Nearly 20 kids ran across the infield to get to the south side of the Runestone-Go-Kart Association track for the playing of the National Anthem last Wednesday.

They stood at attention and stared at the flag, waiting until the final note played through the speakers. Then with a dash, they raced back across the infield with smiles on their faces, peeking over their shoulders to see how fast they had to run to beat the friend behind them.

This night was about racing - on foot before the flag dropped, in go-karts after - but most importantly it's about having fun right now for the nearly 30 young drivers who race at the Alexandria track each week.

"All the kids here are such good friends," Alexandria's Vicki Sward, whose son Bryce races in the JR 2 Cageless Flat Division, said. "They know this is racing, but when racing is over, they're all the best of friends. They play catch, they run around. Every family is here. They're grilling, they're having fun. It's a good sport, I think, to be a part of."

Kids can start racing from the time they are 5 years old. Bryce, now 12, was about that age when he first drove his kart around their farm at home. He was 6 when he joined the races at Runestone.

Six years later, he's a one-time track champion and in good position to grab another in his division this summer. He's raced on tracks all over, from across Minnesota to Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas.

"I love driving," Bryce said. "Sometimes I get a little nervous when I get onto a different track because I've never experienced what that track's like. One time when we went down south, somebody rolled, so that made me a little nervous."

Overcoming those nerves is a part of the growth process in the go-karts. So is learning how to become better drivers to avoid as many of those wrecks as possible.

THE LEARNING CURVE

The rookie class of drivers came out for their heat laps last Wednesday and lined up for the start of their race.

One bumped into another and nudged him past the starting line. A third driver hit the gas a little too hard and had to get some help backing up. Those wrinkles were basically ironed out as the older and more experienced classes came onto the track.

"You have kids who don't know a gas pedal from a brake pedal when they start," Runestone Go-Kart Association President Dan Fuoss said. "You'll see them when they first come out here, they'll bang into each other on the lineup. They'll forget to stop. Then by the end of the season, they're picking their moves out on when to make a pass. It's pretty cool to watch that."

That growth eventually leads to bigger and faster races for a lot of these drivers.

The go-kart track sits on the southwest edge of the fairgrounds in Alexandria. All one has to do is look across the parking lot to the grandstands of the Viking Speedway to see where some of these young kids will end up.

"As they come up through here, they get that taste of racing," Dan Reese, whose son, Jordan, drives go-karts, said. "Then they see the big track and say, 'I want to go there.' Well, they got to get good here and then they can go there.'"

Alexandria's Turner Haar is getting to that point. The 13-year-old epitomizes how far a driver can come through racing go-karts from the time they start to the time they finish.

Turner's father, Brian, says he knew nothing about go-karts before a friend talked the family into giving it a try with Turner when he was 7 years old. A lot has changed since then.

"It was a big learning experience for us that first year, but we've grown a lot," Brian said. "Now he has five or six championships. He's come along. We both have. And it's a way to spend time together and meet new people and share something you enjoy."

Turner is second to Bryce in this year's JR 2 Cageless Flat Division with one race left. The biggest difference between the way he drives now to when he started is pretty simple.

"I actually go fast now," Turner said with a smile.

That's the goal, but it doesn't come without learning how to drive effectively first.

"A lot of it is just getting comfortable in the seat, getting comfortable with the speed," Brian said. "As each kid grows up in class, the karts get a little bit faster. They're introduced to that faster speed and then it's learning how not to drive through somebody to pass them; how to respect every kart that's out there."

FROM GO-KARTS TO STOCK CARS

Kids don't have to look far to see how the experience in go-karts can lead to competitive racers at the next level. Examples are all over the Viking Speedway, with talented young drivers on display each Saturday night.

Villard's Brady Gerdes is one of those. He raced his first go-kart when he was 8 years old and spent seven seasons between the tracks in Alexandria and Glenwood. He says he won at least one track title every year along the way.

Gerdes jumped up to stock cars by racing at Cedar Lake Speedway in Wisconsin when he was 14. At 15, he was driving a Midwest Modified at the Viking Speedway. Many drivers are that age or even younger when they first test the waters of getting behind the wheel of the bigger cars.

"It just gets you comfortable driving, it makes you a smoother driver," Gerdes said of how his go-kart days prepared him for that jump. "Sometimes it can help a little with learning and having throttle control and not braking too hard."

Gerdes was ready to race competitively from almost the time he came on the scene.

He was second the last two years in his chase for a points title at the Viking Speedway. This summer at age 22, he's sitting in first place by 13 points over perennial power Tim Johnson of Brainerd in the Modified Division.

"We got the car working about the best it has all year right now, which is perfect timing," he said. "Hopefully we can get the monkey off our back and get the championship."

It takes a good car, but it also takes knowing how to drive it to succeed at a high level. Gerdes learned a few tricks about that at an early age.

"There was good competition in the go-karts," he said. "There's only so much you can do with a go-kart to make it faster and then the rest is the driver just has to drive harder and keep it underneath him. It teaches you to drive harder."

Those are some lessons learned along the way, lessons the current crop of drivers at the Runestone Go-Kart Association don't even realize they're taking in. Or at least don't care about at the moment.

Today's about having fun with friends at the track, before during and after the races.

"If they get out of the kart and they're smiling," Brian says, "that's a good night."