Posted on 18 February 2012.
By Larissa Spencer (research by Randy Spencer) / OntarioOval.com – “Never give up! There are more downs than ups in racing.” That is the advice that J.R. Fitzpatrick would give to any young aspiring Canadian racer today. The 23 year old native of Cambridge, Ontario has had his share of ups and downs over his career, but his determination, and the fact he never gave up has once again paid off. 2012 has been on the up side for Fitzpatrick so far.
Fitzpatrick Motorsports announced in early January that former teammate and seven time Canadian champion Don Thomson Jr. has retired, and will become full time crew chief for the #84 team. Then news broke earlier this week that the Stacey Compton-owned Turn One Racing team had come to terms with Fitzpatrick on a one year deal to race a full schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series, replacing Cole Whitt, who has moved to the Nationwide Series and the JR Motorsports team.
Understandably, Fitzpatrick is very pumped about this new opportunity. He is no stranger to NASCAR racing south of the border, and was named in January to the list of the top NASCAR drivers age 25 and under to watch for in 2012. Along with racing the Truck series, he is slated to see action in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Often seen as a road course expert, J.R. definitely has caught the eye of many – more about that later.
J.R. made his debut in the NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series at the 2007 Telcel-Motorola Mexico 200 in Mexico City, where he finished 33rd due to mechanical issues. Later that season at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Fitzpatrick took the checkered flag in the NASCAR Canadian Tire series race, then jumped behind the wheel of the Busch Series car, but experienced some difficulties and finished 43rd.
Kevin Harvick Inc. put J.R. in the driver’s seat for ten selected NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events in the 2009 season. His first race for that team came at the Daytona International Speedway. It was his first time at the famous track, and he was there for 2 weeks testing an ARCA series car prior to the big event. J.R. led the most laps in the Truck race (17) ,and I asked what it was like leading the race and going almost 200 m.p.h. around the 2.5 mile tri-oval with a hot shoe on your back bumper.
“To have Kyle Busch push me around the place and couldn’t pass me was a little nerve racking,” said J.R. “But at the end of the day, it was just another car with another number. It doesn’t matter who was in the car.”
As the race neared completion, the #7 Mammoet truck pitted, and J.R. told me he felt that if they would have pitted on “the better end of the caution”, they likely would have won the race. Fourth in your first Daytona NASCAR race still isn’t anything to sneeze at.
J.R. also raced twice in the Nationwide Series that season, but Fitzpatrick left K.H.I. in 2010 and signed on with Dale Earnhardt Jr’s JR Motorsports team. He competed in three events for JR, including a race at Road America where he finished 7th.
He left that team at the end of the year however, and teamed up with Steve Meehan, a Toronto financial consultant and founder of the Investment Planning Counsel. Meehan put J.R. in a car for 7 Nationwide races, including a 10th place finish at Road America, and 5th at the Napa Auto Parts 200 in Montreal. Fresh off that finish though, Meehan and Fitzpatrick parted ways, and NASCAR Canadian Tire Series driver Andrew Ranger took over the ride for 2012.
This year is a new beginning for Fitzpatrick, with a full season to prove what he can do, and it should be really exciting!
That being said, there is so much more to J.R., and we recently had a chance to chat and find out what revs this guy’s engine.
John Ryan Fitzpatrick was born on the 9th day of May, 1988 in Cambridge Ontario. His dad – John Sr. – got into racing at age 42 as a hobby at Sauble Speedway, along with friend and Late Model racer Mel Priebe. J.R. started his racing career at the age of 6, driving go-karts and CASCAR Junior Late Models, then graduated to the big cars at age 13.
Think for a minute – How many times have you heard someone say that Stock Car Racing isn’t a sport? They say all you do is go fast and turn left. Well don’t tell J.R. Fitzpatrick that, or you may be in for a debate. While in high school, Fitzpatrick found himself defending himself when a gym teacher echoed the comments of so many.
“If I remember correctly, I think I got suspended for the way I responded to him,” says J.R. “I took that pretty personal and I proved to him that race car drivers are just as athletic or more athletic than hockey players, etc…”
J.R. had the last laugh when he competed against some of the best athletes from other schools. They didn’t think he would last, but he ended up being one of the best from his school. J.R. is used to adversity and challenges, and at age one was diagnosed with a hearing impairment that he effectively deals with today.
Racing his dad’s car in the CASCAR Super Series (now NASCAR Canadian Tire Series) at the age of 16, J.R. finished eleventh in the points standings in his first year, and second in the rookie race to Petey Shepherd. When I asked how he got into his dad’s car, he made it pretty clear that it wasn’t handed to him like some may think.
“Everyone thinks it was handed to me, but that’s not true, I had to earn my way,” said J.R. “I worked on the cars and got them ready. I had to prove myself by beating him in my very first CASCAR race. I got like eleventh, and he ended up spinning out in the dirt.”
At age 17, J.R. had three top five finishes, five top ten’s, and got his first CASCAR win. At age 18, he achieved one of his greatest accomplishments in racing, becoming the youngest driver to win a Canadian Tire Series championship. He raced part time in 2009, but returned to the series full time in 2010, and finished second to D.J. Kennington. Last season he managed to race an entire Canadian Tire Series schedule, while also racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Known as a road course expert, J.R. told me an interesting story:
“When I was younger playing Playstation, I always told myself I’m gonna be the next road course ace, the guy everybody watches and really kicks ass.”
He did say now he wants people to understand that he’s a short track oval guy who grew up at Flamboro, Barrie, and Sunset, but for some reason he adapted well to road courses.
“Most of my wins have come on road courses because we’re more dominant,” he said. “On ovals, we get wrecked, or flat tires, or whatever. Long story short, I guess I don’t mind being called a road course expert, but I don’t like being called a road course ringer, because obviously if I have to pick between a road course or an oval, I’m going to pick oval.”
When I asked J.R. what racing means to him, he simply said, “Like everything, I just can’t get enough.” I asked what he does away from the track and he quickly answered, “Work on cars.” He races whenever he gets a chance, whether it be a Super Stock at Delaware or Flamboro, a Can Am TQ Midget, a Legends car in the Maritimes, or a Mini Stock in eastern Ontario.
Fitzpatrick, on his way down east, stopped by at Capital City Speedway near Ottawa to take in some racing action once. Not wanting J.R. to have to sit on the sidelines and watch, Mini Stock driver Nolan Gould offered up his ride for the evening. It was the first time Fitzpatrick had ever driven a front-wheel drive race car, but it didn’t take him long to get the feel for the car, and in true J.R. fashion, he picked up the feature win.
Of all the short track cars he’s raced, a Super Late Model has to be his favorite.
“They’re piles of fun” he said. “Really fast, and always have lots of grip.”
For all you dirt fans out there, J.R. has raced a dirt Sprint Car once or twice, and he said they’re pretty quick and hectic.
“I was real tight in the feature, and did lots of wheelies.”
Sounds like he prefers racing on asphalt. Racing at so many different tracks, I asked J.R. for some of his favorites.
“Flamboro Speedway is like my home,” he said. “I go on Tuesdays just to mess around. I definitely love that place. My favorite around here, I’m leaning towards Sunset, but overall I’m gonna say Riverside or Saskatoon.”
His favorite big track in the U.S. has to be the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“It’s mental to go around,” he said. “It’s crazy – you hold it wide open at 180 m.p.h. in a truck, and it’s narrow and high-banked.”
Wherever he goes though, you know he has a HUGE target on his bumper. Everyone is always out to knock off the top dog.
We all have our greatest accomplishments and memories, and of course J.R. has his. Winning the CASCAR championship at age 18 was his first. Fourth at Daytona and fifth in the Nationwide series are right up there too, but I was surprised at what he considers perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date:
“Winning the Race of Champions at Flamboro Speedway,” he said. “I took the whole week off work, I love running the Super Stock, and winning against 30 of the best of the best was pretty cool.”
That race was on Canada Day 2011, and former NASCAR stars Kenny Schrader, Jimmy Spencer, and Ernie Irvan were on hand for the big event.
J.R. has some other cool things going on too. On a trip to Florida with some racing friends that included Mike Bentley, Jeff Showler, Darrel Lake, and “Stretch” Cowell, they talked over several ideas, one of which included a reality-type series. For now it’s on the back burner, but is definitely something that could show what it’s like for guys and gals who race for the love of it, and not all of the glamor you may think.
“People don’t see the real inside of it,” he said.
Something J.R. is working on currently, but didn’t elaborate on too much is a charitable foundation that he will be setting up in his name.
Anyone who knows J.R. and sees him around the track may notice he always has a Monster energy drink in his hand.
“Well I’ve been a steady energy drinker for a few years now and a lot of people are drinking Monster now because they have hung with me far too long,” he said. “I like the taste and the look and the meaning of Monster. I have a product sponsor now and they sent me 12 cases the other day, so thank you Monster Energy!!”
We closed out the interview with a few questions about the people he would like to thank, and his future plans. His mom and dad have always been his biggest supporters, and he said without them he wouldn’t be where he is. Jason Sharpe is J.R.’s business manager, and he said that Jason does all the leg work and opens lots of doors.
“He enjoys what he does and we’re good friends,” he said.
He also thanks his family and friends, but the biggest influence on J.R.’s career is his long time friend and mentor Don Thomson Jr. Don was always the crew chief on his late model, and it was the plan to begin with to be where they are today.
“When we took that year apart (2011) it made us stronger in a way,” said J.R. “Our relationship is a lot like brothers. He’s been around since I was eight years old. I grew up with him and he beat the crap out of me like an older brother would.”
At the time we first spoke, J.R. told me that his future goal was to make it into the U.S. as a full time driver. Obviously he’s now a step closer. If that doesn’t work out, he says he’ll “Own a car in a few different divisions around Southern Ontario, and try to help bring new talent into short track racing. And I’ll continue to race where ever and when ever I can.”
A big thanks to J.R. for doing this interview, and for being so open and honest, and thanks to my dad for all the research, help, and editing.
You can follow J.R. Fitzpatrick on Twitter at www.twitter.com/j_r_fitzpatrick.
Photos by ImageFactor.ca Photography / www.imagefactor.smugmug.com