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How William Byron went from a Legend to NASCAR

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William Byron needed just one race to know what his life’s aspiration was destined to be. He worried he’d never get a second chance.

“I did a go-kart race when I was 13 years old,” the 22-year-old Byron told NBC Sports. “I remember … waking up the next morning and having that feeling in my stomach if I never get to race again, I’m going to be devastated.”

Instead, he had to settle for racing on a computer. But he was good, winning 104 iRacing events across two seasons.

By the time he reached 15 years old, Byron faced a dilemma: he was too old to start in go-karts and too young for late models.

One day, after researching various types of racing, William came upon Legend cars as his ticket into competitive racing.

The Legend car William Byron drove to his first career win in 2013. He won 33 races in 69 starts that season. Photo: Lenny Batycki.

Bill Byron was a bit skeptical about his son’s racing aspirations but placed the onus on his son to convince him. So William, an honor student at Charlotte Country Day School, wrote a five-page paper listing why the little boxy jalopies were the perfect fit for him.

Bill Byron acquiesced and his son quickly showed he was as good – if not better – in a real race car than an iRacing virtual reality car.

“I think that desire and feeling of, ‘Hey, I could do this,’ is what kind of led me to write a paper about (Legends racing) and persuade people just to get me in a car for a couple of times,” Byron said.

Despite his youthful enthusiasm, his first time driving a Legend car didn’t go smoothly.

“I had no idea how to use the clutch or anything,” he said. “I was really struggling and then once I got on the racetrack, I just felt like this comfort and this calmness about being on the track. I’ll never forget that. I knew then that I could be competitive at it.”

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A Legend car is a 5/8-scale replica of cars with body styles from the 1930s and 1940s that weigh between about 1,300 pounds and have motorcycle motors that pump out 130-plus horsepower, depending upon the model and class a driver is in.

Harrisburg, North Carolina-based 600 Racing Inc., produced the first Legend car in 1992. Now known as U.S. Legend Cars and a subsidiary of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company has built more than 6,000 Legend cars, and shipped them throughout the U.S., as well as 28 other countries, according to the company’s web site.

Legend cars are not only a good training device for racers, they’re also economical. A family can get started in the sport for around $15,000 to $20,000. Legend car races are held at major NASCAR venues such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

William Byron with his crew chief and mentor in Legends racing, Dennis Lambert. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Dennis Lambert, who was Byron’s crew chief in Legends racing from late 2012 through mid-2014, said the class continues to flourish because of drivers like Byron and others.

“Parents see the William Byrons on TV that came from Legends and makes them think to put their kid in there and run a couple years and get feedback of them in that style of car, so I think that’s what keeps bringing them back,” Lambert said.

Lambert owns Dennis Lambert Racing, one of the largest coaching and at-track support businesses for Legends cars and drivers in the U.S.

Right from his first meeting with Byron, Lambert was impressed with how prepared and inquisitive the aspiring racer was.

“He and his father met me at my house and William came with a notebook and a pen to take notes to see what was going on in Legends and what they needed to do and what their next step was,” Lambert said. “He showed me right away he was all-in to what his next step was.”

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Lambert took Byron for his first Legends test at Concord (North Carolina) Speedway in October 2012, the same track where Byron would win the Legends Young Lions National Championship less than a year later.

“He was pretty impressive right away,” Lambert said. “It (transferred) over from the iRacing. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that for everybody, but for him he definitely picked it up right away.”

Byron credits his early success in Legends racing to Lambert’s guidance and influence upon his career. The two remain close friends and Lambert attends a number of Byron’s Cup races each season.

“(Lambert) really took me under his wing,” Byron said in an episode of NBC Sports’ Behind The Driver series last year. “He took care of my cars and took me to every race.

“The confidence as a driver is key, so you have to have the confidence to kind of go out there and do what you need to do. He was always out there coaching me.

“It was tough in the beginning. (Lambert) really didn’t want to work with me because I was so fresh and so clean, I had no races under my belt. It took a little time but he kind of developed me as a driver.”

Three weeks after his first test, Byron entered his first Legends race in November 2012 at Rockingham Speedway, starting on the outside pole and finishing fourth.

But there were  still a few bumps ahead. 

“I went to Florida to race seven times and I wrecked like five times but I was fast so I was trying to figure that out,” Byron said. “Once it all clicked it was just a lot of fun.”

William Byron after winning the 2013 Legends Young Lions National Championship. Photo: WilliamByron.com

Byron quickly went from Legends rookie to master in 2013. Competing in the Young Lions division, he won 33 races in 69 starts, won Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 10-race Summer Shootout title and capped the season off by winning the U.S. Legends Young Lions National Championship.

Byron moved up to the Legends Pro Division that winter and won several more races plus championships at the Winter Nationals at Auburndale Speedway and the Winter Heat Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

From there, Byron began his rapid climb up the NASCAR ladder, starting with the Whelen All-American Series and Pro Late Model Division in 2014. He moved to the K&N Pro Series East in 2015, Gander RV & Outdoor Series in 2016, the Xfinity Series in 2017 (winning the title) and Cup in 2018.

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Because a Legend car is small and seemingly nimble, it may look easy to drive, but it’s not.

“The cars are very difficult to drive,” said Lenny Batycki, host of Performance Racing Network’s syndicated “At The Track”  show and a Charlotte Motor Speedway Legends racing pit reporter. “I’ve asked a number of young drivers and to the racer, they’ll say it’s throttle control that those cars teach you how to drive more than anything else.”

Byron concurs. In a post on his personal web site, Byron said, “Racing a Legends car can be tricky at first. It took me a few months to really get the hang of things, but once I caught on it all made sense to me.

“The cars are great to drive and they really teach you many of the techniques you need if you want to move in up your racing career.”

Legends racing has become one of the best developmental pathways for young racers who seek to one day become NASCAR drivers.

Nearly half of the drivers in Sunday’s Daytona 500 are Legends alumni, including Byron – who sat on the pole for last year’s Great American Race – along with Kurt and Kyle Busch, Austin and Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace and several others. Even NASCAR On NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced Legends cars early in his career.

Byron hasn’t forgotten his Legends roots. He turned a few practice laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year and also ran the Roval road course with Lambert in CMS’s Winter Heat series two years ago.

“William came out the first week and struggled,” Lambert recalled. “That week, he wanted my GoPro footage. I regretted it in the end, but I sent him the video from the week before and he studied it – he’s very intrigued and committed to figuring it out – and then came back the next week and beat me.”

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Because many Legends races are televised, Byron also learned early how to deal with the media, a skill that would prove beneficial for each step of the NASCAR ladder he climbed.

Motor Racing Network NASCAR announcer Steve Post has also been the lead public address announcer for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout since 1997. He saw Byron and many others develop.

“One of the things I remember most about William is how polished and buttoned-up he was,” Post told NBC Sports. “This kid really had it together.

“He was the first iRacing to real racing guy. When he started in Legends, he was up front all the time and really did a nice job with his racing on the track, and to win (the championship) in his first year, that was really mind-boggling.”

Several other Legends alums stand out in Post’s memory. Daniel Hemric, then 19, won the biggest prize in Legends history, taking home $250,000 for winning the inaugural 2010 Legends Million.

And even though he’s a full-time Cup driver with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace ran most of the Summer Shootout schedule last year.

“The Legends to me was the first real rung on real racing on (Byron’s) ladder, and to get to the top of the ladder, you’ve got to climb all those rungs, and William certainly has done that,” Post said. “Even today on a Monday night Summer Shootout practice session (or at Tuesday night races), you’re standing in the garage area and there William is with some of his buddies that are still racing.

“That he still maintains that connection and reflect back to his roots speaks volumes for him as a young man.”

Batycki concurs.

PRN announcer Lenny Batycki interviews William Byron after his first Legends win during Charlotte Motor Speedway’s annual Summer Shootout in 2013. Photo courtesy Lenny Batycki.

“In the full Legends car, to step into it right away with no Bandolero experience, no nothing, there hasn’t been anybody that I can recall that just did it as smoothly and as strongly as William,” Batycki said. “Great kid, just picked it up naturally. Determination, awareness, friendliness to just everybody in the garage.”

Byron had that winner’s look in his eyes seemingly from the start, Batycki said.

“Him battling whether it was Hemric or whoever, his determination was the difference maker,” Batycki said. “If he didn’t beat you this week … he was going to try to go and learn and figure it out how to do it as soon as he could – and it usually didn’t take him long. Usually the next week, you were behind him.”

One of Batycki’s favorite memories of Byron’s Legends days was the so-called “garage neighborhood” at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the 2013 Summer Shootout season.

“Every 10 feet away from him were champions or about-to-be champions,” Batycki said. “You had Daniel Hemric, Christian Eckes, FastTrack dirt late model champion Carson Ferguson, last year’s FastTrack champion Cory Gordon, (Fox Sports NASCAR announcer) Mike Joy and his son Scott, Enzo Fittipaldi (grandson of F1 and IndyCar champ Emerson Fittipaldi), former Busch Grand National winner David Green and “Tiger Tom” Pistone.

“That was the kind of racing neighborhood William grew up in. He was going to be a winner, but that neighborhood definitely affected his esprit des corps.”

For guys like Batycki, Post and Lambert, seeing Byron and so many former Legends drivers reach the highest levels of NASCAR racing is rewarding.

When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it. – PRN and Charlotte Motor Speedway announcer Lenny Batycki on William Byron.

“They become our kids because we’re with them when they’re at Summer Shootout,” Batycki said. “We got to know them as little kids, so that when one of them does well, it’s just like an uncle feeling good about it.

“When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it.”

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Chad Knaus has taken Byron and turned the former Legends champ into a driver who appears on the verge of his first Cup win.

Post recalled one instance last season that, much like when Byron studied Legends racing, typifies how studious Byron remains.

William Byron and Chad Knaus debrief after Byron won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Last year at Dover, I saw William and Chad Knaus walking the track,” Post said. “They were talking about arcing the car down in (the corner) and Chad talking about different things as well.

“It just really did my heart well because one of the kids I used to talk about in the Summer Shootout is now debriefing and talking with Chad Knaus.”

Added Batycki, “It’s taken somebody that idolized Chad as a fan and now who listens to him as a driver, there’s that almost instant karma. … It’s hard to go against a seven-time championship crew chief, especially when you probably had a poster or picture of him up on your bedroom wall.”

What does Knaus think of Byron as they head into their second season together?

“He is very intelligent,” Knaus told NBC Sports. “I mean, there’s no doubt. He can diagnose, look at data, draw conclusions, watches (and) studies. Those are things that are going to take him to the top.

“I’ve seen a huge shift in him from a personality standpoint, which I think is good. He rolled into my office in October (2018) when Jimmie (Johnson) and I decided to split up. … William came in, he was kind of mousy, pretty quiet, a little intimidated and all that.

“And now he rolls in, he’s got his hair looking good, his shoulders are back. He’s wearing cool clothes. He’s got it. He’s got that thing that we want in all of our race car drivers.

“So his personality has changed tremendously, his confidence has changed tremendously. He gets in the race car now and he’s like, ‘Man, I’m going to go fast.’”

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The Summer of Justice, Legends racer

Daniel McFadin
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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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