At Whitt’s Beginning: NCWTS rookie is making his mark

6 Jun

Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

The late teenage years are often good ones. For many people, that is the age at which you’re old enough to make most of your own decisions but still young enough that you’re not completely (cough, financially) independent. But at 19 years old – at least until June 22 – NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie Cole Whitt has a demanding schedule to go with a high profile career that he has been working toward since elementary school. Here’s the good part: he’s loving every minute of it.

“It’s not a hard job really at all,” Whitt said. “It’s fun. It’s really enjoyable. Just trying to live it up as much as I can because you never know, one day it could be gone.”

Look through the list of drivers and team owners in NASCAR, and you’ll see a disproportionate amount of names with “Jr.” attached to them. Very often, racing is a family affair, passed down from generation to generation. In Whitt’s case, he had always wanted to race because he saw his older cousin do it – not to mention his dad and grandpa.

Of course, racing is an intense hobby – one that requires extensive travel and even more time. As a result, Whitt didn’t get to have a completely normal childhood lifestyle. He went to a regular elementary school, but as he began racing sprint cars in Indiana, around when he was beginning junior high, the normal setup became more difficult to maintain.

Whitt began going to a charter school. He would go to school Monday through Wednesday, then fly out Friday for the weekend’s race, come back on Sunday, and begin the cycle all over again.

“It was pretty crazy, and it was really hectic for me, traveling all the time,” Whitt said, “but at the same time … schooling came first from [my mom]. They really pushed me to make sure I did everything I needed to do.”

For Whitt’s senior year of high school, he did full home-school because his travel was incompatible with any sort of a normal schedule. He finished up school, and after seven NCWTS races and five top 10 finishes, he had become the first rookie (and youngest driver) to lead the series points standings.

As a kid who loved to watch the trucks race on Friday nights, being able to set a little bit of history in the series that was fairly important to him growing up  – “and at least be able to say I did something” – has been pretty cool.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR

The 19-year-old led the standings by just one point, right above 33-year-old Johnny Sauter. While Whitt’s moment on top was short-lived – Sauter regained the points lead with a second-place finish in Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 – he didn’t seem inclined to let it go to his head even before he knew it would shortly end.

“This sport will humble you really quick,” Whitt said just a few hours before the 250. “It’ll do it by itself. If you think you’re on top of the world, next thing you know, you could be at the bottom of it. The sport’ll knock you down quick if you get too much on top of it.”

“I was raised with great parents. They always taught me to keep a level head and be really humble and just be thankful for the opportunities you have and everything that kind of comes around. I’ve been very fortunate to have, you know, as much as I’ve gotten already.”

His recent rise has prompted some changes in attitudes toward him, Whitt said. When he and his team first entered the series, no one really knew who they were, and no one really cared. These days, it’s a bit different.

“Now I feel like we’re on everyone’s radar, you know,” Whitt said. “I feel like they’re kind of gunning to go beat us, which, I guess that’s good. I mean, that’s what we’re here for. But at the same time it makes it a little bit tougher because everyone seems to be wanting to only beat you, but I mean at the end of the day we’re still trying to beat every truck here too.”

After his 15th-place finish at Kanas Speedway, Whitt is second in the standings, 12 points behind Sauter, Whitt still averages a finish of 8.2. He said that as long as he and his team keep putting the car in position at the end of races, they’ll eventually cross the finish line first.

“I feel like we’ve just been at the end of every race,” Whitt said. “At the same time we’ve also been fast, so you know what I mean, it’s been good, but we’re still trying to win races every time we go out. That’s our goal every time we go to the racetrack. I think we’re getting closer to that. We started running a lot of the top 10s, and now we’re moving into top fives. Hopefully if we just keep going down the right track we can turn it into wins.”

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