As Josh Pierson jockeyed for position against the best pre-adolescent go-karters in the United States, jitters coursed through Greg Pierson's veins.
Greg, Josh's dad, could barely see the go-karts whiz by and, although he heard Pierson's name blared by the announcer, he couldn't ascertain the context by which it was mentioned. The lack of clarity was unnerving.
But after Pierson whipped around the twisting New Jersey MotorSports Park, executed a clutch maneuver to take the lead and crossed the finish line first, Greg slapped hands with fellow supporters and could breathe a sigh of relief.
His son had won the race of his life.
Pierson won the Rotax MAX Challenge United State Grand Nationals title in the minimax division (for racers between ages 10 and 13) on June 25 and earned a ticket to compete in the World Finals for the first time ever. The World Finals will take place in Portugal Nov. 4-11.
Pierson notably placed second in the grand nationals in 2014. The rising racer had developed from racing without an engine to compiting with a smaller engine competitively by age 6.
And Pierson has continued to improve as a driver in recent years — leading to his greatest success to date.
Once reticent to pass other drivers, with the help of coaches Aaron Neliton and Luke Selliken, Pierson has developed his passing skills over the last few years.
"He (Selliken) would go out here in a faster kart and stay at my speed. He would try to get me to pass him in corners that I wouldn't normally pass him and eventually it got to where I would pass him around the corner," Pierson said. "I had to know that after you pass you definitely need to block. You can't just pass and then leave the door open in the next corner. Also, you have to know when to break and turn. If you don't know how to do that you're going to end up in a wall somewhere."
And the ability to pass at exactly the right moment propelled Pierson to the national title.
After winning two of the three preliminary heats at the US Grand Nationals, Pierson found himself behind a handful of drivers in the finals. But he considers patience and smarts his greatest skills and he was OK with lurking in the periphery.
"When someone gets in front of you, you don't necessarily need to be nervous about that. You just need to be thinking 'What's the quickest way to get around them and the best spot to do it,'" Pierson said. "Everybody has their little hints that sets them apart and gives them their chance to win. For me, it's being smarter and taking my time."
Pierson incrementally zoomed past a few drivers and took first place with about two laps to go. But competitor Aidan Fox snatched the lead right back. Bent on capturing the national title, Pierson made his move.
"I decided I was so close that I pulled out in a spot coming in the straightaway. When I got next to him he decided it was a good idea to hold the outside and I just braked a little early to throw him off because he was going to try to out-brake me. He out-braked himself and I just went back under and then just blocked the rest of the track," Pierson said.
The win was satisfying for Pierson for a few reasons. For one, he was excited to be announced as "National Champion Josh Pierson" at races across the United States and in Portugal. Second, the win clinched his first World Finals qualification. And third, he achieved a bit of redemption after an early race snafu dashed his World Finals qualification chances in the 2016 finals.
"That was awesome for me because there was one year where I got robbed of my ticket," he said.
"No matter where I go I am the champion for the US for this year," he added
Throughout his racing career, Pierson has traveled across the United States. A wildlife enthusiast, Pierson has fed alligators in Louisiana, fed ostriches in North Carolina, attended magic shows in Las Vegas, observed a pool of alligators in Florida and visited Olympic Park in Utah.
"I love being able to travel because you get to see all different types of wildlife and plants. It's really cool for me. Most kids don't get to go to a lot of places until they're older and don't get to see a lot of the world, Pierson said.
Greg travels with Pierson to all of his competitions and enjoys spending time with his son while experiencing the highs and lows of high-intensity competition.
"It's cherished father-son time. It's good quality time. The lows of racings are incredibly low and the highs are incredibly high. It's interesting to watch him go through that," he said.
Pierson will make his overseas debut in Portugal. He will go up against racers from dozens of countries and will participate in other activities such as a tire changing challenge. The event will also feature an Olympics-style opening ceremony.
"They hesitate to call it the Olympics of karting because they could get in trouble for that and because it's yearly, not every four years, but it really is like the Olympics where they do an Olympic ceremony and everyone gets to show support for their country," Pierson's mom, Janelle, said.
Pierson has defeated racers who have finished in the top three of the World Finals before and says his goal is to place in the top five this year.
"I would love to win but I think it's going to be a huge race over there," he said.
As was his dream in 2014, Pierson still hopes to become one of the select few drivers to earn a spot as a Formula 1 racer. Obviously, he has a ways to go before that point but he feels his path is laid out for him.
"I do feel a lot closer to that," he said.