Happiest Behind the Wheel of a Go-kart, Young John John McLellan Races into an Action-Packed Future

Full speed ahead.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Diane E. Barber
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

When 10-year-old South Bay native John John McLellan was injured while riding a motocross bike in 2019, his Australian mother instinctively wanted to put the brakes on her son’s favorite pastime.

“His father, John, rides motorcycles and got him into dirt bikes when he was 5,” shares Joanne Walker. “John John had a natural knack for it and did not want to stop motorsports after he got hurt. The accident was heart-stopping for me, so I said, ‘Let’s find something closer to the ground for you!’”

Go-kart racing (where many world-class professional race car drivers start) soon became John John’s newfound passion. He quickly worked his way up from entry-level Kid Kart competitions to the Mini Swift and Mini Shifter classes, racing against kids ages 9 to 12. He has been competing in an average of 25 races per year since 2020 and has many accolades to his credit, including multiple Southern California championships and participation in international events.

“Our family traveled to Australia this year—to Perth for the famous Tiger Kart Club (the home kart track of Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo) and to Brisbane for him to race in the Australian Kart Championship,” says John John’s father, John McLellan. “In Perth, he placed in the top 10 during qualifying out of 70 drivers in his class, but unfortunately in the main event he got tangled up in a first-turn crash. He did not give up though, and he continued all the way to the checkered flag, gaining the respect of his peers. He also won Rookie of the Year at the Mexico national championship in 2022.”

The young driver’s natural talent also caught the attention of Riverside-based Factory Karts, and he was selected to be a test driver for the company. In September he signed with Nash Motorsportz—a national team based in Riverside and Orlando, Florida.

John John wears determination and grit on his sleeve, and his hard work has rightfully rewarded him. One would expect him to be sleepless with excitement the night before a race, but not so.

“The night before a race I sleep better,” he shares. “I usually think about what I did wrong in practice and maybe do some push-ups and sit-ups. Then I go to sleep fast so I can wake up early.”

With the car packed with his gear and his team waiting for him with his kart at the racetrack, John John and his family typically hit the road for local events at 5 a.m. After arriving, he walks the track with his team.

“The driver coach tells us what to do and sometimes asks me, ‘What do you do here?’ Then I usually throw a tennis ball with one hand with my dad for hand-eye coordination practice,” he says. “Before I get in the kart, I warm up my body by running in place, and I usually drink two bottles of water. If it is a hot day, I also dump a bottle of water on my head.”

Donning a fireproof driving suit, helmet, neck brace, chest protection, gloves and racing shoes, he jumps into his kart and quips the family mantra to his parents: “The dogs keep barking and the train keeps going!”—meaning no matter what anyone says, ignore them and keep going. Before Joanne steps away to watch alone from afar (so no one hears her enthusiastic screaming), she always tells him, “I am proud of you! Try your hardest and don’t give up!”

John John then ambitiously shifts his focus to competing. “During the warm-up lap, I get a little nervous. But when I start racing, all I think about is hitting my lines, passes and racecraft [strategy].”

John John’s Mini Swift class races up to 60 mph while his Factory Kart Mini Shifter class reaches speeds of 74 mph. There are 15 to 20 teams participating at a race with an average of 10 to 15 drivers per team. Drivers in several classes—different age groups and/or motors—are on the track in various sessions throughout the day.

A typical schedule includes a practice session, qualifying, a heat race and then the 20-lap main event. Depending on the track, a lap average is almost 50 seconds on a course that is just under a mile long. A field of drivers for a race at California events is usually 20 competitors, as compared to 30 in Mexico and as many as 40 to 70 at national events.

When the race concludes, all drivers are weighed in their uniforms with their karts. Each class has a different minimum weight requirement, and John John’s class is currently 245 pounds. Following the weigh-in, an official technical review assures that the vehicle meets race rules and specifications.

During the three short years that John John has been behind the wheel karting, he has been a familiar face on winners podiums. When asked if they ever spray Champagne like the pro drivers do, he says with a smile, “Only in Australia!”

Winnings are typically a trophy and sometimes a cookie, with more at larger events. “I was in a race called The Big One and won $250, new gloves, a cookie and chocolate milk!”

According to his proud father, “Our son is highly energetic, and he successfully channels that energy into his racing. Driving is fun for him, but it is the battle and winning that is the best part. Though racing is his top priority, he is very well-rounded and plays soccer, surfs and mountain bikes too. The most important things that we have taught him are respect, gratitude and optimism. With those core values, we know he will succeed.”

With John John’s sights laser-focused on becoming a Formula One race car driver someday, he is inspired by following his two professional racing idols: Ricciardo and the current world champion, Max Verstappen. When asked what he would say if he met them someday, he quickly responds, “Will you take me for a ride, please?”

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