Sean Caisse wants everyone to understand that the physical and mental demands of auto racing are easily the equal of any other sport., COURTESY PHOTO
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BY CHRISTINE PHELAN, Valley Dispatch Staff

PELHAM — Sean Caisse was just 10 when his father Jim bought him a dirt go-cart, a steel-caged roadster that the lanky tyke whirled around Weare’s Sugarhill Speedway at a whopping 60 to 65 mph.

These days though, Caisse, now 19, opts for both a heartier car, a full-length racing suit, and speeds that top 175 mph. Since his modest off-road beginnings as a Pelham student, he’s coursed his way up the racing ladder, taking on stock cars at age 15, earning NEMA’s (Northeastern Midget Association) Rookie of the Year by 17, and last year, being the youngest driver to win the Budweiser pole position in a NASCAR race. He was recently named the Busch North Series 2005 Rookie of the Year.

By all accounts, Caisse’s current operation is a far cry from the backyard dirt tracks where he began. He just concluded the Busch North Series, which carried him from Virginia to Maine. He then went to the Grand Nationals in Irwindale, Calif., two weeks ago for the NASCAR Toyota All Star Showdown, where he placed fifth and won more than $14,000 in prize money.

For each race, a battery of 15 mechanics and technicians see to the team’s two, 3,300-pound Chevy Monte Carlos. Also part of the entourage are his parents, his 21-year-old sister Dominique and the motorhome from which mom Gisele makes the post-race meals.

“I really struggle with it,” she laughed, wringing her hands. “But it’s not like (Sean’s racing) is something that’s going to go away.”

“You hear about the speeds, and you don’t really know just how fast they go until you’re watching the cars — and that’s an adjustment,” added Jim. “But I have total confidence in Sean’s driving capabilities.”

While he’s hardly a beginner, Caisse’s sponsorships and finances remain on the modest side. Between his parents and several sponsorships, he runs on about $200,000 a year — a shoestring budget compared to other racers with $500,000 or more to burn per season.

A lot of that has to do with age, both on the track and off.

“To be a young, competitive driver … you want to make sure you try to gain respect,” Caisse said. “You’re on your way up. And you’re in the spotlight.”

That means if Caisse does something wrong, it’s dubbed a “huge rookie mistake.” But when other drivers make a gaffe? It’s a “racing incident.”

Track politics aside, the wiry 19-year-old still finds time to be a normal kid. He plays electric and acoustic guitar. He dabbles in fishing. And he always gets his haircut at Salon 38 in Pelham.

Caisse expects to finish his associate’s degree in mechanical engineering next year, and then plans to move to North Carolina to further buoy his racing career. And while he says he’s happy with the path he’s chosen, he sometimes wishes teachers and peers better understood what racing is about.

So does dad Jim.

“I was a football player, wrestled, lifted weights, and kids that do that get recognition for it,” he said. “It’s important for Sean to get recognized. There’s a tremendous about of dedication and sacrifice that goes into this. We’re really proud of him.”

Have a story idea? E-mail Christine Phelan at cphelan@valleydispatch.com.