Anne M. Peterson
* PORTLAND - Tõnis Kasemets first raced at age eight, when he steered his dad's car across a frozen lake in his home of Estonia, in what was then the Soviet Union.
Since then, Kasemets has done nearly everything possible to stay behind the wheel. He even cleaned houses for a time when he moved to the United States to save up for a car.
Now, at 32, Kasemets' circuitous journey has landed him in the Champ Car series with Paul Gentilozzi's Rocketsports racing team.
"It's pretty unreal, because it's like you've tried to do it for so many years, and then finally you get the chance. It feels like - it's hard to explain - it's tremendous," he said.
His was not a likely career choice for someone who grew up in the Estonian coastal city of Parnu on the Baltic Sea. His father was a contractor and part-time driver in the East European Rally Cup. His mother worked in day care.
Racing was a sport enjoyed by only a lucky few. Kids joined government-supported clubs that had only two or three go-karts at their disposal. Only the very best got to race and advance.
"You had to fight with like 30 guys to be in these two go-karts," he said. "Obviously, if your parents had money you could go buy a go-kart, but if you didn't you had to go that route."
Kasemets did well .......
..... and twice won the Baltic States Kart Racing Championship as a teenager. He continued racing in Europe before moving to the United States in 1994.
Personal issues and finances kept him out a car for several years. To make ends meet when they arrived, Kasemets and his wife - who settled in Illinois - cleaned houses.
"If people don't know what it means - they can look what their housekeepers do every day," he said. "They clean toilets, they clean showers, they do their beds, they do their laundry. That's what we did."
Still, racing remained his passion. He named his son Ayrton after the late Formula One driver Ayrton Senna of Brazil. Ayrton Kasemets is now 10.
Kasemets, who eventually started a painting business that he still runs today, did not return to racing until 1998. He bought a Reynard Formula 2000 car and began racing in SCCA club events.
After winning the SCCA Club Racing National Championship in 2000, Kasemets graduated to the Formula Ford Zetec series. He ran six races in the Atlantic series in 2004, and drove in his first full season last year.
Along the way he caught the eye of Gentilozzi, who met Kasemets years ago at a banquet.
"I can remember Tõnis coming up to me, I was the speaker that night, and asking me questions about how he moves up the ladder and what the progression is like for racing," Gentilozzi said.
Kasemets did well as a rookie in the Atlantic series, with three wins, three poles and six podiums, but he fell short of the championship to finish second.
"He really should have won a championship in the Atlantic," Gentilozzi said. "I watched a real competitor work very, very hard to get to the race each week and to win races, and that's something, that kind of commitment and enthusiasm, it's very difficult to find in a race driver today."