I have never been a NASCAR fan. For a guy who loves sports, I knew more about curling than I did NASCAR. I could never understand why watching cars making hundreds of laps was so popular.
Then I attended the 2014 Daytona 500 in Jacksonville, Florida courtesy of Lowe’s and my life changed. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve watched each of the ensuing races in Phoenix and Las Vegas, intently. We interviewed 21-year old rookie Kyle Larson since then and my respect for him, and the sport, is through the roof.
The highlight of the trip? Meeting six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and Lowe’s driver Jimmie Johnson.
Prior to meeting Jimmie Johnson, I had no frame of reference for his level of success or how historically dominant he has been working alongside Crew Chief Chad Knaus.
It was only after someone aptly explained that Knaus is the Bill Belichick to Johnson’s Tom Brady (though they’ve been twice as successful in terms of championships) did I realize how much they’d accomplished as a team. Here’s Jimmie and I, laughing about our favorite recipes:
After I met and briefly interviewed Johnson, I was fortunate to be invited into the Lowe’s pit for the start of the race.
The thing that impressed me the most was the sound. When you’re standing in the pit, you hear this groaning sound in the distance, like a gathering thunderstorm, and then all of the sudden… BOOM! The entire field explodes right in front of you, a mix of colors and shapes that you can barely discern. Then, they’re gone again and the sound dissipates to a low hum.
What were you doing when you were 21 years old? For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson, the answer is driving the #42 Target Chevrolet, going head to head with NASCAR legends like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
“Being only 21-years old, I get to race against a lot of guys who have been racing since I was a toddler,” said Larson regarding his rookie season. “It’s neat to race those guys, especially Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but hopefully I can beat them.”
Larson made his Sprint Cup Series debut in last week’s Daytona 500 and was slowed early on, finishing 38th. But he followed that up with a 20th place finish at Phoenix this past weekend.
A rookie hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race since Joey Logano in 2009. Then again, no rookie has been hailed by both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart as a can’t-miss prospect.
The Elk Grove, California native has gone from being a local driver to a Sprint Cup driver in just two and a half years.
“I started racing when I was seven. I think it’s a lot tougher now to get to the top level because there are so many kids who are good and sponsors are hard to come by, so you definitely have to catch all the right breaks and I do think you have to start when you are young. You almost have to start out when you’re five to seven years old.”
Speaking of youth, one of Larson’s favorite aspects of being affiliated with Target is the work he does with kids.
Professional race car drivers inspire awe in most people as they whip around the track at speeds that would make most people lose their minds. It is not a sport for the faint hearted. There are, however, several professional drivers who have inspired fans on a special level with their accomplishments over the years in unique ways. Here are five of the most inspirational race car drivers.
Alessandro “Alex” Zanardi
As an Italian race car driver, Zanardi had a respectable career with two CART championship titles in the late 1990s. He also participated as a Formula One driver. However in 2001 he suffered a horrific crash that resulted in the amputation of both of his legs. Less than two years after the accident, he returned to racing and competed in the FIA World Touring Car Championship. Even more famously, he switched sports and went into handbiking, which is a type of cycling for the Paralympics. In this sport he won gold and silver medals at the 2012 London Paralympics. He is a wonderful example of perseverance in spite of adversity.
Ayrton Senna da Silva
Sadly, Senna was the last driver fatality in Formula One when he was killed in an accident during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but his legend lives on and continues to inspire many, especially in his native Brazil. Senna made his Formula One debut in 1984, and he won three Formula One world championships during his career. He is popularly considered one of the greatest Formula One drivers in the history of the sport. He also was victorious during the Monaco Grand Prix six time, which continues to be a record. The sheer number of his accomplishments is extraordinary and warrants him mention.
This German race car driver is also popularly regarded as one of the best drivers in Formula One history and statistically is one of the best the entire sport has ever known. He holds numerous records including the most number of championships, points scored, victories within a single season, fastest laps, race victories, and more. In 2002 he gained notoriety for finishing in the top three in every race of the season (and thus gaining the most consecutive podium finishes), the only driver in Formula One history to have done so. He is also known for his involvement with various charities and donations millions of dollars. He is another example of what can be accomplished with the incredible intersection of talent and hard work.
One of the most famous names in racing, even among people who do not follow the sport, Patrick has carved a name for herself as the most successful woman in the sport. She is the only woman to have ever won a race in the IndyCar series, and placed third at the Indianapolis 500, which was the highest finish by a woman. She won a NASCAR Spring Cup Series pole as well, the first female NASCAR driver to have done so. She has also been the fastest pole qualifier to successfully qualify for the Daytona 500 since 1990. She is inspirational because of her ability to overcome stereotypes and compete on a level that previously no woman had successfully achieved.
Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton
This British Formula One driver was the youngest to ever sign a contract that resulted in a Formula One drive in 2007. He is also considered the first black driver in the Formula One series, and was the first black driver to win any major race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is the holder of numerous records, and finished second in the 2007 Formula One Championship, but went on to win the World Championship the next year. He accomplishments at such a young age as well as being a trailblazer in the sport for people of different ethnic backgrounds are two great reasons to be inspired by this young Brit.
Each sport produces athletes and competitors which offer fans and the rest of the population someone to admire. They overcome adversity, achieve amazing goals, and persevere even when the cards seem stacked against them. Race car driving is no different. These five competitors have inspired many who follow the sport of racing around the world.