Racing for a Dream

Evren Toprak drives his kart during a practice run at Buttonwillow Raceway Kart Track in Buttonwillow, Calif., on April 20, 2024. Photo by Benjamin Hanson.

It’s 15 minutes before a race and 15-year-old Evren Toprak prepares to slip into his alter ego. He scans his bright yellow racing kart that will join him in his pursuit of the finish line. Off the track he may be soft spoken and a little reserved, but on it he’s a different person, ready to make a calculated overtake and be aggressive in his hunger for speed. 

Feeling the curve of the track, the roar of the engine and the speed of the vessel fully at his control is a thrill that Toprak was born to crave. 

Toprak said he remembers having many different interests — ice skating, sailing and a racing video game — but they all seemed to relate to racing. 

“Whatever it was, I just wanted to go quick,” Toprak said. “I knew racing was a pretty risky route, so it was kind of more what my heart wanted to do, which was racing, or what my brain wanted to do, which was an engineer.” 

But as his love for the hobby grew, Toprak knew he had to broach the topic with his parents, who were immediately supportive. Within two days of telling his parents of his goal, he had a practice day scheduled. 

Toprak’s mother, Pinar Toprak, said that she always noticed his passion for cars, but that she only realized how intense it was a couple years ago when he researched the hobby and became motivated to try it.

“I love his passion for it,” Pinar said. “Passion is everything in life. Especially during teenage years, I think it’s really important for young adults to have their North Star, so to speak.” 

From the moment he first stepped foot on the track, Toprak knew it was a good fit. Even a minor crash during his first practice day only strengthened his confidence in his decision to pursue racing.

“I felt every emotion in the book,” Toprak said. “It’s my goal so it can be stressful most of the time, but it’s also my passion, so even the stressful moments I enjoy.” 

Toprak joined a local club where he learned the ropes for about five months before entering his first race in December 2022. He has been involved in multiple racing events since he first started competing two years ago.

He quickly moved up in the ranks by going from club-level racing to completing his first regional race in March 2023, and eventually a national race in October 2023. 

Toprak notes that this speed of excelling is fairly rare among his age group.

Additionally, Toprak managed to secure a Top 20 speed at the “Rok Vegas” national race, meaning that among 50 drivers, he was one of the 20 fastest racers. 

He had the added challenge of suffering a hand injury in the middle of one of the events. Another racer hit Toprak’s tire causing him to fly up and come down onto Toprak’s hand, which got stuck in the rear wheel. 

“I had a glove on so it wasn’t that bad,” Toprak said. “But I got a lot of weird looks from the pits because my hand was just super bloody and red.” 

Toprak swallowed four pain relievers and continued with his events for the day.  

This attitude is needed to be successful in the sport, according to Cameron Parsons, a 36-year-old professional racer. Parsons has two season points championships in the Formula Mazda class, and he also competed in the Trans Am Series where he achieved Rookie of the Year in 2020. 

During Parson’s third race, his car was flipped upside down, resulting in a collection of bumps and bruises. He jokes that he survived the accident, but he not have survived the aftermath had the circumstances been different. 

“I’m just glad my mom wasn’t there,” Parsons said. “She would have killed me and my dad.” 

In this high risk activity, you must be able to overcome adversity and have the drive to keep going. Parson notes that racers will face mental obstacles that only your love for the sport can get you through. 

“It’s almost too stressful to handle sometimes,” Parsons said. “But I remember my dad asking me if I wanted to continue and I was like, ‘Why would I not want to keep doing this? Let’s go.’”  

The likelihood of accident and injury is a reality that racers face. Toprak notes that success in this field requires the ability to stay calm, relaxed and to continue pushing forward. 

“Any small thought that comes to your brain just immediately wants to jump on that and not think about the big thing that it has to do, which is race,” said Toprak. “So if you don’t have that under control and don’t notice when you’re gonna lose focus, you just stay in the mindset of ‘I wonder what I’m gonna have for lunch.’”

The consequence of such a distraction, however, could be an accident. To help prevent this, Toprak has pre-race rituals of meditating and listening to music, particularly calm and smooth artists like Tame Impala and Michael Jackson. 

Additionally, Toprak practices meditation at the advice of his driving coach. 

Toprak said that he is able to distract himself from nerves hours before races and save them for the 15 minutes leading up to the race when they are actually necessary. 

“I’m like, OK, now is a good time to be stressed,” Toprak said. “And I try to use my nerves to help me progress and drive better. Stress is just my body getting ready to take action.” 

This type of mindset is also fitting for Toprak’s alter ego that he uses while racing. 

“To perform, there’s no way I can be a shy, regular little guy on the track,” Toprak said. “I’ve got to be a completely different person when I’m driving.” 

Toprak’s alter ego is one who is not afraid to make an overtake or be a little aggressive when racing. He is smart and calculated. 

Many of these tips and tools come from the advice of a driving coach, James Ruffier, who Toprak first started working with about two years ago. 

Veteran racer Terry McHenry, 86,  who  raced until he was 80, said it is important for racers to have a coach or someone to share their journey with. McHenry advises young racers to pursue their passion, but to know that they can’t do it alone. 

“Young racers should find somebody who is willing to support them,” said McHenry, “and then just get on the track and show them what you can do.”  

Parsons also advises young racers to overlook the challenges that come with the hobby because the joy is worth it. 

“Don’t get bitter,” said Parsons. “This sport is ruthless.” 

Both Parsons and McHenry share a twinkle in their eyes when it comes to the topic of racing, and Toprak shares this excitement.

Toprak hopes to continue racing for the rest of his life and aims to make a career out of it. He has set his sights on racing hypercars for World Endurance Racing.

In the meantime, Toprak enjoys editing videos of himself racing and developing his social media to appeal to sponsors.

Follow along on Toprak’s journey through his Instagram: