Fond memories of childhood birthdays fill David Kudrave's head every time he hears the roar of a race car's engine.
After blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, Kudrave and his father annually journeyed from the family home in La Canada to the now defunct Ontario Motor Speedway where they would watch Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and other drivers blow down the straightaways in their sleek, Indy-style cars.
"Those drivers were my heroes," Kudrave says, "I'd see them walking around in their racing suits and all these people would be asking them for autographs.
"Those drivers were thrill-seekers and I knew even then that I wanted to get into it."
Fast forward--at about 200 m.p.h--to the present.
After a one-year layoff that helped him regain his drive to drive, Kudrave, 23, is enjoying a budding racing career.
With sponsorship from racing magnate Frank Arciero, Kudrave is piloting a 450 horsepower Buick Wildcat in the American Racing Series, a 12-race stepping-stone tour that features 75-100 mile events contested with open-wheel, Indy-style cars capable of attaining speeds of 200 m.p.h.
"It's a thrash because the races are so short and there are no pit stops," Kudrave said. "If you get behind, it's pretty tough to catch up."
This season, Kudrave has competed in five ARS events, which typically precede major races sponsored by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). His best finish was second place in Milwaukee.
This week, Kudrave is in New York preparing for Sunday's ARS race at the New Jersey Meadowlands, site of the Marlboro Grand Prix.
"I'm confident that I'll be driving (750 horsepower) Indy cars in two years," said Kudrave, who is in his first full ARS season. "There are so many good drivers and so few seats available. You just have to make sure you're ready when you get the chance."
Kudrave has been preparing for an opportunity for more than 10 years.
He was 12 when he began racing--and winning--on the Go-Kart circuit and just 15 when he "sort of lied" about his age so he could attend the Jim Russell British School of Motor Racing--a three-day tutorial of classroom and on-track instruction at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.
At the Russell school, Kudrave learned fundamentals such as how to heel-and-toe when shifting, how to identify and negotiate braking points and apexes of corners and how to compete safely on a crowded track.
"On the last day they critique you as you go around the track," Kudrave recalled. "You really had to concentrate.
"If you don't crash or spin out, you graduate."
Kudrave competed in a race series sponsored by Russell and then moved up to the Formula Ford circuit, a class generally regarded as the most competitive amateur open-wheel class in the nation.
In 1985, Kudrave turned pro and moved up to the Super Vee series, which features cars with 200 horsepower engines. He finished sixth in the series in 1986 and second in 1987, 20 points behind series champion Scott Atchison.
During the '87 season, Kudrave won three races, one pole position and led for more laps and miles than any other competitor. His worst finish of the year was fourth and he was voted the series' Most Improved Driver.
Last year, however, Kudrave put the brakes on his career. He temporarily quit when the weekly grind of racing began wearing thinner than a set of road-worn radials.
"I didn't quit because I wasn't doing well," Kudrave said. "I quit because I wanted a little more than I was getting from it.
"I was getting tired and wondering, 'Am I going to make it?' "
Kudrave, who had taken a few courses at Chapman College after graduating from Flintridge Prep in 1984, enrolled at USC to study real estate finance. A summer internship spent behind a desk rather than the steering wheel drove Kudrave back to the race course.
"The time away made me appreciate racing more," Kudrave said. "Working every day from eight to six o'clock--that wasn't for me. And I hope it won't ever be."
Kudrave competed in ARS races at the end of last season at Laguna Seca and Miami. He was running sixth at Laguna Seca when someone crashed into him and ended his day. He qualified 15th at Miami and finished ninth.
"I wanted to see what the cars were like, what the series was like and what the teams were like," Kudrave said. "I didn't think I was going to be competitive."
As the current ARS season reaches its midpoint, Kudrave is stepping up his daily regimen for the home stretch.
"When you're racing, your heart is beating about 170 beats a minute for two straight hours," Kudrave said. "I work out with weights every day to keep my strength.
"The first thing that goes when you get tired is your mind. If you get tired when you're swimming, you're going to drown. If you get tired in a race car, you're going to crash.
"I don't want to be in any major crashes that could end my career. I intend to be around for awhile."