NEENAH/OSHKOSH - The non-profit Kids Kart Club is celebrating 20 years of keeping kids on the right track to a better future.
On a dirt road where left is the only way to go, Pete Kardong watches anxiously from the side of the track as kids zoom by in go-karts.
“Nervous,” he said. “Terribly nervous.”
He said keeping the kids in line and nurturing their need for speed goes hand in hand.
“They're bubbling with enthusiasm to the point that I have to watch them closely,” he laughed.
The warm summer days spent outside next to Oshkosh's SpeedZone race track are what the kids have been working toward for months. That's because before they could drive their karts, some had to build them.
Kardong has spent the last 20 years teaching kids basic engineering skills through his non-profit, Kids Kart Club. The kids may have changes and so has the go-kart design, but the mission for his labor of love has stayed the same - to keep kids in school. It's something he knows about personally since one of his own didn't graduate.
“As a parent it makes you feel pretty low, and it's hard for them to get ahead when they don't have a good education, and this helps develop education,” Kardong said.
About 700 kids have come through Kids Kart Club. Don't be fooled. Some may not be very big or even tall enough to see over the equipment, but with a little direction and help from parents, the kids learn and love to do it all.
“Learning to weld and building and notching and stuff,” said nine-year-old Owen Lozette.
“There's a lot of leverage to get them to do their homework to get them to go to bed on time, you know, all kinds of stuff like that because they want to do this so bad,” said Kardong.
For some kids, it’s a place to make friends when they feel like they can't in school.
“It's a little bit harder because some classes push you through too hard and you don't have time to make new friends,” said Kevin McGrath, a Kids Kart Club member.
For others, it goes much deeper.
One of them has told me that their kid would have ended up in jail or prison is they had not done this,” said Kardong.
His office has become a shrine filled with pictures, cards and handmade presents from those he's touched. For the kids, hitting the racetrack may be the reward, but for him, his checkered flag is knowing he's making a difference.
“When I teach something to a kid and I see their kids light up, that they get it and they understand it,” said Kardong. “That is the ultimate reward for the program for me.”
During the summer, Kids Kart club races every Monday night on the track next to the Oshkosh SpeedZone.
For more information on Kids Kart Club, click here.