RPW Exclusive: A Chance Meeting With A NASCAR Driver Has Kart Racer Matt Kelly In The Driver’s Seat

Column By: JENNIE BROWN / RPW – HERKIMER, NY – Matt Kelly, a 17-year-old kart racer from Herkimer, New York, is a racer to keep your eyes on.

It’s not everyday that someone can say that one of the greatest racecar drivers of our time got them started in the crazy world of racing.  However, for Kelly, that is exactly how his racing career started.

The Kelly family, owners of Kelly’s Meat Market in Little Falls, New York got into a little more then sponsoring an event when they signed on to donate some meat to Stewart and Jessica Friesen’s Autism fundraiser at Fonda Speedway. The event was near and dear to Patrick and Joann as their son, Matt, has autism. Little did they know that what was an awesome gesture to participate in an event would lead to their son’s new found passion, racing a go kart.

Patrick and Matt Kelly had to pick up some shirts from One Zee Tee’s and they picked the right night to do so. Upon arriving at the Friesen compound, there was some go kart racing happening at Stewart and Jessica’s backyard track, Fire Pit Speedway. Stewart offered for Matt to make some laps in a go kart on their track and give it a try.

“At first I kept saying no, but then I was like you know what, okay, I’ll try it.”

Matt Kelly made his first laps that night at Fire Pit Speedway. Some alone, some racing against the Friesen’s. He could tell me exactly where the smooth spots were on the track and exactly what the track conditions were in certain areas. Most seasoned racecar driver’s wouldn’t have as much information about the track conditions as Matt could tell me from the few laps he made.

A big struggle that I hear from most racers and tracks is that there is a lack of involvement from the younger generations for our sport. What if it is as simple as giving them a chance and letting them experience the sport first hand? As Matt said, if you want to race you really need to learn about what you are racing. In his case, that meant getting some solid advice from Stewart Friesen about tires and where to run on the track. He credited his being able to run the high side on this advice. What I don’t think Matt realizes is that some people would pay big money for the mentor he has on his side.

Call it luck, but Matt Kelly’s first racing experience at a track resulted in his first two career victories. Tom Varin gave Matt an opportunity in a winged go kart at Dodge City and Matt took the checkers on his first night out. “I still don’t consider that one a victory, because I was alone out there, racing by myself.” A win is a win, and Matt’s second win of the night wasn’t as easy to obtain. He started in the back of a heat and before he knew it, he was passing karts and they were moving to the back. He won his first ever qualifier and also won the pole for the big feature event.

“Matt doesn’t want anyone to treat him differently,” his parents told me when I asked them about him racing with autism. “In fact, the night he won at Dodge City, he won the qualifier and got to start on the pole for the feature. He was so upset thinking that they had given him the pole because they were following his story that he climbed the starter stand to make sure he had gotten the position fairly.”

Just from the short conversation I was lucky enough to have with Matt and his family, I believe we will be hearing about Matt Kelly in years to come. He would like to eventually move up to street stock and then advance from there, but he also knows that there is a lot of hard work, experience and money needed before you can move into the big world of modified racing. Most people don’t realize what goes into getting on the track every week, but Matt seems to have the determination and smarts to get there.

Going into 2020, the Kelly family will be fielding two karts for Matt to drive at Caroga Creek and Dodge City. They hope to run a complete season, but they are going to see how it goes. Matt’s 15 year old sister, Grace, handles his social media. Matt’s Grandma, Mary, houses his karts in her garage, and the family business, Kelly’s Meat Market sponsors him, so you could say their racing team is a family affair.

“We can’t thank Jess and Stewart Friesen enough, really 1,000 times.” Joann Kelly told me when we spoke. Joann was so relieved for Matt to finally enjoy something. “Over the years I’ve forced him to participate in things to be social, but he really enjoys racing.”

Matt will certainly have his hands full going into 2020. He will be juggling his senior year, cross country track, playing in the band and preparing for his first full karting season, but being able to fist pump across the finish line will make it all worth it.