Dec. 21, 2005 - It's midday on an overcast Sunday afternoon at Tucson Raceway Park and Roy Franco thinks he's discovered why his son's car has gotten a case of the shakes.

The culprit is a single screw that he theorizes shook itself loose during one of the practice runs. A tweak here and an extra screw there and the Marana gearheads are ready to get back on the track.

At age 9, Houston - named after his father's favorite city - is a young racing phenom at Tucson Raceway Park.

Today is just a practice day at TRP, where he'll work on passing to the outside and inside with another young driver, Andrew Norman. On Dec. 31, the youngster will take to the track to defend his Tucson Raceway Park Summer Series title in the Bandit division.

"He wants to be a (NASCAR) Nextel Cup driver, big time," said Roy, who started Houston in racing to get him away from dirt bikes. "He plays all different sports and enjoys them all, but if he had a choice to do just one, it would be racing."

In his first year driving a Bandolero - a car 10 feet in length and four feet wide and essentially a mini-version of a full race car - Houston set the Tucson Raceway Park record as youngest driver to win a championship at the southeast Tucson track, edging out racers as old as 14. The championship was the second of the youngster's driving career after winning a Quarter Midget title in his second year of racing at age six.

Houston first put his pedal to the metal at the age of 5, racing quarter midget racecars in Marana. Since then, his passion for racing has intensified, and his future has opened up in front of him like a racer entering the straight-away. After graduating from Bandits at age 11, he'll move on to the Young Guns division for two years before advancing to the Outlaws Division. When he's 16, he'll be eligible to race in the Legend Series, which is a step away from NASCAR, where he hopes to follow in the treads of his racing heroes Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.

The Bandits (age 9-11), Young Guns (12-14) and Outlaws (14-16) are part of the Bandolero Circuit and race together.

"He's starting a lot earlier than most kids do," said Roy. "Most kids don't start until they're 16, now they've come up with the Bandoleros and the Quarter Midgets so kids are starting at 5, like Houston."

Climbing the ladder from Quarter Midget to NASCAR is feasible. Many drivers take that route, including NASCAR up-and-comer Kyle Busch. But before he circles the infield of NASCAR, there is money and scholarships to be made on the lower levels. Young drivers earn savings bonds toward college for every finish in the top three. The older they get, the more money becomes available, up to $50,000 for the champion of the Super Late Model Series, a step below NASCAR.

He'll certainly have every opportunity to hone his skills. Roy is part of a seven-man partnership that recently purchased Tucson Raceway Park and is looking to revitalize Arizona's only NASCAR-sanctioned paved short track.

Eventually, Houston's brother, Parker, will join him at the track. Parker is only 5, but, has already followed in his brother's footsteps and started racing quarter midgets.

For all the titles Houston's won, the most exciting part of racing for him isn't receiving that checkered flag.

"Probably spinning out," he said about his favorite part of racing a car that usually tops out at 65 to 70 mph. "It's just fun sliding."

His sponsors probably don't want to hear that. Houston's orange and black No. 3 car is sponsored by Hooters and is adorned with the restaurant's trademark owl mascot.

Having a sponsor helps to offset the cost of racing every other week in practice and up to 10 races in a season. The sponsors help tremendously to cover the cost of gas, tires and oil, the major expenses, said Roy.

The cost of the actual car is the biggest expense. A used Bandolero can be bought for anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000. A new car can go for $7,200.

The Francos don't have to go far for any parts or advice. Every Sunday, the Tucson Raceway Park turns into a mini-NASCAR carnival of drivers from Bandolero to Late Models lining up like jets on a runway to take their turn on the track. Most of the older drivers embrace the younger ones, such as Houston, taking time to talk and encourage them.

"The confidence these kids have built is unbelievable," said Roy. "They'll go around and talk to the big guys and ask them stuff. They (the older drivers) love talking to the kids."

If he keeps winning races and championhips, the older drivers may soon start asking Houston for advice.

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