CONCORD, N.C. – It’s a hot evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway and like many similar evenings in the track’s history, there’s an angry driver.
As the sun sets behind the frontstretch grandstand, he is by himself in the garage usually reserved for the Xfinity Series on NASCAR’s race weekends.
The tall figure of a dark haired 15-year-old stands in his black firesuit looking down at his phone.
When approached, there are signs of tears in his normally jovial eyes.
“We didn’t even finish the first lap,” he says before reaching down and slapping the back of his No. 25 Legends car, a 5/8-scale fiberglass version of the modifieds that once raced in NASCAR.
He paces around the car and assess the damage to the front end – relatively minor compared to a wreck he was in the previous week – as he lists how the first three rounds of the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout have gone for him.
“Every time,” he says. “We’ve lost something on the front end, blown a tire, got taken out. Doesn’t matter. We don’t pass Lap 2.”
This aspiring racer’s name is Justice Calabro, he’s not from around here and he just wants to finish a race.
GO EAST, YOUNG MAN
“Oh my God, we can get how much for how much?”
When Vanessa Calabro sat down and looked at how much it would take for her family to get a house in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area – roughly 2,400 miles from their home in Hollywood, California – she was surprised.
It was mid-2017 and the Calabro family had a decision to make.
Would it pick up stakes and swap coasts in order for their 13-year-old go-kart racing son to pursue his dream of auto racing?
The price range helped.
“We can literally get three times the house for half the price,” Vanessa’s husband, Cliff Calabro, said. “That really excited her.”
The next question his wife asked?
Would Cliff – who was a guitar player and music director for the Bret Michaels band before his son’s birth – be able to continue his job as a freelance audio mixer in television?
“I could do what I do from anywhere,” says Cliff, who did the math and discovered it was cheaper to fly cross-country a few times a month than to continue living in California, where he primarily worked out of a home office.
“I was paying $2,500 a month in water and power and it’s only about $1,200 for me to fly three times a month,” he says.
For Justice, an only child who was turned onto motorsports through racing movies like “Cars” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (his dad bought and restored one of the cars used for “Herbie”), there were other benefits to relocating to the Carolinas.
While he’d be moving east to Concord, North Carolina, in order to race fast, he’d get to slow down away from the track.
“People get to be a kid longer,” Justice says. “When you’re in L.A. you’re forced to grow up very quickly because of the environment you’re in. Out here I surrounded myself with people who are young at heart. I had to bring myself down to a level where I can actually enjoy life and not be uptight about everything that’s going to happen. When I left L.A. I was 14 and I was like ‘When am I going to get a job? When am I going to do this? When am I going to do that?’”
While Justice would eventually get a job detailing cars, his main worries are his school work at Cox Mill High School in Concord and his racing career.
Cliff adds that competing in Legends on the West Coast would be a “logistical nightmare” for a family that got into racing when Justice began driving go-karts locally at age 8.
“A lot of Vegas trips, San Diego, Sacramento, which is eight hours, you know what I mean?” says Cliff. “California is so big.”
But even after a trip to the July 2017 Daytona Cup Series race and their first visit to Charlotte to “catch a vibe,” the family wasn’t ready to pull the trigger.
“We got back and were all pumped up,” Cliff recalled. “But then you start to settle back in. ‘Can we really do this? Is this possible? That’s when we came out in November, ‘Let’s go out there again one more time and see if we really want to do this and have him test a Legend car.’”
According to Cliff, Justice “crushed” it when drove a Legend car for the first time.
The test occurred on the 1/5-mile track located behind Charlotte Motor Speedway under the watchful eye of Walter Stillwell of Stillwell Racing, who would eventually add Justice to his team after his family made the move to Concord in April 2018.
Stillwell has been involved in short track racing for 35 years and Legends for 15 years. He was also part of William Byron’s development as a Legends racer at the start of his career.
“He came to the driving school and did really well, listened good,” Stillwell says of Justice. “Done exactly what we told him and turned good times. Was really smooth in the car. We work with him intensively on that even now. He’s shown it.”
Justice is in his second year of Legends competition. He had earned the team two race wins – one at Concord Speedway and another on the Charlotte road course – entering this year’s Summer Shootout, a series of nine rounds of races over eight weeks for multiple classes of Legends and Bandolero cars. The Shootout ends on July 30.
What advice does Stillwell give families breaking into the sport for the first time?
“The first thing is to give it a try to make sure that you like it before you go and put money in the car,” Stillwell says. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of pricey, so you don’t just want to buy the car and “Ahhhh!’ freak out and don’t like it.”
The Calabros purchased Justice’s car used for $10,000. They’ve since gone through a couple of motors for between $5,000-$7,000.
“It’s expensive to tear them up,” says Stillwell.
The cost of racing was learned more than a decade ago by another family that uprooted itself from California and made the trek to Western North Carolina, all on the hopes of their son’s racing career.
That family was Matt DiBenedetto’s.
Instead of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles, the DiBenedettos lived on six acres in the small town of Grass Valley in Northern California.
“I rode four wheelers and dirt bikes basically everyday,” says the Cup Series driver of his California lifestyle. “That’s part of what got me into racing, too. I just loved doing that so I tore up our property and I owned a tractor when I was a kid. I was 11 and I had my own tractor and would tear it up and build jumps and all that stuff. So yeah, I was used to a very quiet living.”
Instead of go-karts, a 12-year-old DiBenedetto raced on dirt, piloting outlaw karts on tracks like Cycleland Speedway in Oroville, a track that also produced fellow Cup driver Kyle Larson.
“I was really young and racing in the open division against all adults and some guys that race sprint cars,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports. “We were winning basically all the time and people were telling us, ‘Hey, Matt’s really good, you guys need to pursue this.’ My parents never took it too seriously. We were just racing for fun and we just won all the time. I don’t come from a racing background or family.”
Then came March 2004 and their move to North Carolina.
After ruling out other cities as being too big and or too far away from Charlotte, the family moved to Hickory, an hour north of the city. Matt’s father, Tony, had picked it by pointing to a spot on a map with his eyes closed.
It wasn’t long before the family learned how “naive” it was in its racing pursuits.
“(We) really had no idea … the journey and battle we were up against, because we didn’t have the funding,” said DiBenedetto, whose father was and remains a self-employed appliance repairman. “We didn’t have the money as a family to take on what we did and that’s why I use the word naive because we just didn’t realize how expensive it would get and the toll it took on our family.”
Even racing with used equipment and having an all-volunteer crew didn’t make things easier for the family, which had to write checks off its home equity loan.
It came to a head in 2007.
DiBenedetto came home from school one day to find his father had sold their truck trailer, both his race cars and every piece of equipment they had in their shop.
There’d been no warning from his father.
“He was tired of seeing it, just because of how hard it was on our family,” DiBenedetto says. “The reason he didn’t tell me is he just felt so bad because he knew this was my dream. … I was on my own. It was up to me if I wanted to keep on doing it. “
DiBenedetto has another thing in common with Justice Calabro.
Not long after he moved to Hickory, DiBenedetto raced Legends cars in the Summer Shootout.
His track record?
“I got wrecked a lot,” DiBenedetto says with a laugh.
A LITTLE HELP
First off, the wrecks are not Justice’s fault.
His No. 25 Legends car – numbered after his November 25 birthday – was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But there’s not many good places to be when one of the wrecks involves 17 cars and results in a tire bouncing down Charlotte’s frontstretch.
It left Justice to think, “Really? This had to happen?”
$1,500 worth of repairs to his front-end later, the car was ready to go.
Then came the following Tuesday.
Justice’s feature race ended even sooner. As the field came out of Turn 2 on Lap 1, the line of cars running beneath him got together, wrecked and blocked his way, resulting in him getting pinned against the wall.
“This racing is frustrating,” Justice says. “I love doing it but it absolutely gets frustrating sometimes.”
It could be worse. Unlike the DiBenedettos, the Calabros are not completely on their own when it comes to backing Justice’s racing dreams.
While they have small sponsorship from Johnny Brusco’s New York Style Pizza in Concord, Cliff utilizes the same skills he plies on TV shows like “Naked and Afraid” and “World Poker Tour” to help out Stillwell Racing.
“I’m in a unique situation because I worked a deal with the team to do their media in trade for their services,” Cliff says. “The team doesn’t charge me to service his car. I pay for his car and everything he breaks. His consumables. But we’re trading labor. I’m here at every race working my butt off filming everything … interviews and impressions on track and racing. It’s very cool, which has really helped their program. … In turn, they’re helping us keep Justice on the track and helping to develop him. I don’t think I could do it without that.”
On July 2, a week after the second wreck, Justice is back in the garage at Charlotte. He’s no longer a Young Lion after moving up to the Semi-Pro class.
And his disposition is a lot more cheery after a week of playing racing video games and hanging it out with “homies.”
“All the normal teenage stuff.”
His day at the track began by qualifying 10th in a field of 27 cars, right in front of teammates Garrett Lowe and Dacin Roberson.
His outlook for the day’s round of the Summer Shootout was also helped by a random encounter minutes earlier in the track infield.
“I walked up to Bojangles’ and this kid gave me like $10,” Justice recounts. “He’s like, ‘I just don’t want to carry around $10, I heard it’s bad luck.’
“I’m like, ‘Life hands you money, you got to take it, right?’”
During the pace laps Justice said he ”wasn’t nervous at all. I felt super confident, I was ready for whatever this race was going to throw at me and I made that pretty clear. I was motivated and made sure to keep my patience today.”
The race starts and the caution comes out with the field halfway down the backstretch. But Justice is nowhere near the incident, which sees one car off in the infield grass and another stalled.
After a handful of green flag laps, the first close call comes for Justice when he makes contact with the No. 49 car of Carson Poindexter in Turn 1 and turns him around. Justice escapes through the infield grass unharmed.
Later, Justice and a handful of others have to go off-track again to avoid a pile-up in Turn 3.
The race doesn’t reach its natural conclusion. Scheduled for 25 laps, the race sees so many cautions that it ends after 25 minutes.
Justice will leave the track with a seventh-place finish.
“I finished! I drove my heart out,” says Justice, who later adds, “Dude, I figured out how to drive today.”
Justice speaks as he rubs watery eyes, a result not of emotion, but of debris caught in his eye from the Turn 3 incident.
“After that I was trying to clean my eyes out the whole race,” Justice says. “It’s still burning right now.”
He might not have earned a top five, but he finished.
Says Justice, “For us right now it’s like a win.”
The Summer Shootout would continue, with its downs (elimination from a race after his rear bumper was ripped off) and its ups (a top five).
Justice is already ahead of schedule with his mid-season move to the Semi-Pro division. If things go well in the coming years, after Legends would come late models.
“I think I’m going at a good pace,” Justice says. “It’s good to spend one, two, three years in one class to hone your skills so you know where you are and what you need to and what your driving style is so when you do move up you’re not completely shattered.”
Cliff has “always” told Justice “you got to be realistic” about the future.
“We’re not rich,” says Cliff. “We’re going to give it our shot, we’re going to go in there and work at it. We’re going to use whatever we got. So we got personality, we got some connections, we got some media and you’ve got some talent. We’re going to use everything at our disposal to try to make this a reality for him.”
They plan to widen their racing footprint in Legends in the coming year by racing in Atlanta, Florida and Texas.
But Cliff is “concerned” about progressing to late models.
“Because that’s very expensive,” Cliff says. “Not sure how we’re going to manage that yet. But, you know, we’re not there yet.”