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At 16 years old, Jones is living a dream
Will be youngest ever Truck Series driver at Martinsville
Erik Jones (right) talks with Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell inside the infield media center at Martinsville Speedway on Wednesday in Ridgeway. (Bulletin photo by Mark Thompson)
Thursday, March 28, 2013
By MARK THOMPSON - Bulletin Sports Editor
There’s a label on the inside of Erik Jones’ car next to the tachometer that reads “Happy Happy Happy.”
The car is not the 1995 Pontiac Trans Am he saved up for since he was 7 years old. No, this is Jones’ Super Late Model car he raced at SpeedFest 2013 on Jan. 26-27 at Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele, Ga.
Jones said the label’s message identifies his team’s attitude in a tweet he sent out at the race.
But it’s more than that.
That label is simply Jones’ life. One “happy” for every time the 16-year-old has likely tried to pinch himself out of a dream he’s been living since December.
On Dec. 2, Jones won the 45th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., fending off Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch down the stretch. It was Jones’ first time in the Super Late Model featured race. He previously had run in the race leading up to that.
Since then his life has dramatically changed. Kyle Busch Motorsports signed Jones to a five-race schedule this season in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. Jones will make his Truck debut on April 6 at Martinsville Speedway in the No. 51 KBM truck.
Not only that, Jones will be the youngest driver to ever compete in the Truck series race at Martinsville Speedway.
Jones said winning the Snowball Derby played a large role in him getting the keys to the KBM truck.
“The Derby was a big part of it,” he said. “Getting to race (Busch) like that, I hope I earned a little respect.
“Kyle, he’s a hard-nosed racer. He’s aggressive, especially at the Derby. That’s an aggressive racetrack,” Jones added. “You’ve got to get aggressive to win that thing.”
Without that win, Jones said he probably never would have made the trip with Toyota Racing for a media event at Martinsville Speedway on Wednesday. Jones said he looks at it like he won the lottery.
Jones will race in the April 6 Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway and the following Truck series race at Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway. He will rejoin the series in July at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa, and will race at both Martinsville and Iowa again in the fall.
But aside from his Truck series debut and his family-owned Super Late Model racing team, Jones is just a high school student — sort of.
Jones takes online courses through a program with Swartz Creek High School, his local school in Byron, Mich. The program stipulates that Jones check into the school “every once in a while,” giving him the freedom to pursue his dream while maintaining a normal lifestyle.
“(Life) is great right now,” he said. “Just doing my school online and I get to go racing all the time.”
Legend has it that Jones told his uncle at the age of 4 that he was born to race. Jones doesn’t remember that moment, but he’s lived up to it ever since.
A first-generation race car driver, Jones said he started racing the moment he had a vehicle, starting with his peddle-powered racecar as a kid. Before long, his legs outgrew it and his family removed the peddles so he could drive it Flintstones-style.
Years later, he’s running with a little more horsepower, but the same drive.
“Looking back when I was 12 or 13 years old ... I didn’t really think that I’d be here right now. So being this far in my career already, 10 years down the road, all I honestly want to do is make a living in racing,” Jones said. “You never race for the money, but being able to make a living in something you love is pretty awesome.”
Back home, Jones already is well-known. He said he wouldn’t want the superstar treatment if his friends and peers gave it to him — which they don’t. He will, however, get the occasional challenge around the school parking lot, or much more frequently, in go-carts. And when he loses, his friends will let him know.
“They think that’s pretty cool,” he said.
After all, Jones beat Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race winner in Fontana, Calif., and he’s only had his driver’s license for about 10 months.
Oh, the irony.
“That was definitely a cool, different experience,” Jones said. “(It was) a little funny sitting there learning about driving on the road when you go out and drive on the race track on the weekends.”
And if beating Busch wasn’t impressive enough, there’s this: Jones still is ticket-free.