Legends cars

Daniel McFadin

The Summer of Justice, Legends racer

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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.

Justice Calabro assesses the damage to his Legends car (Photo by Daniel McFadin).

“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.

CAUTIONARY TALE

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.”

Justice Calabro, far right, after his first podium finish in the Summer Shootout. (Photo from U.S. Legends Twitter account)

ONWARD

What’s next?

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.”

 

Daniel Hemric’s journey to Xfinity Series aided by loyal mechanic

Photo: Daniel McFadin
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WELCOME, North Carolina — Three months ago, Daniel Hemric competed in the Xfinity Series championship race, driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Hemric’s shot at a NASCAR title in his rookie season might not have been possible if not for a 1999 Ford Mustang GT.

The car became his saving grace in early 2006, but it didn’t belong to Hemric, who was weeks away from turning 15 years old.

The owner of the light Atlantic blue car was Tim Ladyga, then a rear tire changer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car in the Cup Series.

At the time, Hemric was racing Bandoleros, but his career had hit a wall when it came to the financial support of his mother and stepfather, who worked as service writers at a car dealership in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.

“That was really all we were going to be able to do,” Hemric, now 27, told NBC Sports.

That’s where Ladyga came in.

He had been friends with Hemric’s stepfather, Stephen Christopher Woods, when they raced pro stocks in the Northeast in the 1990s at tracks like Connecticut’s Thompson and Stafford Speedways.

When Ladyga moved to North Carolina in 1997, Woods invited him to Concord Speedway to watch a 6-year-old Hemric compete in a go-kart race.

Ladyga thought what he saw was “pretty cool.”

“It just got bigger, bigger and bigger,” says Ladyga. “We watched more and more and more.”

After a while, the family’s interactions trailed off. A few years went by without any contact between them.

Then one night at Millbridge Speedway, a dirt track in Salisbury, North Carolina, they crossed paths again at a go-kart race.

Ladyga spotted someone familiar competing.

“Whose that kid?’” Ladyga asked his wife, Cheryl.

“That’s Christi and Woody’s son, Daniel.”

“The kid in the go-kart back at Concord?” Ladyga responded. “God almighty, look at him.”

Ladyga described Hemric as “winning everything he drove that night.”

His interest in Hemric’s racing career rejuvenated, Ladyga began helping the family on its go-kart and Bandolero endeavors. Eventually, Woods asked him to supervise Hemric at the track one weekend when work got in the way.

“I think he kind of saw what I was doing with what I had,” Hemric says. “I was never going to get the chance to do anything else.”

The duo had a rough go at it their first weekend alone.

“I think something broke every time we went on the race track,” Hemric recalls. “He was miserable, I was miserable. When he left that race, he was like, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to get you a race car.’ At the time, the next step was Legend cars.”

Ladyga brought up the matter to Cheryl.

“We need to buy this kid a Legend car. He’s good,” Ladyga said.

“We ain’t got money for that,” Cheryl responded.

Daniel Hemric celebrates a 2014 Legend win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a car owned by Tim Ladyga. (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

Fueling the Habit

For Ladyga, auto racing is a “drug.”

“Once you get hooked on it, you can’t get out. It’s so, so intense and it’s just something you want to do. Either you do it or you don’t. It’s one or the other. Most people stay and do it. The ones that just get burned out of it never come back, you know.”

Ladyga developed his love of racing from living in a family where an uncle raced stock cars from the 1960s to early ’80s and his dad drag raced near his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut.

Eventually, Ladyga gave racing a shot. He bought a super late model for his uncle to race.

“My uncle drove it for a few races and I was like, ‘Why am I spending all this money for him to race for? Why can’t I race it?’” says Ladyga. “So I raced it. We were probably better off putting somebody else in. I tore it up more than I did good.”

When not racing, Ladyga worked at a tire company, changing tires on tractor trailers and heavy equipment. Eventually, his passion led him in 1995 to go from Connecticut to North Carolina every other weekend to help build and work on his brother’s late model.

Two years later, right after marrying his wife, the couple took two weeks of vacation in Daytona and North Carolina. Their return to Connecticut didn’t last long.

Ladyga informed his bosses he was moving of North Carolina. Four days later, the Ladygas packed a U-Haul and their cars and headed south.

Once in North Carolina, Ladyga set out to get on a national series team.

“In the beginning it’s hard and you just keep beating on doors, beating on doors, beating on doors trying to get a job,” says Ladyga. “I was working with a late model team at first. We off-road raced back with my brother in the ’80s with Walker Evans and Jimmie Johnson and Ivan Stewart and them guys. … We wound up meeting Walker down here and that’s how I got my foot in the door, working for his Truck team.”

By the time Ladyga became involved in Hemric’s racing fortunes a decade later, he had finished his first season with the No. 48 team in the Cup Series after a stint with the No. 31 car at RCR.

Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his racing addiction.

It led to Ladyga one day arriving in front of Hemric’s house in Kannapolis, North Carolina, with a trailer.

In it was a used Legend car he bought with the money from selling his Mustang GT.

“The guy told me it was good, good car,” says Ladyga. “I didn’t know nothing about Legend cars, you know?”

Legend cars are spec vehicles built by U.S. Legend Cars International, based out of Concord, North Carolina. The cars are 5/8-scale fiberglass versions of old NASCAR modifieds.

The car Ladyga rolled out had an engine. It lacked a seat.

“Think you can drive this?” Ladyga asked.

Hemric jumped in the car and took off down the street.

GETTING THE GANG BACK TOGETHER

A decade later, Richard Childress had an important question for Daniel Hemric.

Hemric had been announced as joining RCR in September 2016 after two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series.

Childress asked Hemric who he wanted as his crew chief during his rookie year.

“Right off the top of my head I knew Danny Stockman was my guy,” Hemric said. “Growing up with Austin and Ty (Dillon), I got to know Danny through Austin’s Truck (series) deal …

“As Stockman and I started working together, we knew he was going to be the leader and crew chief of our team. He already knew Ladyga and I’s relationship. He knew where we stood with each other and is as passionate about racing in general.”

At the time, Ladyga had returned to RCR to work as an underneath mechanic on its Cup operation after a tenure at Hendrick that included four straight championships with the No. 48 team.

When Hemric told Ladyga he was coming to RCR, Ladyga didn’t hesitate. He went to the team’s management and told them he wanted to work on Hemric’s car.

“Most guys, if it was their choice, once they get to the Cup level, that’s where they stay,” says Hemric. “Once they get out of that, that’s their retirement, so to say. He was willing and sacrificed everything that entails with taking a step of a tier back to make sure he was a part of our deal.”

Daniel Hemric drives his No. 21 Chevrolet during Championship weekend last November at Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

SIDELINED

In more than 20 years in auto racing, Ladyga had never been seriously injured on the job. He had never missed a race he was supposed to work.

That changed last August.

Around 4:30 p.m. the Friday before the Xfinity race at Road America, Ladyga was driving a zero-turn lawn mower into the back of a truck at home.

While going up aluminum ramps, the deck of the mower hit the tailgate.

The mower turned sideways and flipped off the back of the truck. Ladyga jumped off and landed in the rock filled driveway. The impact broke the femur in his right leg, fractured his hip in six spots and tore his knee up.

Ladyga later told a paramedic they needed to hurry. He had a race to fly to in Wisconsin.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the paramedic responded.

When a nurse entered Ladyga’s hospital room the next morning, they found him in tears.

The nurse asked what was wrong.

“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve missed a race,” Ladyga said.

A rod was placed in his leg. Doctors told him full recovery from his injuries would take six months to a year.

Without Ladyga working on the No. 21, Hemric made his march to the Championship race. As the finale neared, Hemric also lost Stockman, his car chief and an engineer to a four-race suspension for an infraction in the playoffs.

As Hemric progressed in the playoffs, Ladyga was adamant that he wanted to attend the final three races of the season.

His doctors repeatedly nixed the idea.

But three months after his accident, Ladyga made it to Homestead.

“For myself, that was huge to see him,” says Hemric, who finished fourth in the standings after mechanical problems in the race. “I think it was a great motivator for him to get back because he saw how strong we were becoming. To know that having him is just kind of the missing link to kick off 2018 all back as one group, that’s big for me. I’ve been with this guy through just about everything.”

The trip to Florida took a bit out of Ladyga.

“The old leg felt like it was ready to fall off,” he says. “But I made it through the weekend.”

The mechanic exceeded his doctor’s expectations on when he’d be back at work.

With a limp, Ladyga walked back into the RCR shop on Dec. 5.

YEAR TWO

The two sit at a conference table at RCR’s Welcome, North Carolina, campus two weeks before the start of Hemric’s sophomore Xfinity season.

Having his former Legends owner help put together his Xfinity car every week is “everything” for Hemric.

“I know I have a guy that’s willing and capable of doing anything that needs to be done,” Hemric says. “Ladyga is known, not only through my eyes, but everybody here, to be the first one here and one of the last ones to leave. Capable of doing anything on the race car that needs to be done at any given time. That’s a huge asset, not only from a race team standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. If I need something done, if I’m out of town, no matter what’s happening, he’ll figure out a way to get it done for me.”

As his racing career progressed over the last decade, Hemric says he tried emulating the work ethic and “resilience” Ladyga displays.

“He thrashed and did whatever he could, no matter what it was to provide the best for me or his wife or his race team, whoever he’s working for,” Hemric says. “He constantly gave everything he had.”

Including his car.

“Timmy’s heard me say this for 15 years, is that everything happens for a reason and you just got to have faith that it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to,” Hemric says. “I know that very moment has someway or somehow trickled down to me being here … and I’m thankful for that.”

As for the Mustang? Getting rid of the hot rod doesn’t nag at Ladyga.

“I bought it back a few years ago.”

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NASCAR America: Battle for Legends car title takes twists, turns (video)

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As NASCAR transitions into an era of younger drivers, many of those same drivers worked their way up to NASCAR Cup with a stopover in racing Legends cars.

Ever since Legends debuted in 1992, they’ve been a huge hit from Loudon to Los Angeles. They’re fairly inexpensive to race and maintain, very competitive and are great ways for family fun.

On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, we introduced two of the top Legends drivers at Charlotte Motor Speedway as they battled for the annual Bojangles’ Summer Shootout championship.

The last race was for all the marbles. Nineteen-year-old Jordan Black was going for his third consecutive championship at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was chased by Austin Green, son of 1994 Busch Series champ David Green, who came into the race just eight points behind Black in what would be Green’s last Legends car race (he moves up next season).

In Thursday’s segment, called “Legends to Legend,” we chronicled the battle of Black vs. Green.

“Thousands of kids dream of being race car drivers,” said Black, who came into the season finale having won five consecutive races.

The race was Black’s to win, as he built a comfortable lead. But with five laps left, calamity struck as the motor on his car blew up.

Green capitalized on Black’s misfortune and went on to win the race, his fourth of the season, and what appeared to be the championship.

However, a last lap wreck prompted officials to review the outcome of the race. And while Green did get credit for the win, it was not enough points-wise, and what looked like his championship one minute was taken away the next and given to Black.

Check out the compelling story of the two young racers in the video above. And catch the attached segment after the championship battle when Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Rutledge Wood break down how things played out. It was enough to bring tears to Burton’s eyes!

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