Can Jade Avedisian make it? At 16, she’s winning dirt races and chasing NASCAR dreams

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HUMBOLDT, Kan. — Under the lights at Northern California’s Placerville Speedway, a tiny dirt track 45 minutes from Sacramento, the No. 84 car got squeezed into the wall and suddenly went flipping into the November night sky.
“No!” announcer Chet Christner yelled as the car rode the fence, then cartwheeled several times before it disappeared out of view. “No, no, no, no, no! Son of a biscuit!”
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The broadcast on the streaming service FloRacing went silent for a moment, the crowd murmuring with worry for the driver’s safety after a violent crash.
Suddenly, a pink and white helmet came into view. The driver, a 16-year-old named Jade Avedisian, was not only unharmed — she was angry. Avedisian marched down the track, with all of her competitors stopped under a red flag. The crowd cheered in anticipation of a confrontation between Avedisian and the driver who caused the crash, Tanner Carrick.
“That is a young lady right there who is ready to tussle,” Christner said on the public address system, which was being simulcast to viewers at home.
“Go get ’em!” someone yelled from the stands.
The camera stayed on Avedisian as she made the long walk toward the No. 71 car that put her in the wall, removing her helmet and fireproof head sock on the way.
“She’s going for a little discussion here on the back straightaway,” Christner said.
Avedisian ripped her earbuds out as she approached the No. 71, which still had Carrick strapped inside.
But a funny thing happened when Avedisian arrived at the door of Carrick’s dirt midget car. Without a word, she simply stopped, stuck her arm out and the two drivers exchanged a fist bump before Avedisian turned and left.
Watching it all unfold, Avedisian’s father, Ryan, was bewildered at his daughter’s reaction.
“I remember laughing, like, ‘What did she just do right there?’” he said. “You think she rung her bell enough that she doesn’t know what she’s doing?”
As it turned out, Jade knew exactly what she was doing.
Six months later, Jade was sitting in a booth at K’s Place restaurant in the small town of Chanute, Kan. She was grabbing a pre-race meal before the latest event on the Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series circuit, which is one of two national midget tours Avedisian is racing in this year (a midget is a smaller, less powerful version of a sprint car). To reach the rural racetrack, she later had to drive down an unmarked dirt road past a few dozen cows lingering along a fence.
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She hasn’t done many interviews in her life, but in between bites of a grilled chicken Caesar salad, it’s clear the teenager possesses the sort of big-picture thinking some drivers never capture even as adults.
“Obviously, I was pretty mad, but you can’t lose your head in those situations,” she said of the Placerville incident last fall. “As much as I wanted to go scream at him, you can’t. (The fist bump) was my best option to still do something, but not blow it up to where people were saying, ‘What is she doing?’
“If it’s a bad look for me, it’s a bad look for your sponsors as well.”
That thought process wasn’t created on the spot. During those 81 seconds she walked down the track toward Carrick, Avedisian (pronounced “a-vuh-DISS-ian”) had time to think about how some of the NASCAR drivers she’s watched on TV have reacted to various incidents — which has occasionally taught her what not to do.
“Everyone gets mad, and I get why they do it,” she said. “I’ve just thought if I was ever in that situation … I wanted to take it on in the right way. I don’t want that reputation for myself.”
The NASCAR observations are important because that is firmly where Avedisian wants to be. And NASCAR, anxious to get a successful female driver in its top ranks, would love to have her.
She just needs to get there first, and it’s going to take thousands more laps for Avedisian to have a shot at her NASCAR dream.
“There will be lots of ups and downs trying to make it,” she said. “If I ever do get an opportunity, I can only imagine how cool it will be.”
These days, midgets can be a great step toward a NASCAR career. Toyota, which backs Avedisian, has invested heavily in midget racing with the idea of creating a pipeline of talent to stock car racing. NASCAR stars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell are among those who have driven a midget for Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM), which is Avedisian’s team.
“There will be lots of ups and downs trying to make it (to NASCAR),” Avedisian says. “If I ever do get an opportunity, I can only imagine how cool it will be.” (Dave Biro / Courtesy of Toyota Racing Development)
There are no guarantees winning dirt midget races will translate to the paved world of NASCAR, and Avedisian has many years remaining before she could potentially race at the top level of American motorsport. But those in the know say she represents one of the most promising talents at her age — not just females, either.
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“She’s only 16? That’s crazy,” Bell said. “I thought she was older than that. The sky is the limit for Jade. I’ve been following her for a long time. She’s certainly capable of doing whatever she wants to do.”
Larson was briefly teammates with Avedisian in 2020 and found her to be quiet, as many 13-year-olds would be.
“You wouldn’t look at her and talk to her and think she’s a gasser,” Larson said with a chuckle, “but she hammers it.”
Avedisian will be flattered by those remarks because she grew up as a Larson fan. Raised in California’s Central Valley as the daughter of a sprint car crew member, Avedisian has been attending dirt races since she was an infant. Her family watched Larson establish himself as a promising young star in the California dirt ranks before he went national and became the greatest all-around American driver of his generation.
Larson said Avedisian “has a little bit better understanding of patience and race craft” than many other drivers he’s seen.
“That’s not something you can necessarily teach somebody,” Larson said. “They just have it or do a better job learning it.”
This year, Avedisian has been making the most of her innate sense of speed. She is already the winningest female driver ever in the national midget ranks (seven career wins, including five this year), led the Xtreme Outlaw championship standings this summer and won Rookie of the Year at the prestigious Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in January (she was the only one of more than 80 rookies to make the main event). She’s second in the Xtreme Outlaw point standings, seven out of the lead, entering a tripleheader weekend this Friday through Sunday that could help decide the title. No woman has ever won a national dirt racing championship.
Somehow, Avedisian has seemed to grasp the intricacies of what makes a driver go fast from a young age. It’s inexplicable to her parents, who never fathomed her progress to this point and lacked any intentions of their daughter becoming a professional race car driver.
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When Jade was 4, Ryan came across a quarter midget (a beginner-level race car) for sale on social media and decided to buy it for her. He figured he could tinker with it a bit and scratch his racing itch. In addition to helping with sprint cars in California, Ryan had always been mechanically inclined and loved racing of all kinds — so much that he proposed to his wife, Kim, at an NHRA drag race in Pomona, Calif.
Jade was young, but Ryan figured a quarter midget would give them a chance to have some father/daughter time and help her with hand-eye coordination for whatever sports she chose to play.
Instead, the car sat unused on the side of the family’s home for nearly two years. Ryan, who owns a swimming pool service company in Fresno, considered selling it until Kim urged him to gauge Jade’s interest one more time.
So Ryan and Jade went to the empty parking lot of a nearby church, set up some cones and began making laps. That began a weekly routine: Making circuit after circuit around the imaginary track, then going to get lunch or ice cream.
And that was all it was ever supposed to be — until one hot day when Jade suddenly pulled off the parking lot track and told her father: “I’m bored.”
“OK, perfect,” Ryan said. “Let’s go home and go swimming.”
“No, no,” Jade told him. “I want to race other cars.”
So the family took her racing, and it quickly became evident she was on a path to something special. She kept winning and winning, even when jumping into the next class up the ladder with relatively little experience.
A notable example happened in 2020 at the John Hinck Championship in Missouri, which offered a whopping $20,000 to the winner of its winged Outlaw micro sprint race. Jade had only raced in that division once before and showed up to get seat time with no designs on even making the A-Main.
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To everyone’s shock, Jade scored the victory as an inexperienced 13-year-old. That night, the noted midget team owner Chad Boat was on the phone asking if the Avedisians could come to North Carolina for Jade to test one of his cars. In February, Jade and Kim moved to North Carolina’s NASCAR country — leaving Ryan and Jade’s younger sister Kenzie (who was finishing her school year) behind.
“Even when she was doing good in quarter midgets, never ever did I think it would continue and become what it’s become,” Kim said. “Like, ‘Hey, one day I might move away from my husband and daughter and go cross country to take Jade racing.’
“None of this was planned, but we have to take the opportunity to do it.”
Dirt-racing legend Kyle Larson with a young Jade Avedisian. (Courtesy of the Avedisian family)
It’s all led to a ride with KKM, which has established itself as the top team in midget racing.
But with that comes a great deal of pressure and expectations. At the Chili Bowl, held indoors each January inside a Tulsa, Okla., expo center, KKM’s cars are lined up in the front row of the pit area in the prime spot. There’s no avoiding it: If you drive for KKM, you’d better win, or you won’t last long.
KKM co-owner and CEO Pete Willoughby has seen dozens of drivers come through the team over the years, and he has one of the country’s sharpest eyes for young driver talent.
“A majority of the drivers who came here and didn’t make it, they just weren’t good enough,” Willoughby said. “They were good or even really good. But if you want to move up, you’ve got to be outstanding.”
And Avedisian, he said, may have it.
“I believe in a couple years,” Willoughby said, “you’ll be talking about her.”
Crew chief Jarrett Martin said Avedisian has shown a combination of natural ability, mental toughness and the type of self-starter work ethic he believes is necessary to succeed. She is pleasant, accountable and apologetic when things go wrong — traits not all young drivers possess, he said.
Still, Martin was taken aback after their first win of this season. He had asked Avedisian if she got nervous during the race, and she shot him a look of confusion.
“It was like, ‘Why would I ever get nervous?’” Martin recalled. “That was surprising for her to stay that composed. There are guys who have the talent, but they can’t mentally put themselves in a good enough place to make it. At this rate, she’s on her way.
“She’s got a lot of good traits. I haven’t seen many of her weaknesses. She’s really young and doesn’t have a ridiculous amount of races, but the important stuff is there.”
Avedisian wants to be respected as a race car driver on and off the track, period — not recognized because her gender is different than the majority of her competitors.
But aside from NHRA drag racing, there’s been such a startling lack of successful women at the top levels of American motorsports that any winning female driver is going to draw attention — both positive and negative. And it’s been that way since Avedisian was barely old enough to understand what was going on.
Even in quarter midgets, other fathers would become irate at seeing their sons get beaten by a girl. Avedisian began winning so often, Kim said, that her parents had to escort her to the bathroom to avoid confrontations with angry dads. She couldn’t even go to the snack bar by herself, Kim said, and some dads would scream at her in the pre-race staging area.
But Jade always seemed unfazed by it all, and even as a 16-year-old, has remained even-keeled whether she wins or loses. That steadiness wasn’t taught, her parents said, nor were instincts like the Placerville fist bump. But one giant thing they’ve emphasized is the importance of being a good person, with threats to pull the plug on all of the racing if Jade’s attitude ever sours.
“As a mom, that’s just as important,” Kim said. “I’m glad you won, but if you’re a jerk off the track, we’re not doing this. The day you pretend this is all for you and you take advantage of that, we’re done.
“This is not our dream. This is yours.”
Win #5 of the year!! I’m truly grateful for this @KKM_67 team. No quit in this team and I love it. Thank you @mobil1racing and @ToyotaRacing for believing in me. #TeamToyota pic.twitter.com/crHWTcllz6 — Jade Avedisian / Aved Racing (@jadeavedisian) September 3, 2023
Of course, if Avedisian does end up becoming a NASCAR driver — particularly a winning one — she would be one of the most famous athletes in the United States. NASCAR has no women in its top-level Cup Series right now, though Danica Patrick was one of NASCAR’s biggest stars during the five seasons she raced in Cup — despite no victories and only seven top-10 finishes in 191 races.
The next step will be a transition to asphalt racing, and Avedisian hasn’t done much at all in big cars. Toyota will likely decide her next move if officials are pleased enough with her progress.
“There are no current plans for pavement, but it is something we will be exploring in the future,” Toyota Racing Development said in a statement for this story.
Avedisian was ranked No. 15 on a midseason list of NASCAR Cup Series prospects compiled by Fox Sports reporter Bob Pockrass after being named as an honorable mention in February, which speaks to the growing optimism about her talent.
Ultimately, though, Avedisian either has to perform or find something else to do. The reality of racing is most young drivers must either bring family money (in the millions of dollars) or sponsorship with them — unless they’re extremely talented, like a Larson or Bell.
Can Jade fall into that extreme talent category?
“I know that’s her goal, and she’s one of the few successful females, but I also understand the reality: We’re not coming with millions of dollars to the table,” Kim said. “So she has no choice but to be successful. You just have to hope that’s enough.”
GO DEEPER Kyle Larson’s big bet on dirt: NASCAR star’s new series hopes to grow sprint car racing
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Dave Biro / Courtesy of Toyota Racing Development)

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