On a warm summer night in the desert at the Gila County Fairgrounds go-kart track, lightning flashes off to the east in the direction of the San Carlos Apache Reservation as Andy Hetrick, President of Gila Monster Go Karts, announces that there is a 30% chance it will rain.
“But there’s a 70% chance it won’t, so let’s race,” he yells to the enthusiastic crowd seated around the track in folding chairs and in the aluminum grandstands by the dirt parking lot and the racing pits.
The races set to begin at 7 p.m. are behind schedule thanks to a handful of issues Hetrick has to deal with, including the removal of a rattlesnake from one of the racetrack’s banks where spectators have parked to take in the proceedings.
After a recording of the National Anthem plays, the checkered flag drops and the night of racing begins with an eight-lap race featuring 5-year-olds in their tiny go-karts.
After a halting race, including one newcomer out of three miniature racers, the advanced classes head out to the track for three hours of friendly, inter-family racing, following a tradition that goes back to at least the 1950s.
Andy Hetrick is a member of a multi-generational Globe racing family. His stepfather, Robert Reeder, was a regular at the now-defunct Globe-Miami Speedway; his son Arron Hetrick graduated from go-karts to become a noted local stock car racer, and his granddaughter, Serenity, is almost tall enough to reach the pedals. Andy himself straddled eras and has made the transition from full-size stock cars to their miniature counterparts.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” Andy, age 49, says. “I got out of it for awhile when my kids came along, but then the kids got into it and have been back in ever since.”
Arron is now 28, has been racing since he was five and is also a master mechanic who helps build and maintain karts used by the club for races.
“Dad had me in a go-kart when I was three,” he says. “It kept me out of trouble and gave me something to look forward to. If I messed up in school, I wouldn’t be able to go racing.”
Including the time, Arron recalls, he ran into trouble at school and was not able to race for a year, but still had to help maintain other kids’ karts.
Mom Terri Hetrick, who acts as the organization’s treasurer, says go-kart racing is an addiction.
“We got into it because the kids weren’t into ‘school sports,’” she explains.
Go-karts are open-wheel race cars that can be non-motorized—think soap-box derby—or, in this case, have high-powered, two-stroke engines and raced on small, oval tracks. There are several different styles of karts, including open, caged, straight or offset.
Like their larger counterparts karts also feature numerous safety features, such as five-point racing harnesses, and all drivers are required to wear helmets to participate.
At its heart though, Gila Monsters Go Karts is a family affair.
“It’s something for kids to do on a Friday night,” Andy says. “Our youngest driver is five and our oldest is 73, so it’s not just for kids.”
Andy Hetrick was born and raised in Miami and has been around racing all his life. His father passed away when Andy was five, so Reeder would regularly take him to the racetrack, which closed in 1994, were he went up against the likes of fellow local legend Mike Mabbit.
The club is an all-volunteer organization, with a board that includes fellow generational racer Matthew Mabbit, who picked up the gauntlet from his father Mike, as Vice President.
“This town has been racing for decades,” Matthew Mabbit says. “When Globe-Miami Speedway was still around, our grandparents raced stock cars and as the kids grew up, we started competing against our parents.”
Mabbit raced until 2012, but then amassed too many go-karts, finding that stock cars were too expensive.
“You work all week so you can afford it and then have three or four hours of enjoyment on the weekend for yourself,” he says. “Go-karts are cheaper, and for the same investment, the whole family can participate…. Everybody gets to go.”
Mabbit’s son Jacob is another next generation racer who exalts in “father and son heated battles.”
“Sometimes you win them and sometimes you don’t,” Jacob says.
The camaraderie extends to bringing others into the fold by providing machines for people who might not be able to afford or have the ability to maintain go-karts of their own.
A race-ready kart can cost anywhere from $2,700-$2,800 and maintenance can be around $500 per year if the owner does the work. Tires can last one or two seasons.
Hetrick is happy to assess karts to help get them on the track and keep them there.
Mabbit reminisces about building go-karts with Hetrick, working late into the night.
“We had one where we went through two 30-packs of beer and worked until 3 a.m.” he says. “I came back the next day and Andy had taken the whole thing apart and re-welded it. He told me it was time for me to go get more beer.”
In the weeks leading up to race day, Hetrick and his cadre of friends, family and volunteers have several tasks to squeeze in around their various jobs and vocations, going about it with seemingly boundless energy.
Aside from an endless cycle of mechanical tuning, Hetrick preps the track—known as “the bullring”—on Wednesday and Thursday for racing on Friday. On race day, he sets up the public address system and cones bordering the track.
“The kids always jump in to help and on an average night of racing we have 30-35 karts in competition,” Andy says. “When we have a two-day show, everyone camps out and we often race until midnight or 1 a.m.”
Races are set up in 12 divisions with beginning, intermediate and advanced, and there are about 21 races between April and October each season. An awards banquet finalizes the season in November.
At the beginning of the year, Hetrick has to apply with the county to get the okay to use the facility, then they have to get insurance and set up the schedule.
“It’s really grown, but without the county, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “It’s grassroots racing and the kids really have fun, while they learn mechanical skills and the responsibilities of becoming young adults.”
Since the organization does not have nonprofit status, Gila Monsters depends on racing fees, donations and revenues brought in from a concession stand run out of a converted camping trailer.
“We have to charge drivers to race, mainly to pay for insurance and part of it pays the light bills,” Hetrick says. “We have concessions and proceeds go right back into the club.”
Concessionaire Ame Wood has been involved with Gila Monster Go Karts for 14 years, since she married her husband Jason, who comes from a racing family, and she fit right in.
“The Hetricks are godsends. They love Globe so much and have given it their all,” she says. “The organization has really benefited and would have died out if not for them.”
Concessions are another family affair, as Ame’s mother Rosemary Williams cooks red chili for burritos and helps serve food on race night.
“By the end of the night, everyone is black and sweaty and gross,” Ame says. “It’s a family culture and not something to miss out on.”
There is no charge to watch Gila Monster Go-Karts, but there is a $10 fee for racing and for pit passes. There will be a big, annual two-day event the weekend of the Gila County Fair, with a few races left on the schedule as the season winds down in October.
Whenever he thinks of leaving go-karts, Andy Hetrick remembers why he does it: For the family connections and the camaraderie of it.
“One of the main reasons I do this is because I enjoy the kids,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether they have a good night or a bad night of racing, at the end they all play together and are happy.”
The next Gila Monster Go-Karts event takes place the weekend of the Gila County Fair on September 21 and 22 at 10 a.m. both mornings.
The final fall races take place on October 18 and 29 at 7 p.m. both evenings.
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.