The Wheel Deal

Go-kart racer Elliot Cox has a need for speed
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Angela Jackson and submitted

When Elliot Cox looks back over his racing career, he can point to a lot of colorful memories. He is the reigning national Super Karts USA champion, has raced in many cities and states, and was a part of Team USA in Italy last year. He has met several famous drivers, made a radio commercial with Indy car driver Scott Dixon and shared a stage with Helio Castroneves. CBS Sports has interviewed him on TV, and he has been recognized in both houses of the Indiana General Assembly. His goal is to be the youngest-ever winner of the Indianapolis 500.

But that will have to wait for a few years. Elliot is 11 years old.

The adventure began when his grandfather, a sky-diving instructor, was recovering from shoulder surgery and spending time with Elliot while the boy’s parents were busy with his new baby sister, Isabel, now 6. The plan for the day was to go shopping for a dirt bike; instead, they came home with a go-kart. At first Amanda Cox, Elliot’s mom, was not very happy with what her dad had done.
“He asked my mom to come and help him get it out of the car, and she freaked,” Elliot recalls. “She said I could only drive it on the grass, but I started taking driving lessons and here we are.”

Amanda says she’s OK with her son’s racing now, but she still gets nervous when he is on the track. She has seen him spin out, bump into other cars and have two major accidents – fortunately all without injury.

Dad Travis wasn’t initially enthusiastic about his son’s new pastime, either. “I had zero interest in racing,” he says. “The first few times he went to the track I didn’t go. I hoped he would lose interest, and I could sell the go-kart and buy a fishing pole.”

But that didn’t happen. Today Elliot’s racing activities make up a big part of the family’s life together. “It has turned into something really special,” Travis says.

Off to the races
Each year they spend about half of their weekends away from their home — just north of County Line Road on the southside — at races in other states and cities such as Miami, New Orleans and Las Vegas. Elliot also races locally at tracks in New Castle and Whiteland. When they’re not at races, they’re often at the track trying setups and maneuvers and making adjustments to the car.
Elliot says the best part of racing is the thrill of winning, but he also appreciates the connections it has fostered.

“I like to spend time with my family, and I’ve made a lot more friends than I would ever have made not racing,” he says. “My best friends are at the track. Racing is like one big family.”
In addition to his parents, several other people make up his racing support team. Both sides of his extended family come to the races, often even when they’re out of town, and he can point to a long list of sponsors. Jason Birdsell is his driving coach, Zach Dirr at Elite Performance is his workout trainer and Ben Newman coaches him in mental toughness.

“He helps me stay mentally tough in tough situations,” Elliot says. “I sit in my kart before a race and visualize how I want it to come out.”

Justin Willis, Elliot’s teacher at Gray Road Christian School, also plays a big part by working with him so that he keeps up with his schoolwork when he has to miss classes. The result is that Elliot is an honor student and president of the student council. It might also help that his parents won’t let him race if his grades go down.

“From our perspective the stuff he does off the track is the most important thing he’s doing,” Travis says. “He works hard and gives it his best. That’s his part of the bargain, and then we go have fun.”

Racing for a cause
Elliot’s passion for racing has also enabled him to support a cause about which he is also passionate: dyslexia. “Because I’m dyslexic, I don’t think dyslexic kids should be labeled ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb,’” he says. “Before I knew I had it, I was the slowest reader ever, and people would laugh. I hated reading and never raised my hand when the teacher asked who wanted to read.”

Now, thanks to 18 months of working with a tutor, Elliot loves to read (especially Greek mythology), and he wants to make sure other children get the same opportunity. To that end, he holds an annual “Driving for Dyslexia” event to raise money for the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana, and he has already raised $40,000 for the organization. All the money coming from admission, driving fees, sponsorships and a silent auction goes directly to the cause. This year’s event will be held April 26 at Speedway Indoor Karting.

Part of Elliot’s motivation for contributing to DII was Justin Wilson, a professional driver who had also overcome the condition but was then killed in a race. Elliot decided to carry on his legacy of using racing as a way to raise awareness and money for the cause.

“I got to meet him, and he was really nice,” Elliot says. “He’s my biggest inspiration in racing.”

In fact, the radio commercial he made with Scott Dixon and Wilson’s brother, Stefan, was to promote sales of socks with Wilson’s name on them. The money raised by the socks also went to the dyslexia institute since that had been Wilson’s charity, too.

When Elliot learned that a bill was being put forth in the General Assembly that would require dyslexia screening for all Indiana students, he wrote a letter to state Sen. Aaron Freeman encouraging him to pass it. Freeman invited him to speak to the Senate, and the bill passed unanimously.

Another way Elliot contributes is by giving presentations at schools, usually in fourth-grade classrooms, through the Joseph Maley Foundation’s “dis-ABILITY” program.

“I pass around my racing gear and sign autographs and tell them about dyslexia and racing,” he says.

His mom says the rewards have been more than he could have imagined. “A few times the teachers have said they have three or four kids in the class who have dyslexia, so it is really cool for them to see that Elliot doesn’t let it stop him,” she says.

The value of giving back to his community that Elliot’s parents have encouraged in him started early. A student at his school who had cancer inspired him to raise money for childhood cancer research through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Each year he positions a lemonade stand outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Carb Day. The goal is always to raise $1,000; so far he has raised a total of $10,000.

Off-track living
While Elliot is quickly becoming something of a celebrity, his daily life resembles that of most other boys his age. He swims on the Franklin Central Flashes swim team and likes to play with his die-cast Indy cars and hang out with his sister.

“I like video games as much as any other kid,” he says. “I have tons of games on my iPad, and I have an Xbox that I play with my friends.” Many of those are racing games, and his favorite movie – no surprise – is “Cars.”

His room, however, is not like most kids’. Trophies cover every surface and fill his closet, and ribbons and medals hang from the walls beside photos of Elliott and his racing heroes. Decals of him in his car, No. 51, and checkered flags adorn one wall along with the battered steering wheel from one of his accidents, a rear wing from Marco Andretti’s car and a front wing from Graham Rahal’s. The base for a trophy-covered table is a wheel that once belonged to Sebastian Bourdais. He also has a brick from the original Indy 500 track.

Elliott began racing at age 5 and got his first national win at age 6. He’s currently in the 8-12 group that goes up to 70 mph, but he’s getting ready to transition to a bigger, faster kart that will go 80 or 85. After that it will be Formula 4 cars, Pro Mazda, Indy Lites and then IndyCar. He hopes someday to win “the triple crown” – the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Le Mans sports car race.

One of his sponsors, Tony Alderson of Alderson Commercial Group, says he thinks Elliot has what it takes to make it happen.

“I am continually impressed with Elliot’s courage, grace and leadership,” he says. “His ability to manage the challenges associated with full-time racing, maintain his role as spokesman to raise awareness and support for those with dyslexia, and keep up with school is simply amazing.”

Whatever happens, Elliot says he is committed to remaining humble and showing his appreciation to his fans.

“The moment you get cocky is the moment you’re going to lose the race and your sponsors and supporters,” he says.

But Alderson doesn’t plan to go anywhere. “I’m proud to be a part of the Elliot Cox racing family,” he says, “and I look forward to the day I watch Elliot kiss the bricks and drink the milk at the Indianapolis 500.”

Elliot Cox’s Driving for Dyslexia
When: April 26
Where: Speedway Indoor Karting