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Student racer Ben Albano hits the books and the track

“When I was little, I’d always sit on the front porch and watch cars go by and name them,” he said.

The 18-year-old started racing go-karts at age 8 and full-sized cars at age 15. Now, Albano is in Atlanta for the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge. He’s ranked second in his class, entering the last race of the series.

If he wins the championship on Friday, he will go home with $75,000 to use on future races, and he’ll be one step closer to his dream of making a career out of racing.

“My goal is to be paid to race a car,” he said. “It’s always been my dream to become a professional race car driver.”

Albano said his MX-5 looks like a normal street car from the outside, but the interior is stripped and equipped with a full roll cage and a five-point harness. The car can hit speeds of about 130 miles per hour, but the cars usually average 80 miles per hour in races, where the goal is to try to complete as many laps in the given time. Albano said higher-level racers get faster cars.

Albano attends the Skip Barber Racing School, which has produced famous drivers such as Paul Newman, Jeff Gordon and Marco Andretti. He said it costs him about $30,000 to have access to the car and pay for the season’s races, even after winning a half scholarship from Mazda in 2013.

“Drivers tend to run out of money before they run out of talent,” Albano said.

Aside from pursuing a career as a professional driver, Albano is also pursuing a double major in music and journalism as a full-time undergraduate student.

“Education is very important to me, and that’s why I sought out a prestigious university like the University of North Carolina,” Albano said.

Albano’s mother, Kelly Albano, said she supports her son in his goals, though she said he has to work hard to balance racing and academics.

“It’s like having a full-time job and being in college,” she said. “Because he isn’t a UNC athlete, he isn’t given the same considerations, and that sometimes is a little tricky.”

But she said she still thinks UNC is the best place for him to try to be both.

“I think that if there’s anywhere that he could pursue this and make it work, it would be here,” she said.

Ben Albano also plays trombone in UNC’s jazz and wind ensembles. He brought his trombone with him while traveling for races during the summer. After flying back to Chapel Hill on Saturday morning, he plans to perform in a concert Saturday night.

Lee Carpentier, who has been coaching Ben Albano since he was 10, said he has seen him grow both as a driver and a person.

“He’s a bit of an overachiever,” said Carpentier. “He always wants to keep moving forward.”

Ben Albano said he is also proud of his involvement with Project Yellow Light, which aims to stop teen deaths caused by distracted driving.

“I think, outside the car, he has really become aware that his demographic has problems with distracted driving,” Carpentier said.

After returning to campus, Ben Albano said he wants to continue advocating for Project Yellow Light and hopes to continue pursuing his goal of professional racing.

“If I can’t drive distracted when I’m a racecar driver, I don’t see how anyone else could,” Ben Albano said.

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Though it can be hard to manage music, school, advocacy and driving, Albano said he feels at home behind the wheel — both in the car and in the classroom.

“I like having the state of mind of being in a car and knowing everything I do is within my control,” he said.