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Knill the Thrill

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Mechanical engineering freshman Garrett Van Knill has a job that not many other students can boast about he is a minor league race car driver. Knill has been racing since the age of 10, and now he races NASCAR late model cars at Tucson Raceway Park.
By Christopher Wuensch
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, May 4, 2004
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UA freshman rising through racing world

Ever since he was a kid, Garrett Van Knill has had the need for speed. The problem for the 10-year-old speedster was knowing how to control it.

Nearly a decade later, the UA freshman is now 19 and on the starting line of a career in racing. He's also on the fast track toward the NASCAR circuit.

It all began with that first intoxicating lap around the track, racing quarter-midget cars.

"I had no idea what I was doing," the UA freshman admitted. "All I knew was that the right pedal was the gas pedal. I didn't know what any of the flags meant, so when they would throw a yellow flag down, I would keep going full speed around."

Once Knill, who goes by his middle name, figured out how to race between the flags, the rest came naturally. After starting out in the quarter-midgets, the Tucson native has risen through the ranks of the 400-horsepower midgets and is now competing on the stock car circuit.

The nine-year racing veteran has earned rookie of the year honors and holds several records. He says he is most proud of his world record for the fastest lap in quarter-midgets.

"It was a big deal," Knill reminisced. "Everyone gathered around the car and just stared at it afterward.

"That record basically put me on the map. Wherever we went after that, we could say we had a world record and people would know who we were and where we were from."

Knill's stock in stock car racing is on the rise, and his fan base is getting bigger with every race. The speedster will have 30-40 fans flock to the pit area after a race. After one particular event at Tucson Raceway Park last year, a fan who turned out to be a local businessman was so impressed by Knill's driving that he gave the teenager $500 on the spot to go out and buy new tires.

Ultimately, Knill, who says he received five or six speeding tickets before he turned 18, says his sights are set on the flourishing NASCAR circuit.

"Ever since I was 8 or 9, it's been something that I needed to do," Knill said.

At his current pace of moving up one division roughly every year and a half, the freshman believes he can climb the ladder to the professional ranks somewhere in the next five to six years.

When Knill's feet aren't pinning a pedal to the metal, they are both planted firmly on the ground. He says he knows the kind of dedication and hard work that it will take to reach racing's promised land.

"Just like any other driver, I need my share of lucky breaks and good cars," Knill said. "I think it's a realistic goal the harder you work at it, the easier it is."

Knill certainly has the bloodlines to succeed on the track. A third-generation racer, his racing roots can be traced back to his grandfather, who rode in the 1930s and 40s on some notable "board tracks" at Indianapolis Raceway and Chicago's Soldier Field.

"It's almost like a disease," Knill's father, Robert, says of the family's addiction to racing. Robert spent his time on the track racing in the Midwest in the 70s.

As a father, Robert has played a big role in his son's development, but insists that the highly motivated Van has taken his career into his own hands. Ever since he was about 11 or 12, he had the instincts, timing and super-quick reflexes to avoid accidents, Robert said.

As any good parent would, Robert still gets uneasy when his son is involved in a crash like the one he suffered a year ago. Knill emerged from the fiery crash unharmed but not without causing quite the scare for his father.

"That one scared the living daylights out of me," Robert said.

Robert takes comfort in the quality of modern safety precautions in cars and in the knowledge that his son has suffered more broken bones and concussions from playing soccer and football than he has from racing.

With his father's guidance, Van has become the first Knill to attend college. As a child, Knill wasn't allowed to get behind the wheel if his grades weren't up to par.

An engineering major, Knill is preparing himself for a long career in racing whether it is on the track or in the garage. He says his engineering degree will give him the ability to drive and work on his own car, which he hopes will make him more attractive to car owners and sponsors.

Knill relies on his sponsors to pay a portion of his auto expenses. They include local merchants such as the Bank of Tucson, Nova Home Loans and Pennzoil, who saves the team hundreds of dollars each year by contributing motor oil and other racing needs.

Knill will be giving something back to his two biggest sponsors once the spring semester ends. In between putting his engineering skills to the test interning for the WLB Group this summer, Knill will be on the road talking to children about the dangers of smoking.

The freshman has signed on with an organization called Tobacco-Free Ways and is scheduled for 20 speaking engagements throughout Arizona this summer.

His weekends will be reserved for the road. Knill plans on racing just about every weekend this summer. His monthly schedule will include three weeks in the stock car and one week back in the midgets to keep his skills sharp.

While most UA students will be hanging out at the beach, working or continuing with classes this summer, Knill will be on the track. He'll have it no other way.

"I think if I was not racing, I'd probably be a homeless man," Knill said.

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