-rising stars of the sport.
About to enter the eighth grade at Ingomar Middle School, Mars is making a name for himself in the racing community.
Mars drives for Speed Concepts Racing. Mike Speed — whose son, Scott, raced on the Formula 1 circuit — formed the group. And he could tell Mars’ talent was special.
“A lot of these kids with talent, they are born with it,” Speed said. “He was one that you could tell. We just provide him with really good solid equipment and let him learn what he needs to do.”
Mars will race in the Rotax “Stars and Stripes Open” Aug. 2-4 at Wampum’s Pittsburgh International Race Complex.
“If he’s not one of the guys to beat, then we are doing something wrong with the equipment,” Speed said. “I do believe he is going to be one of the guys up front.”
If Mars’ car wins there, a ticket will be punched for him to participate in the ROK Cup Superfinal in October in Italy.
Mars finished sixth in that event last year in Brazil.
“I’ve been testing the car lately. I’ve been doing really good laps. I’ve learned a lot,” Mars said.
Mars’ father — who raced competitively as an adult — says his son’s consistency is what has allowed him to climb through the junior ranks.
“He finished in the top 3 about 88% of the time,” Brett Mars said. “It’s not about winning races. It’s about being consistent and not tearing up cars. So that’s the focus we put on. And it’s starting to reward.”
Mars has been driving since he was 6. He won the first race he entered. So he had some polish heading into the kart junior division, which is for 13- to 15-year-olds.
Having not yet hit his 14th birthday, Mars is already making waves against older drivers. And that hasn’t gone over so well. At times, he says, some older kids may have tried to wreck him out of spite.
“It doesn’t go over too well,” Mars said. “My first junior race, I was winning, and I got crashed.”
It’s not all track wars, trophies and globetrotting to exotic destinations for Mars. He admits missing up to 50 days of school isn’t as much fun as it sounds.
He’s relegated to playing a lot of catch-up for his assignments online and not getting to hang out with his friends as much as most 13-year-olds.
That balance could be even more difficult to strike as he moves up into the senior division, which corresponds with a more demanding high school course load.
Brett Mars says Luca’s career arc and the ability to mesh that with North Allegheny’s educational requirements will dictate whether he stays in the public school system. Or, he could go the private-school or home-school route.
But, pfft! C’mon! Details, details.
He gets to win money (sometimes) while driving 75 mph without a harness in 320-pound speed machines.
At 13 years old.
That’s three years before he can even approach 45 mph on McKnight Road as a regular licensed driver. That has to result in lots of street cred with your friends, right?
“It’s really cool, really fun,” Mars admitted.
A victory in Wampum in two weeks will give him bragging rights well beyond the halls of Ingomar Middle School.
He could boast all the way to Italy.