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Fast track
GAC grad Phelps making his way up racing ranks

The players quickly shed their drenched jerseys and shoulder pads as another week's worth of work comes to an end. They mill around the field, under the still-glaring Friday night lights, talking to coaches and friends and family and fans.

For better or worse, the week is done. The players bask in victory or wallow in defeat for the rest of the weekend. There's one player, though, who isn't doing either. Michael Phelps is off to the race track.

For two years, as a junior and senior at Greater Atlanta Christian, Phelps was playing on Friday night and racing short tracks across the Southeast on Saturday night.

"I would leave right after and head to the race track," said Phelps, who graduated from GAC last summer. "It was a busy junior and senior year."

After football season ended, things lightened up a little, but there was still the small matter of classes at the exacting Norcross private school.

"It is tough to mix it," Phelps said. "But most of my teachers, they kind of understood that maybe like one day a month I would miss to go test cars.

"It was tough getting my grades, but I got through it."

With a passion for racing thrumming in his blood, Phelps could have opted to throw himself into making it a career once he graduated. But instead the 19-year-old Suwanee resident decided to keep dividing his time and enrolled at Auburn.

"I took a full load of classes, but I was able to schedule all my classes Monday through Thursday," Phelps said. "Sometimes I'd miss school in the middle of the week because I'd have to fly to Kansas or whatever.

"I was usually gone, I would leave Thursday night, drive to Atlanta, fly out and be gone Friday through Monday. I missed a lot of class, but I told my teachers what was up and they said as long as I made it for my tests or made it up, I should be fine."

Phelps finished his freshman year at college, driving cars when he could, and immersed himself in racing this summer. He was gone for a stretch of eight weeks straight at one point and hasn't really been home for any length of time.

Driving the No. 45 Dodge for Bowen Family Homes and Cunningham Motorsports, Phelps has been to ARCA and Hooters Pro Cup races across the country. In the last three months, he's made stops at the speedways in Rockingham, Kentucky, Toledo, Milwaukee, Pocono and Michigan.

He finished 15th last Saturday at the ARCA RE/MAX Request Foods-GFS 200 at the Berlin Raceway in Michigan. This Saturday, Phelps is headed back to Pocono for the Pennsylvania 200.

He has a full slate of races schedule through August and September, even after classes start up again at Auburn.

Phelps is studying engineering, but sees a day - not too far down the road - when he'll have to make a choice between driving and school.

"I'm probably going to have to end up picking, probably after my sophomore year," he said.

"I've been wanting to do both because it's good to have something to fall back on.

"But with racing, you're so busy. It's hard to make a career out of two things."

The upside is he can always go back to college if a career in driving doesn't pan out. But so far it's been a steady rise through the racing ranks.

Phelps started on short tracks in the Southeast when he was 16. The infatuation with going fast dates back much further.

"Ever since I was 3 years old, I've been driving anything with a motor," he said. "By the time I was 6 or 7, I could drive any tractor or anything around my house."

It wasn't until fairly recently that he was able to seriously satisfy that desire.

"My sophomore year of high school I finally got the chance to go do it because one of my father's friends owns a race team up in the Braselton area," Phelps said. "He had an extra car that he wasn't racing and wanted to know how he was going to test it.

"After convincing my dad for, like, half a year, I finally was able to go get in it. That was probably the spring of my sophomore year. From there I just started racing after a month or two of testing. It kind of took off from there. I was going every weekend racing somewhere different."

Racing stock cars is the goal now. It wasn't always.

"I had dirt bikes and four-wheelers and always wanted to race those," Phelps said. "But I was never really expecting to race cars. I always wanted to go into Supercross or something. I would go to tracks and stuff and hang out.

"I was never really expecting to race cars until I got the chance to get in one I guess."

The usual starting point would be something like go-karts.

"But I got in deep into it and started in Late Models and was racing all the short tracks in the Southeast I could," Phelps said. "It was every weekend, every Saturday night somewhere different.

"After that first season, I kind of got hooked on it."

He raced Late Models and Super Late Models the next season.

"I probably did 40 races that year," Phelps said. "I would go back-to-back nights at different tracks to try to get all the seat time and racing I could - because I knew I loved it."

Now he's moved up to ARCA and Hooters Pro Cup with an eye on NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series and then the Nationwide Series. NASCAR officials are still considering making 21 the minimum age for entry into Sprint Cup, its top series.

Phelps said he wasn't sure what purpose the age restriction would serve, but allowed the timing was most likely not an issue for him.

"Hopefully, by the time I'm 21, I'll be getting a Cup ride," Phelps said.

In the meantime, and before classes start at Auburn in a couple weeks, Phelps is working on just getting better. This summer, while racing ARCA, he became involved with Penske Racing's development team.

"I've seen a lot of progress," Phelps said. "My old crew chief for all my late model stuff, Scott Sutherland, he kind of coached me through. He kind of helped me to get to where I am right now and learn everything about the cars. I think a lot of the credit is due to him.

"But my progression, I'm happy with it. It's pretty high, I think, for a couple years of racing. There's a lot of room to grow though, especially once you get up into the big leagues."

Phelps has already driven some of the big-league tracks, including a trip to iconic Daytona in February.

"When I went down there for testing in December, I'd never been on a track bigger than, like, half a mile," he said. "I went around a couple times and it was just crazy. You're wide open. You're going like 200 miles an hour around the track. And there was a bunch of people down there for just the test session.

"Then when I was actually at the race in February, it was a huge thrill to be somewhere with so much history. And then you've got all the Cup drivers. It was a lot of pressure on everybody. But it was great. I enjoyed it a lot."

Still, one of his most memorable races was last year at Jefferson.

Phelps' transmission failed at the start and a subsequent collision sent his car hurdling into the air.

While the mess was cleaned up, Phelps' team was able to get his backup car ready. Phelps ended up finishing ninth. That impressive recovery is why the race sticks with Phelps. It's stuck with his mom, too.

"It was like the first one she'd been to in a while and I flipped my race car that night," Phelps said. "She freaked out, so she hasn't been back to a race I think since then.

"She gets stressed out. She doesn't like it as much. She's for me doing it, she just doesn't like watching."