By JAMES COOK
---- — GAYLORD — The Turtle Creek Snocross Nationals were the start of something big for Zak Mason.
The 18-year-old from Gaylord has joined Leighton Motorsports and will compete in the 2013-14 ISOC Pro Lite championship.
Leighton Motorsports first approached Mason at Turtle Creek in February, although team owner Trace Leighton said they had their eyes on him for quite some time.
Mason said maybe the hardest part was keeping the whole deal quiet until it was made official Wednesday.
“I was really excited about it,” he said. “It’s pretty much been a dream of mine forever. It was a pretty big deal for me, and it was pretty tough to keep it a secret.”
“They’ve been trying to guess which team he was going to be on,” Leighton said of rampant speculation in snocross circles. “We’re sitting there the whole time, going, ‘Nope, you’re wrong with that one.’”
At Turtle Creek, Mason won the Sport class the first day and was runner-up the next night.
“I did really well last year,” Mason said. “I ended up winning eight finals, and got second three times.”
That led to the national Sport series title, which he won by 36 points, despite racing in two fewer events than the next three competitors in snocross’ top amateur level.
“We’ve been watching him all year,” Leighton said. “Zak raced against my son Trevor last year. They were pretty competitive against each other in 2011-12.
“He’s not a big kid at all, but he’s so smooth. He grinds the smoothest lines and never seems to have to ride over his head. He’s just got a ton of natural talent. He’s been doing it all these years, just him and his dad, Rob.”
At the end of the series, he suffered a lacerated liver, punctured lung and broken rib at Lake Geneva, Wis. Mason said his doctors have told him he’ll be back to 100 percent in mid-June, in plenty of time for next season’s start in Duluth, Minn., on Thanksgiving weekend.
Tucker Hibbert had similar injuries at the same event in 2012 and came back to dominate the Pro Open series last year, including wins at Turtle Creek.
“He’s going to get physically stronger every day at the practice track,” Leighton said of the 5-foot-5, 135-pound Mason. “That’s what you need to have. In Pro Lite, you’re racing against men.”
Trevor Leighton finished 10th in Pro Lite last year, and was the top rookie.
“He’s a lot bigger kid than Zak, and he got pushed around the first four weekends,” Trace Leighton said. “He figured out, ‘Hey, I’m not taking this crap anymore.’ And he went from 22nd to eighth in points in two weeks. They have to get their feet wet. That’ll be Zak next year. And the year after that, we’ll be looking fro him to be top-five in points.”
Mason and East Coast Snocross champion Corin Todd will be joining the Leighton team, which already includes Trevor Leighton and two-time Women’s Pro-Am champ Jennifer Pare.
“It shows how committed he is that he’s been doing it while he’s in high school,” Leighton said. And now when he’s going to be out of high school and at a practice track all week, the sky is the limit for the kid.”