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ANOTHER WYLIE GETS BEHIND THE WHEEL

When Scott Wylie was 2 years old, his mom would bring him along as she drove into downtown Buffalo from their family home in Derby. Cruising down the road, perhaps history's youngest backseat driver showed his first signs of becoming a stock car racer.

"He'd help me with lane changing," said Karen Wylie. " 'Check out this lane,' he'd say, or, 'How's it over there?' He was my little co-pilot."

Scott Wylie is now a 21-year-old series champion who has added a third generation to one of Western New York's great racing legacies. Wylie won the Cup Lites Racing Series championship last year after earning the series' Rookie of the Year award in 2001 and was also named Most Improved Driver on Asphalt at the Friends of Auto Racing's 57th annual banquet in January.

Grandfather Don "Pops" Wylie is in the FOAR Score Hall of Fame. Father Rick Wylie won seven Holland International Speedway Late Model championships, including four straight starting in 1995. And mom didn't just drive the family car. She won races as well as the attention of her future husband when she became a street stock champion at Perry Speedway. Then there's cousin Don and uncle Ron, both of whom race. It is a family with so much grease on its hands that some have called them the "Earnhardts of the Northeast."

"Except we don't have their money," jokes Karen.

"When I was younger, I loved watching my dad," said Scott, who begins defense of his Cup Lites title this weekend at Lake Erie Speedway in Erie, Pa. "I never doubted I'd end up driving. Having my father and mother and grandfather involved has helped a lot. My father has helped tremendously. We wouldn't have done as well as we did as soon as we did without him."

Scott's trips to the track started when he was 2 weeks old, and he'd play with Matchbox cars in the bleachers while his dad raced at Holland. He helped his dad work on cars until he was 15. A few stints behind the wheel helped him realize he had inherited the family lead foot. While Wylie weekends used to revolve around Rick's turns around the track, now the family makes the trips for Scott.

Rick is the one talking in Scott's ear through the radio as a spotter while Dave Brown, Rick's longtime buddy, mans the pit box. Scott's younger brother, 15-year-old Jake, is part of the crew. Karen and Kathy Stahl, who is Scott's girlfriend, scribble down tire pressures and lap times.

"I just love doing it with the family," Rick Wylie said. "Some of the best memories I have in racing are winning on kids' birthdays and things like that. And now, looking back, you watch them grow up, and we've done it all together."

Herniated disks in his neck and carpal tunnel syndrome have removed Rick from behind the wheel. The pain in his arms is sometimes too much for him to work on race setups, but Jake has become his hands after showing great aptitude under the hood.

Scott attributes most of his success to his dad, particularly for teaching him the value of being consistent, from keeping the car -- and his temper -- from blowing up when either has a rough day.

"The main thing is keeping your head during a race, and not tearing the car up," Scott said.

For those who raced against Rick Wylie, hearing how he taught his son to keep his head might cause them to slam on the brakes. This is the same Rick Wylie who fought his way through the early days of his career with the "Ghetto Gang," a nickname given by Pops Wylie to a group that worked out of a garage in Buffalo at Seneca Street and Michigan Avenue. The same Rick Wylie who once won a race with a broken bone in his leg, suffered after a fight with a fan, and drove through more than a few boos on the way to his Holland titles.

Said Scott: "It's not really like that (at the track) anymore. My dad brought me up not to fight, to keep your head and leave (your emotions) on the racetrack. And sponsors don't really like (fights) too much."

That last part sounds like a savvy NASCAR driver, and that's what Scott would like to become. A possible next step would be to the Hooters Pro Cup minor-league stock car series (where Rick Wylie is a spotter for North Collins' Sam Fullone, the son of Vince Fullone, Rick Wylie's team owner for his seven Holland titles). Scott is also considering a move down south to attempt to prove himself on NASCAR's Craftsman Trucks or Busch series.

For now, he will defend his Cup Lites title and hopes to get some time in a late model toward the end of the summer for Hoddick Motorsports. Trey Hoddick raced with Rick Wylie for years, and Rick is also helping Trey's son, Todd, who won the 2003 late model title at Lancaster and last year won the late model crown at Lake Erie while finishing second in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series for the Northeast Region.

In the all-important sponsorships, Scott is close to securing two new sponsors to go along with longtime backers PGT Services and Dooley's Grill. He is also indebted to car owners Paul and Debbie Graff, who gave him his first full ride in a Cup Lites car.

"Without them," Scott said, "I wouldn't be racing."

Cup Lites are exactly what they sound like: three-quarter-scale versions of Nextel Cup cars, complete with the familiar sponsor paint jobs, but with a 700cc snowmobile engine inside. The cars and the 7-year-old series (which the Graffs took over last year) were developed by East Aurora's Tim Bender, who sought competitive, high-speed (cars can reach speeds in excess of 130 mph) racing that didn't incur the high expenses of late model and modified teams. The Cup Lites series runs throughout Western New York (it stops three times at Lancaster and four at Holland), Southern Ontario and Western Pennsylvania.

The cars are tough to handle, and their motors have the same specifications.

"With spec motors, it all comes down to setup and driver," Scott said.

That also sounds an awful lot like those NASCAR teams, but that can be a costly pursuit -- as Rick said, "A whole lot more zeros at the end of that dollar sign."

Scott says he eventually wants to head south, but it would be tough to leave his family.

Looks like he might not have to. When Jake graduates high school at Lake Shore, Scott might not be the only Wylie moving south. Fittingly, the Wylies might just start that race together.

"That's what we're headed toward," said Rick. "We'll have to see what's going on with the Hooters Tour and figure everything out. . . .

"That's the biggest thing with racing: You've got to have good cars, but you've got to have good people around you and surround yourself with good people and good situations."
e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com