ELKO NEW MARKET, Minn. (JTA via TC Jewfolk) — Thomas Poretsky is six years away from being behind the wheel of a street-legal car and is too young to drive bumper cars at the State Fair. This is ironic as he stands in the shadow of Elko Speedway in a firesuit and holds his racing helmet, waiting to take his Bandolero race car onto the track to get some practice laps in.
“I don’t like bumper cars,” he said. “I’m trying to avoid running into things.”
Poretsky, a 10-year-old Prior Lake resident, has been driving cars for nearly half of his life. His No. 8 car is emblazoned with two important pieces of family heritage: an Israeli flag denoting his father’s Jewish heritage, and a flag of the Quechan Nation, the Native American tribe of his mother’s side of the family.
“It means a lot to me,” Poretsky said during a recent practice session. “There’s not a lot of Native and Jewish mixes and it’s just … me. It shows my story.”
The Bandolero looks like a scaled-down stock car. It has a tube frame with a roll cage to protect the driver and is covered by fiberglass panels that can be removed for maintenance.
Poretsky is in his first season driving Bandoleros but has been behind the wheel of cars since he was six.
“Thomas was always quiet and shy and not sure of himself,” said Mary Poretsky, Thomas’ mother. “And one day, he said he wanted to race cars. He and I, we made this deal. He said, ‘Mom, I’ll race as long as you’re there.’ So I said ‘okay.’ And then one thing led to another and then I’m looking for a car.”
Poretsky started driving in what so many young drivers — including professionals — started: quarter-midget cars. But the Poretskys learned that those cars require more maintenance than the Bandoleros, so they made the move up a class.
“It’s an introductory class for kids,” said Tim Brockhouse, referring to the Bandoleros. He is the owner of the Great North Legends Bandolero parts and repair shop in Burnsville, Minnesota, and maintains Poretsky’s car. “And that’s what we try to keep it as. They actually have adults racing them down south, but at 14 we kick them out.”
Thomas drives his car around the quarter-mile inner oval at Elko Speedway at roughly 46 miles per hour. His father Solomon times his laps and said Poretsky was consistently between 18.9 and 19.1 seconds per lap.
“I’m really, really happy with his performance,” Solomon Poretsky said. “If you rip a good lap, the problem is you may not be able to repeat it. If you’re consistent, you always do the same thing.”
Consistency has been a feature of Thomas’ racing. He took part in a competitive go-kart league at Pro Kart in Burnsville last winter. Solomon Poretsky said that his son was never near the front of the pack, but consistent laps and finishes helped him finish in third place in the final standings, behind “generational racing families.”
“For a starting Bando racer to finish every race and not damage your car, that’s an accomplishment,” the elder Poretsky said. “His car control’s pretty good, especially for a beginning driver.”
Solomon and Mary Poretsky met online in the pre-dating app era, after he answered an ad she placed on Yahoo! Personals.
“He sent me this whole dissertation,” she said.
“It was more of a thesis,” he quipped back.
That was 25 years ago, and 17 years ago when they moved to Minnesota from Sacramento, Solomon knew that they didn’t want their kids to play hockey. It was too expensive, he said, laughing. (Thomas’ car cost $7,000, and the engine — which is sealed and can only be purchased from one spot — is $2,500.)
Neither of Poretsky’s parents are mechanically inclined. Solomon has decades of experience in real estate, and Mary used to run her own small business before giving it up to focus on her son’s racing. Solomon joked that he only buys new cars to avoid dealing with repairs.
Mary said she’s getting the hang of filling Thomas’ car with gas and managing the tire pressure. But “it’s been a real learning process,” she said.
And the parents agreed: if Thomas is serious about pursuing racing long-term, they will support him — even if it means they need to move out of Minnesota.
Mary recalled how in an early practice session, her son’s engine blew out and he had to be pushed up the track.
“[Thomas] was in tears,” she said. “And people just came to help, and slap a new engine in. Nobody asked for anything. I was saying thank you to everybody, and everybody kept saying ‘It’s for the kids.’
“It was so beautiful,” she added. “It just looked like a testament of the goodness of humanity. They didn’t know him, they didn’t know us. We never even said hello to each other before.”
Since he has started racing at his current level, Thomas’ parents and their friends have noticed a different kid.
“He walks differently, he talks with a little bit more authority,” Mary said. “It’s like he came out of his shell. He’s making friends left and right. He has the admiration of the kids in his class. His teacher even came at the end of school to watch him.”
Said Thomas: “[My friends] didn’t believe it until I showed them a picture of the car.”
Meaning in the car design
Poretsky and his father both said a plain, white car was fine. His mother protested.
“No, it needs to be pretty,” she said.
The car number is for Thomas’ favorite NASCAR driver, Kyle Busch. The white on the bottom features tribal-inspired geometric patterns — the white and green are separated with a thin line of blue, with a diamondback snake over it. The snake is native to the southwest where Mary’s tribe originates.
The flags on either side of his name over the windows to the car was the icing on the cake.
“He’s Native American. And he’s Jewish. And we should be proud of that. And we should be proud of him,” she said.
Solomon, who described his family as “gastronomic Jews,” said being a “member of the tribe” has taken on a new meaning for Thomas. In addition to the tribal components of Native American and Jewish culture, the racing community is tight-knit, too.
“People have been so welcoming and so kind,” Solomon said. “I can’t tell you how many people have put their kids in the car, they’ve got a picture of their kids in the car smiling out the window with a Quechan and an Israeli flag. It’s been completely welcoming.”
Towards the rear of the car behind the windows on each side is a blue Thunderbird. In Native traditions, the Thunderbird is a desert bird that is the protector of the sky.
“When he flaps his wings, that’s the thunder. And he shoots lightning out of his eyes,” Mary said. “I thought that was good for Thomas to have a protector.”
Thomas said he drives for two reasons: For fun, and because he gets to inspire people.
“That’s a really big thing for me,” he said. “A lot of people wish they could do this, and it’s just cool to know that they’re feeling happy because they’re inspired to follow their dreams.”