Ask any driver in any division at Riverhead Raceway about the early beginnings of their racing careers and there's a good chance recollections of competing with go-karts will be part of the conversation.
That's why Eastern Long Island Racing Go-Karts, or ELIR, is such an important group at the track.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without that program,'' said Jeffrey Goodale, 20, who lives in Riverhead and is a rookie in the modified division at the raceway.
Riverhead hosts the annual ELIR exhibition Saturday, the once-a-year chance the club gets to perform in front of the NASCAR stock car crowd. John Ellwood, track operations manager, estimated the exhibition has been showcased since 2000. The group races on select Sunday afternoons at the track until Nov. 23 with classes for kids starting at age 5. There is also "Senior Champ Karts'' for those 35 and older.
Though they won't be officially competing, Ellwood said, Saturday provides a chance to showcase many young go-karts drivers.
"It's a good steppingstone and it helps kids getting used to controlling something fast,'' said Linda Solomito, the program's manager. "It provides a foundation for children so that parents are not just throwing them there in a race car.''
Solomito's youngest son Timmy, 22, started with ELIR when he was 6. The Islip resident ranks fourth in the modified standings. Eric Zeh of Selden, last season's charger champion, is another former go-kart driver. So is 2012 legend car champion Kyle Ellwood from Riverhead. One of the more famous alums is Steve Park, who competed and was a winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"I could walk through the pits and easily show you 20 people that started in go-karts,'' Linda Solomito said. "Half the Riverhead drivers started with the go-kart club. It's a great beginning.''
Put simply, go-karts are much like what Little League is to baseball.
"I wish they showcased it on Saturdays in front of the crowd more, honestly, because it's such a good way to learn and get noticed,'' Goodale said. "I remember those times on Saturdays every year and I was always excited for them. Any person who has had a lot of success, in the top 10 or whatever, started with go-karts.''