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Never give up: Corey LaJoie keeps chasing his dream

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The text came at a late hour.

“You want to be a crew chief?” Jimmie Johnson asked.

It was five years ago and Corey LaJoie’s racing career was in flux. He had run five Xfinity and two Truck races in 2014. He would go without a start in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks in 2015. Instead, LaJoie spent 2015 as David Mayhew’s crew chief in what is now the ARCA West Series.

Johnson happened to see LaJoie interviewed during a broadcast of Mayew’s dominating ARCA West win at Evergreen Speedway and was surprised that LaJoie was not racing.

“I thought maybe he was ready to pursue the crew chief side of life,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I thought, man, we’ve got a huge system at Hendrick, we’ve got (an Xfinity) team, we’ve got engineering roles we need people in all the time and it’s rare you find a racer, someone who grows up racing, that heads down that path.”

Johnson sent LaJoie crew chief Chad Knaus’ number and told LaJoie to call.

He did.

“What do you want to do?” Knaus asked LaJoie.

TOUGH PATH

There never has been any doubt that LaJoie, 28, wanted to race.

“I’ve never wanted to not do it from the time I was 7 years old and my dad started to make me build my own race cars,” LaJoie, son of two-time Xfinity champion Randy LaJoie, told NBC Sports.

He wanted to make my path hard enough all the way through the times where he knew opportunities were going to dry up and even when you’re not in the best cars. The resilience that you have to learn, it breaks you down to the foundation of why you want to do it. If your foundation is based off of, well because my dad hired some good people and I won a lot of go-kart races, that ain’t what’s going to keep you going. It’s the fire, the feeling you did this with your buddies or your team and it’s because you were the better man that day.”

LaJoie’s ability earned accolades. He was selected to the NASCAR Next class in 2011 and ’12. That program spotlighted top drivers age 21 and under on a path to NASCAR. Among the drivers selected either of those years with LaJoie were Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto.

But sponsorship issues interceded and LaJoie’s opportunities became more infrequent. He ran five ARCA races in 2013, winning three times but that didn’t lead to any opportunities.

Instead of fading away, LaJoie accepted a role as a crew chief for the ARCA West team in 2015, flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to California on a regular basis.

“It’s easy to … get beat down because you don’t get a lot of validation for what you’re doing inside the car and outside the car,” LaJoie said. “So I do remind myself of when I was flying to Bakersfield, making 1,200 bucks to crew chief a West car. I remind myself that because pursuing that with my time and my whole heart was what allowed me to stay in the fold to be a race car driver. I keep coming back to a couple of conversations with Chad Kanus and Jimmie.”

“I CAN’T HANG IT UP”

Knaus discussed the possibility of a job for LaJoie at JR Motorsports, the Xfinity team affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, as a car chief or mechanic.

“I slept on it and tossed and turned and called him back and said I appreciate the effort,” LaJoie said. “I don’t want to give up trying to be a race car driver. I don’t know why because I don’t have any driving stuff going on at all. I can’t hang it up yet.”

LaJoie admits there was more he could have done to race. He didn’t reach out to companies for sponsorship.

“I was kind of bitter,” LaJoie said. “I was over the whole firing off cold calls. … I wasn’t full court press trying to find money to be a race car driver.”

A sponsor reached out to LaJoie and wanted to help get back in a car. It led to a 10-race effort with JGL Racing in 2016. LaJoie failed to finish four races and had two top-10 results.

After the season, LaJoie was “hounding” BK Racing car owner Ron Devine to drive one of his Cup cars in 2017.

“I’ll mow your grass, whatever you want me to do,” LaJoie said he told Devine. “You can give me $200 a race. I just want to drive your car.”

LaJoie asked Johnson if he would call Devine and help convince Devine to sign LaJoie.

“He really deserves a chance,” Johnson said he told Devine.

Shortly after Johnson’s call, Devine told LaJoie they could do a deal. But Devine told LaJoie that if he didn’t make the Daytona 500, there wouldn’t be enough money to run LaJoie’s team.

“I didn’t tell him I had zero drafting experience,” LaJoie said.

LaJoie made the Daytona 500 and ran 31 more events for BK Racing, an underfunded team, that season. He had one top-20 finish. LaJoie ran 23 races in 2018 for TriStar Motorsports, another underfunded team. He had one top-20 finish.

Last year, LaJoie moved to Go Fas Racing, a step up among the small teams but still one that has limited resources. LaJoie scored two top-10 finishes and six top-20 results.

A HEARTFELT LETTER

LaJoie’s results do not stand out, but one has to factor the teams he was with and the financial challenges they faced. He’s pondered whether it would be better to run with a more competitive team in the Xfinity Series and go for wins vs. running in the pack in Cup. Each time he thinks running Cup is better.

“The guys that I race around any given Sunday, they run 24th to 28th and are guys that are capable of winning Xfinity races,” LaJoie said. “I’m learning the same tricks of the trade, how to move around, car control on Sunday that I would be on Saturday.”

Even with those results, LaJoie has not lost his confidence.

“The reason why I didn’t give (driving) up, you just think back to times growing up and times you were racing Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, the guys that are making a name for themselves and are successful,” LaJoie said.

“I can remember vividly races where you are in the zone and I am better than them. There were times they would do the same thing back to me. I never thought I wasn’t capable of doing it at the highest level. I never gave that up.

“There’s times, sometimes a string of six, seven weeks in a row you’re wondering what in the hell am I doing, do I know how to drive a race car? But then you’ve just got to go back to those times where you didn’t have the best car and you had to move around and you had to find different areas to get after it and you rememberer that feeling of accomplishment you had and that was kind of what kept my flame going of not giving up.”

It is that confidence that LaJoie, who will start at the rear in Sunday’s Daytona 500 because he’s going to a backup car, looks to the future.

He is one of several drivers whose contracts expire after this season. Among those are a former champion (Brad Keselowski) and four other drivers who won Cup races last year (Larson, Blaney, Bowman and Erik Jones). And there are others who will be free agents after this season who finished higher in points than LaJoie, who was 29th last year.

With that in mind, LaJoie knows he needs to do something different to stand out.

He wrote a letter to car owner Rick Hendrick, seeking to be considered for the No. 48 car, which is open with Jimmie Johnson saying this will be his final full-time Cup season. LaJoie gave Hendrick the letter at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last month.

“He talked about how he got started, and I told him when he handed it to me that ‘You’ve been a great model for NASCAR, I’ve watched you and you’re clean cut and you’ve done a good job,’ ” Hendrick told NBC Sports.

Hendrick said he never received a letter like LaJoie’s.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick said. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter (from LaJoie) and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

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Go Fas Racing names Ryan Sparks crew chief for Corey LaJoie

Ryan Sparks
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Go Fas Racing on Tuesday named Ryan Sparks as crew chief of the No. 32 NASCAR Cup Ford Mustang driven by Corey LaJoie.

Sparks, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, joins the organization after 13 years with Richard Childress Racing. He most recently served as a race engineer on the No. 3 Cup Series team with driver Austin Dillon. Sparks also served as race engineer for Dillon’s 2011 Truck and 2013 Xfinity Series championships.

More: NASCAR Cup Series — What’s different in 2020

“I am beyond ecstatic for the opportunity that the St. Hilaire family has given me,” Sparks said in a team media release. “This is something I’ve been working for my entire career, and I’m looking forward to working with Corey and continuing Go Fas Racing’s progression up the points standings.”

Sparks’ hiring completes the team’s roster for the upcoming season.

“Ryan comes with a ton of motivation and knowledge to continue pushing the team in the right direction,” LaJoie said in the release. “Just by being around him for a couple hours on his first day I knew he was the guy for the job.”

 

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Silly Season scorecard: Early December update

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As NASCAR begins to move deeper into the offseason, it has seen a flurry of driver announcements from teams about the 2020 racing season.

The most recent addition to the list came Tuesday, when Corey LaJoie announced on the “Sunday Money” podcast that he will be running a second full-time season in Cup with Go Fas Racing.

Also, Stewart Friesen will return to Halmar Friesen Racing for a third full-time season in the Truck Series. The team will switch from Chevrolet to Toyota Trucks in 2020, as well.

Here’s a look at all the official driver announcements made so far for next season.

 

OPEN CUP RIDES ANNOUNCED FOR 2020

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 36: Front Row Motorsports announced Nov. 13 it was parting ways with Matt Tifft so he could focus on his health following his seizure at Martinsville in March. Tifft said he could not commit to racing in 2020.

 

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing announced on Nov. 1 a multi-year extension with Kurt Busch.

No. 6: Roush Fenway Racing announced Oct. 30 that Ryan Newman would return to the car as part of the news that Oscar Mayer would sponsor the No. 6 through 2021.

No. 8: Richard Childress Racing made it official Oct. 2 that Tyler Reddick will move to Cup in 2020 and drive the No. 8 car.

No. 10: Aric Almirola confirmed Oct. 11 he signed an extension to race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer was announced Oct. 17 as returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for a fourth season.

No. 17: Chris Buescher will take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 ride in 2020 after the team announced Sept. 25 that it would part ways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after this season.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 32: Corey LaJoie will return for a second straight full season with Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 Ford. The team announced on Nov. 1 it would enter a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

No. 37: Ryan Preece moves over from the No. 47 to the No. 37. He will have a new crew chief, Trent Owens, who has been crew chief on the No. 37 for the past three seasons.

No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 15 Cole Custer will replace Daniel Suarez.

No. 47: JTG Daugherty Racing announced Oct. 16 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will join Ryan Preece at the two-car team, essentially swapping seats with Chris Buescher. On Dec. 2, the team announced Stenhouse will drive the No. 47, with Brian Pattie serving as his crew chief.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

Rick Ware Racing: JJ Yeley will drive one of the team’s three full-time rides.

 

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

Daniel Suarez — The driver revealed Nov. 14  he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2020 after one season driving the No. 41.

 

ANNOUNCED PLANS IN OTHER NASCAR SERIES

Xfinity Series 

Ross Chastain – Kaulig Racing announced Oct. 15 he would compete full-time for the team in 2020 driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, joining Justin Haley.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Announced Oct. 17 Harrison Burton will drive its No. 20 Toyota full-time in 2020. Announced Oct. 31 Brandon Jones would return for a third year in the No. 19. Revealed Nov. 5 it would field a third full-time entry with Riley Herbst in the No. 18.

JR MotorsportsJustin Allgaier will return to the team for a fifth year in the No. 7 Chevrolet. The No. 8 car will be driven by Daniel Hemric for 21 races, Jeb Burton 11 races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for one race. Noah Gragson will also return for a second season in the No. 9 car, while Michael Annett returns for a fourth year with the team in the No. 1 car.

Richard Childress Racing — Has not announced its driver plans for 2020, but Richard Childress said after Tyler Reddick claimed the Xfinity title that it would field a full-time entry.

Stewart-Haas Racing – The team has not announced plans for the No. 00 Ford with Cole Custer moving to Cup or whether Chase Briscoe will return to the No. 98.

JD MotorsportsJesse Little will compete full-time for the team.

 

Truck Series

GMS RacingDriver lineup will include Brett Moffitt, Sam Mayer, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum

Kyle Busch MotorsportsRaphael Lessard will drive the No. 4 full-time while Christian Eckes will drive the No. 18 full-time.

Halmar Friesen Racing — Stewart Friesen will return for a third full-time season in the No. 52 Truck. The team will also switch from Chevrolet to Toyota Trucks in 2020.

Hattori Racing EnterprisesAustin Hill will return to the No. 16 Toyota for a second year.

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Corey LaJoie staying with Go Fas Racing in 2020

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Corey LaJoie will remain with Go Fas Racing and drive its No. 32 Ford in the 2020 Cup Series season, LaJoie revealed on his “Sunday Money” podcast Tuesday.

The 2020 campaign will mark his second full-time season with Go Fas Racing.

“I don’t know if everybody was expecting that because it took a little while to get done, a little longer than both sides probably would have liked,” LaJoie said on the podcast by Motor Racing Network. “I’m … super excited to go back.”

LaJoie said he told the team Monday that he would back with the organization.

“I’ve got a baby on the way and a lot of diapers to pay for and I need to be driving around in circles,” LaJoie said.

LaJoie has a one-year deal with the team.

“(Owner) Archie (St. Hilaire) likes doing one-year deals, which I think is OK because things can change periodically, right?” LaJoie said on the podcast. “I think this is a crazy, crazy time in the sport with people retiring or moving around. The best I can figure, there’s probably only legitimately seven or eight cars that have their drivers committed for 2021. Everybody else is up in the air. So hopefully I can position myself the following year to be in something really good. But I am concentrated fully on 2020 with Go Fas.”

A big difference for Go Fas Racing in 2020 will be its technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing.

“We got some Stewart-Haas cars coming into the shop today,” LaJoie said. “I’ve heard they’re going to get two complete cars. Rolling, no motor. … It will have current suspension, rear end, truck arms. I would hope it will be pretty close to what they would send to the race track. That remains to be seen. … They’ll definitely be better than the four-year-old Front Row-Roush cars … The newer cars we had were four years old.”

LaJoie said he’s actively looking for a new crew chief, as Randy Cox has moved on.

“We’re talking obviously with the Stewart-Haas Xfinity guys, nobody really knows what’s going to go on there,” LaJoie said.

LaJoie said he had a “couple other options” for 2020 including moving over to Front Row Motorsports.

“There’s lots of stuff involved in that, there’s lots of stuff involved in all the deals, I just felt like the best team to go with and the best continuity and the best relationships I’ve had was to go back to the 32,” LaJoie said.

 

Corey LaJoie wins fourth quarter NMPA Pocono Spirit Award

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Corey LaJoie‘s efforts to raise money for a shoe charity has resulted in him being named the fourth quarter winner of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Pocono Spirit Award.

In August, the Cup Series driver gave up a month’s salary from Go Fas Racing so the charity Samaritan’s Feet could be placed on his No. 32 Ford for the Aug. 4 race at Watkins Glen International.

LaJoie raised more than $100,000 for the organization, which was founded in 2003 to provide shoes to children and individuals in need.

Signatures on the car of Corey LaJoie of people who donated to Samaritan’s Feet. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The money was raised through LaJoie’s Hope Givers page, with the names of each donor being written on LaJoie’s car.

The NMPA Pocono Spirit Award is designed to recognize character and achievement in the face of adversity, sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports. The NMPA membership selects quarterly recipients as well as an overall winner each year. The award is sponsored by Pocono Raceway and has been presented annually since 1992.

Ryan Blaney was the first quarter winner, Austin and Ty Dillon were the second quarter winners, and Kurt Busch was the third quarter winner.

The overall winner of the NMPA Pocono Spirit Award will be presented Feb. 1, 2020 at the NMPA Awards Ceremony.