PENDLETON — When Ayrton Houk was 2, he was already wanting to go fast.
A junior at Cathedral High School, he’s 17 now and hasn’t grown out of that phase.
He’s only wanted to go faster and faster and faster.
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That led the McCordsville teen to Pendleton, putting him on a path that, he hopes, ends up with him being an IndyCar driver.
Houk has hooked up with Brad Hayes, a 1992 graduate of Pendleton Heights High School, who is a veteran driver who runs an F1600 program headquartered in his hometown.
“I definitely want to be a race car driver in the future, as a profession,” Houk said. “One way we’re getting there is to go with Brad next year. We’re going to hit some of the races with him and develop the skills in a non-winged car before moving into the bigger cars with down force.
“If I’m getting paid to drive a race car that would be amazing,” he said. “I really don’t care what kind of race car it is, but the main goal would be IndyCar on this path.”
Ayrton, who was named after the famed Formula 1 star Ayrton Senna, started riding a motorcycle when he was 3. When he was 8, he began racing GoKarts.
His father, Kevin Houk, said when Ayrton was 2, he told him that if he could ride his bike around the neighborhood without training wheels, he could get a small motorcycle.
He was able to do that, and though Kevin said Ayrton was pretty scared when he first got his motor bike, he’s adapted quite well to the need for speed.
In 2019, he was the Southern Indiana Racing Association (SIRA) Junior Driver of the Year and the SIRA Yamaha Junior Series Champion for Karting. It led him to the Lucas Oil School of Racing, which put him on the path to Mel Kenyon Midgets and now the F1600 with Hayes.
As a 17-year old racing midgets on dirt tracks with some veteran drivers, he finished fourth in the series points race, consistently finishing in the top 5. He was second in the Rookie of the Year standings and was voted Most Improved Driver.
Ayrton got a head start for next season’s F1600 run by competing in the final weekend of the 2020 season in October. In his inaugural competition he earned a podium finish (Top 3) on the Saturday and won the race on the Sunday.
Hayes said he was hoping to get Ayrton in the car earlier, but COVID-19 relegated the teen’s first laps to iRacing.
An F1600 car has an IndyCar-like design without the wings and power, though Houk was running 130 to 135 mph in the races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, a track that is annually on the IndyCar circuit.
“I definitely exceeded my expectations for the weekend,” Ayrton said. “I went into that weekend hoping to get a podium on Sunday.”
It was the last race of the season. Houk and Hayes are going to team up next year with hopes to run multiple races — all on road courses — and qualify for the national championship, which takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Ayrton wants to continue to run midgets — which is an oval track series — next year, too, with the hopes of developing versatility as a driver.
The F1600 series is where current IndyCar star Josef Newgarden got his start. It’s the precursor to the Road To Indy series, which begins the ascent to driving cars with wings and down force. The Road to Indy path begins with the USF 2000 series, followed by Indy Pro 2000, Indy Lights and finally the big time with IndyCar.
It’s all part of a plan to race cars for a living. He’s got a strong contingent of knowledgeable, experienced racers in his corner to help lead him in that direction.
Kevin Houk is a 30-year racing veteran who was a founding driver in the Super Karts series, SKUSA, and formerly worked in sprint cars and midgets in the 1990s.
Hayes has 20 years in motor sports and, like the Houks, has been a fan of the sport his entire life.
“A good example of the path Ayrton is on starting now, it’s exactly what guys like Josef Newgarden did,” Hayes said. (Newgarden) ran in this style of car his first step out of karting, and he just progressed his way up the Road to Indy classes.
“This is sort of a critical step. Internationally, this class is called Formula Ford. It’s been around since the ‘60s. Everybody that has made it in Formula 1 pretty much came through those cars.”
Along with getting the advice from his family and Hayes, Ayrton has had great coaching from the Lucas Oil school and Mel Kenyon, a true legend of racing, who along with being one of the greats in midget racing, ran the Indy 500 eight times with four Top 5 finishes.
He also has some big name backing, too.
The Houks are friends with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who invited Ayrton to race with him at the 2019 Dan Wheldon Memorial Pro-Am Karting race, where an IndyCar driver and three amateurs participate as a relay team for charity.
The IndyCar drivers usually do the qualifying, but Scott wanted Ayrton to qualify for his team. He placed fourth among a field of 30 IndyCar drivers that included Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Pippa Mann, among others.
“I was leading the pack,” Ayrton said. “The only reason I didn’t get pole is I was leading the pack and they were all bump-drafting and got quicker lap times.”
“He was racing when he should have been qualifying,” Kevin said with a laugh.
Anna Houk, Ayrton’s mother, said the Dixons have been great to them in helping Ayrton attempt to reach his dream.
“Scott surprised (Ayrton) with first full-size adult chassis GoKart,” Anna said. “Scott and (his wife, Emma and I) snuck it into our garage before Ayrton and Kevin pulled into driveway to see it.
“Scott is a humble guy and does a lot for kids coming up.”
Ayrton has a lot of support, but the Houks know it’s still pretty tough to get to the top of open-wheel racing. It includes having talent and having a lot of funding.
“It’s great to make it as a driver, but odds are stacked against him, but he loves the sport,” said Kevin, noting Ayrton is also one to work on the cars, too. “I know there are other careers inside of racing other than being a driver. We’ll do whatever we can to make the driving happen, but at same time, there are still other career opportunities.”
For now, the focus is on becoming a driver.
“I just really love the speed of it,” Ayrton said on his passion for racing. “We started racing with motorcycles. They were a ton a fun, but I remember seeing a magazine on a counter that had GoKarts on it. Right then I knew that’s what I wanted to do, race cars.”