The muscular roar of souped-up engines echoes across the track. Tall Douglas firs and Mount Rainier provide the backdrop as Porsches, BMWs and good-old American muscle cars rip around the 2.25-mile course at speeds well into the three digits.
This is where Don Kitch, Jr. belongs. With sharp jaw lines and intense blue eyes, Don is at ease as he relays orders into the radio, keeping things running smoothly during the afternoon lap session. In the trackside offices at Don’s ProFormance Racing School in Kent, the professional driver and instructor took the time on a busy day to talk about life in the fast lane.
“Anything I did as a young boy involved wheels,” he says. “My dad’s idea of sports was football, but racing was my primary focus.”
Don competed for 15 years on various professional circuits, competing all over the nation before starting the racing school with his wife, Donna.
“All race car drivers realize it’s time to grow up and get a real job, and I wanted to earn my living at a racetrack,” he says. Don now works with corporate clients and individuals who feel a need for speed. Recreational drivers either bring their own cars or rent a Lotus or Chevrolet Cobalt. Don teaches safety and performance driving classes and runs open lap times for advanced drivers.
“Sport-driving enthusiasts are a big part of our nation’s recreation. It’s a great escape—when you’re out there driving, there’s only one thing on your mind,” he says.
One of Don’s former clients, Garth Stein, actually wrote a best-selling book, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” using the racing school as the inspiration.
But Don isn’t content to simply run the racing school. In 1997, Don and Donna founded Team Seattle, a racing team that competes regularly in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, one of the most popular sports car races in the United States. In this grueling around-the-clock race, Team Seattle’s primary goal is raising money for the Seattle Children’s Hospital. In the past 13 years, they’ve raised nearly $3.3 million through sponsorships and pledges, and in 2003, they actually finished first in their class.
“We wanted to show what motor racing could do besides eco-devastation, financial drain and alcohol and tobacco promotions,” Don says. “Properly directed, the energy and passion around motor racing is incredible in what can be accomplished.”
The French Connection
This past summer, Don and Team Seattle competed in one of the most prestigious and grueling sports car races in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His teammate was none other than Patrick Dempsey, perhaps best known for his leading role as a neurosurgeon in “Grey’s Anatomy.” Dempsey moonlights as a competitive race car driver and runs Dempsey Racing.
“Patrick and I have known each other a number of years,” Don says. “He said I really like what you guys are doing for charity, and said we need to do something together.”
The two decided to tackle the formidable challenge of Le Mans, the world famous 24-hour race through the French countryside. With only 55 cars allowed and teams from all over the world vying for a spot, just getting entrance to the race was a huge feat.
“I had no idea what it was going to take to get there,” Don says. “We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get in. I don’t know how many times I flew to France in preparation. Twice I flew out just for a one-day meeting.”
Once they gained entrance, finding funding for the enterprise proved another challenge.
“We started looking for a million dollars just when the economic meltdown occurred,” he says. In the end, they came home with a quarter million dollars for the Children’s Hospital.
For Don, the race was a dream come true. His daughter, Siena, sat with him during the driver’s parade, and signed autographs right alongside dad.
“It’s the pinnacle of sports car driving. When I walked up to the car in the garage, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was magical without a doubt,” he says. Along with Joe Foster, Don and Dempsey each took shifts behind the wheel of the team’s Ferrari 430 over the course of 24 hours.
“It’s a very serious event, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on drivers,” Don says. “You are driving flat out through the woods of France and sharing the asphalt with the finest race car drivers in the world—and you’re in a Ferrari.”
Their team made a strong showing, finishing ninth in their class, and Don says he’s planning to team up with Dempsey for the 2010 Rolex Daytona.
While Don has been racing for 25 years, he’s not planning on slowing down any time soon.
“What terrifies me more than anything is the thought of not getting in a race car,” he says.