HEDGER: Justin Grant Turns Heads In Ocala

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Justin Grant
Justin Grant turned a lot of heads during the opening weekend of the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series season. (Al Steinberg Photo)
Ron Hedger

OCALA, Fla. – Justin Grant came within one spot of sweeping USAC’s season opening doubleheader at Bubba Raceway Park, easily winning round one before falling to fellow youngster Hunter Schuerenberg’s rim riding charge in the finale.

Like so many others, he’s an “overnight sensation” who has been toiling at his craft longer than one might think. And it hasn’t been easy.

“I’d been mostly running midgets with the BCRA before I moved from California to Indiana in 2009 to try and get into big-time racing,” recalled the 26-year-old. “At first, I lived at Jeff Walker’s shop and worked on his cars while I tried to get a ride. At the end of that summer, he put me into one of his cars to give me some exposure and it worked, as Kenny Baldwin hired me for the 2010 season.

“Mark Henry from Ohio hired me for 2011 and ’12, then in ’13 I went back to Jeff Walker’s team. The next two years I was back with the Henrys in Ohio, then last year I started out with the Baldwins but bounced around until I ended up in Sam McGee’s car at the end of the season. That led to them hiring me for this season to make a run at the USAC title.”

When asked if he has another job on the side and whether it helps to be young and single when you’re bouncing around from ride to ride, a broad grin lights up Grant’s countenance.

“No, all I do is race. I’m married, I own a house and I have a wife and three kids. So far, we’ve gotten by on my racing.

“I’ll do this as long as it makes sense. I’d love to move on but if I spend my entire career here, I’ll be happy. I really like the USAC guys. They’re great people and we all have a good time on the road. If I can run USAC until I’m Dave Darland’s age and still be making a living, I’ll be happy.”

When told that, Darland too adopts a big grin before saying, “He’ll have to get his wife a job first. That’s how it works for me. She works too so I can live the dream. We do OK, but sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle.”

When asked about Grant as a driver, USAC’s all-time win leader is effusive in his praise.

“He always does a good job. He doesn’t tear much stuff up and he’s always fast. He’s become the guy you’ve got to beat to win the race. He’s got talent but no major money source, which may have kept him past the age of moving up despite his obvious talent. But he’s a great driver who would do well in anything.”

Grant acknowledges that he’d make more money running winged sprints, something he’s done “five or six times,” but so far the right opportunity hasn’t come along.

“They’re really fast and I like running them. But their top guys are so good, I know I’m not going to go out there and win an Outlaw race right off. Drivers in both series are really good at what we do but it’s an entirely different type of racing. Right now, I think I can make more money here. People say running with a wing is easier but neither one is easy.

“They might be more stable but they’re really dependent on air flow. That’s a skill set we don’t develop here, because we don’t have to deal with it. But give our top guys some seat time in a winged car and they’d be as competitive as anyone.

“I’d do anything to advance my career and make my family more comfortable, so I’m always ready to listen to offers. But right now, our goal is the 2017 USAC championship.”

When asked about Grant’s talent, another veteran, Jerry Coons Jr., is as effusive as Darland.

“A lot of kids start out in equipment they’re not really comfortable in, so they just stand on the gas and see what happens. Justin has gotten beyond that and he’s really smooth now. He’s shown his talent by doing well in the Silver Crown series too. Those cars teach you how to finish races and he hasn’t torn any cars up in the two or three years I’ve been watching him closely.

“Justin looks good in all three USAC series and I think he’ll just continue to get better. I know he’s a hard worker, too, as he’s also taking care of his Silver Crown car. I think he understands the whole deal, both the driving and the mechanical end of racing. As drivers mature, they get smarter and smarter and he’s pretty damn good already.”

Like Darland and Coons, the rest of the racing world will be seeing a lot of Justin Grant in the future.