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Central Valley student Max Mällinen, right, stands with the many trophies he and his father, Michael, have won in auto racing. (Jesse Tinsley)

Need for speed

15-year-old CV student putting together big future in formula car racing

Life in the fast lane is even sweeter when you’re only 15.

Too young to drive himself to Central Valley High School, Max Mällinen has been racing karts and cars since he was 10.

And if he stays on track, Mällinen could be racing Formula 3 by the time he graduates from CV.

“I’ve always enjoyed the speed of racing,” said Mällinen, who also ranks 16th nationally in his age group as a downhill skier. On top of that, he plays football and tennis at Central Valley, all while carrying a 3.86 grade-point average despite missing some big chunks of the academic calendar.

“I learned at an early age that if you sit down with your teachers and explain that I’m going to miss every Friday and sometimes a whole week, they really do understand,” said Mällinen, who will compete in 14 US F1600 races over seven weekends this spring and summer.

Overachievement is part of the drivetrain in the Mällinen family of Liberty Lake; father Michael, a chief executive officer in the semiconductor industry, has won several formula car championships. At 56, he still competes in the sport.

Younger brother Finn, 12, is only a few laps behind; he’s already winning kart races and skiing trophies.

Enthralled with racing since he began watching his dad at age 5, Max said he “always thought it would be awesome to do that, so I really appreciate that I got a chance.”

And while the Mällinens are a family of means, it’s taken more than money for Max to follow in his father’s treadmarks.

In other words, Max doesn’t merely live in the laps of luxury; he’s earned his success.

“I’ve learned that he’s pretty capable and he makes wise choices and gets in few incidents,” Michael said.

That’s motorspeak for avoiding crashes. Last year, Max raced karts at the regional, national and international levels with nary an incident.

“MarioKart” it isn’t. Speeds hit 70 mph over a tightly-curved course with tiny vehicles that glide inches above the track, but Max was ranked ninth by eKartingnews, catching the attention of the Swan Motorsports racing group.

“I’ve known Max for many years and followed his development,” said team owner Mirl Swan, who on March 19 announced that Max will drive for his team this year in the F1600 Formula F Championship Series. It’s a multiyear deal that envisions Max ascending the racing ladder into the F2000 Series and eventually the Atlantic Championship Series.

“I’m very pleased and prepared to work hard,” said Max, who credited Swan with easing his transition from karts. “He (Swan) would never get mad; he was just patient when I had trouble shifting,” Max said.

This year, Max will be behind the wheel of a Honda Spectrum, which packs a 1.5-liter four-cylinder motor that revs to 8,000 rpm and can take a lateral force of about 4Gs while cornering.

Along with the French-made Mygale, the Spectrum is considered the top car in F1600. And it won’t be found in the Central Valley parking lot.

It will be found at the famed track at Watkins Glen, N.Y., home of the final F1600 race of the season in mid-October. Until then, Max will hone his skills on and off the track.

The latter is underappreciated by the public: Whether it’s Formula F, Formula 3 or Formula One, speed is only part of the chemistry.

“There are a lot of fast drivers,” Michael said, ticking off the need to communicate with the team and dealing with the business side of racing. “Out of every 100 drivers, perhaps 20 have that skill,” said Michael, who sees that quality in Max.

“He has a great instinct for that,” Michael said.

And what about a mother’s instincts?

“Of course I worry,” said Elizabeth Mällinen, “but I’m confident in the safety features and the people who are working on the cars, plus I trust that they (Max and Finn) are going to make good decisions,” Elizabeth said.

“You just have to remember to exhale,” Elizabeth said.

No time for that: Max will lose that learner’s permit in June.