Beth Lunkenheimer · Thursday January 10, 2013
Attention, NASCAR fans… welcome to Throwback Thursday! Every week, from now until the start of the 2013 season we’ll be giving you, our readers the favorite stories we treasure from our writers over the past few seasons. Today we focus on Beth Lunkenheimer, one of the site’s Managing Editors who shares some pieces she’s treasured over the past 18 months.
From Beth: This piece was my first, full-length feature based on an extended interview with a driver (instead of just a straight-up Q & A). I was so worried as I was writing that it wouldn’t work out; however, it turned out to be one of my favorites that I’ve ever written in my several years with the Frontstretch.
This article ran originally on November 16th, 2011.
For 2009 ARCA Champion Justin Lofton, the 2011 Camping World Truck Series season has been rather rocky. In contrast to his 2010 campaign where he scored four top 5s, eight top 10s and a solid 12th-place showing in the standings, Lofton has finished inside the top 10 just three times this season (10th — Texas — twice and 7th — Bristol). Clearly, on paper it’s not been the type of on-track improvement he was hoping for.
But the year has also brought so much more for the growing driver: team changes. Just nine races into the season, the sophomore moved from Germain Racing to reunite with his ARCA team at Eddie Sharp Racing, along with crew chief Dan Bormann. The team, which switched from Toyota to Chevrolet before Chicagoland in mid-September, has brought a breath of fresh air for the driver when he clearly needed one.
“It was almost like a rejuvenation — we weren’t really going anywhere. Germain Racing is a great race team, the Hillmans are great people, the Germains are great people,” Lofton said last week in an interview. “But it just wasn’t working out the way we had all hoped, and I think it was dragging everyone down. And I know it was dragging me down personally, so it was really good to be back with someone that I have so much history with.”
“And then bringing over Dan (Bormann) that I’ve known for years now, it was just a new life almost. It was really good, and I think performance has actually changed since then — we went back up. We were running decent with the Toyotas and then switching over to the Chevrolets. Everything has just added new energy to it and that was a big thing.”
With 24 races in the books, Lofton boasts an average finish of 16.6, but that doesn’t tell the whole story for the 25-year-old driver. If you take a look at his time with Germain Racing compared to his time with Eddie Sharp Racing this season, you’ll see the improvement. In nine races behind the wheel of the No. 77 Toyota, Lofton garnered an average finish of 19.5, but that changed significantly with ESR, improving to 14.8 in 15 races with the team.
And though his NASCAR career has only just begun, Lofton will be quick to say how important chemistry is to turning a sophomore slump into a surge.
“The biggest thing is people are key and equipment is key — and you gotta have both,” he said. “You can have great equipment, bad people and you won’t go anywhere. You can have great people, bad equipment and you’re not gonna go anywhere. And the owner has a lot to do with it, especially when yours is as directly involved as Eddie (Sharp, Team Owner) is. Basically, you gotta have a ‘team.’ And ‘team’ is not just people — it’s team owner, driver, crew chief, crew guys and equipment — then it’s all gotta go right.”
Looking forward to the 2012 season, Lofton has everything in place for a strong run behind the wheel of the No. 6 Chevrolet, including a new teammate in Cale Gale who was signed not long after ESR acquired two teams from the departing Kevin Harvick, Inc. With that addition comes a whole new way of sharing information, one the growing organization hopes to turn into better performances across the board next year.
“Having teammates is great,” confirmed Lofton. “For the drivers, it’s good but we do so many different things. I sit on the left front spring everywhere we go, and I don’t know Cale well enough to know if he’s a right front guy. Our feels are going to be different. It’s always good, though, for the crew chiefs to bounce stuff off of [each other], and that’s where the big key is. We’re basically teammates with all the RCR trucks. The drivers don’t talk much, but it’s really good for crew chiefs to be able to get together and go ‘OK, this is where we’re at.’ I think having that directly in-house and being able to just walk to the office next door, that’s where it’s going to be key.”
With that being said, Lofton is anything but hands off when it comes to his own program. One of the more mentally engaged drivers on the circuit, he takes every opportunity to make his voice heard behind the scenes.
“I definitely let them do their thing, but if I’m in town, I’m at the shop — that’s what I do,” he explained. “Me and Eddie (Sharp, Team Owner) sit down and we talk just about every day whether I’m there or not. I let the guys do their job, but me and Eddie definitely bounce all our ideas off [each other]. I’ve know Dan for years, I go over to Dan’s house after work. Thankfully, he has enough respect for me when I see something — if I can just walk out and look at a truck and go ‘OK, this doesn’t look right. Why are we doing this, why are we doing that?’ it’s not ‘Oh, driver doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ We have a really good relationship that way. It goes back to teamwork — I’d say I’m heavily involved.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Lofton is the non-traditional start to his racing career. While most drivers start off as young children in go-karts before moving their way up the ladder, the driver of the No. 6 CollegeComplete.com Chevrolet actually started off on two wheels. Racing mountain bikes from age 11, he earned himself a Downhill Slalom championship in 2001. However, a nasty wreck at age 15, one that required 11 reconstructive surgeries for a broken femur ended his career on two wheels.
“After I broke my leg, I just wasn’t gonna be able to recover to get back on a bike — especially fast enough,” he said. “I was 19 or 20 before I really was able to get back on a bike and ride, so five years out of the sport, there’s no way you’re getting back into it and [going to] be competitive.”
For Lofton, the transition to off-road — while forced — seemed natural even if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted at the time.
“My dad raced off-road cars and I always wanted to do that,” he reminisced. “I had kinda started dabbling before I broke my leg, but honestly my true passion was riding mountain bikes. That was my life and I had a lot of great friendships and probably some of the best times in my life up on the slopes in Big Bear, California.”
After transitioning, Lofton made the move to Late Models in 2006 and the rest, as they say, is history. It took just two years in the NASCAR K&N West Series — a stint that saw him grab five top 5s and 11 top-10 finishes in 25 starts — before he made the move to ARCA in 2008. Once there, it took just a handful of races before Lofton was in Victory Lane at Michigan, in his eighth series start, and the success didn’t end there. The youngster would go on to score two poles — one each at Cayuga International Speedway and Toledo Speedway — before moving into what would become his 2009 championship campaign. Edging competitor Parker Kligerman by just five points, Lofton took home six victories, 15 top 5s and 19 top-10 finishes in 21 starts that season (he finished 22nd at Rockingham and 30th at Michigan International Speedway).
From there, the transition to the Truck Series seemed a natural fit. Lofton joined Red Horse Racing to pilot the No. 7 visitPit.com Toyota, a rookie campaign that saw him finish a solid 12th in points, scoring four top 5s and eight top-10 finishes along the way. During the offseason, Lofton joined Germain Racing for what was supposed to be a full season of competition alongside defending champion Todd Bodine before things turned sour. And that brings us right back to where Lofton is now — behind the wheel of the No. 6 CollegeComplete.com Chevrolet for ESR and looking forward to a great 2012 season.
But racing isn’t the only thing that occupies Lofton’s time. Along with his sister Brittany and their business partner Brett Bortle, the three created Weekend Warriors Entertainment in 2009. From there, Weekend Warriors TV, a bi-weekly web show — hosted by Brittany — that focuses on grass roots racing was born. In the show, WWTV “captures the grassroots side of racing from kids to adults, go karts to stock cars, families to full-blooded race teams in their weekly fight to be number one.”
Most recently, Weekend Warriors Entertainment saw their most recent music video for Jason Michael Carroll’s Meet Me in the Barn debut Halloween Night on the Great American Country (GAC) network. And there are plenty of projects the trio has in mind for their future.
“We’re doing a lot of cool stuff,” Lofton said. “We just finished up our last music video with Jason Michael Carroll. We work a lot with Tim Dugger and started doing a lot of his new tour stuff. He’s going on radio tour, so we’ve got some projects that way. We’ve got, I think, three more music videos kinda in the works — nothing’s booked solid yet — but it goes from heavy metal to rock to country.”
“Both Brett and I really want to get into short film stuff and do something that way and eventually one day have a full length feature film that is picked up and played in every movie theater around the country. That’s what we’re hoping for but in the meantime we’ve got a lot of fun stuff going. We’re going to start doing some stuff for CollegeComplete.com — they’re coming back on board next year and we’re looking to work a lot with them and just give sponsors of my race team an added bonus for working with me and really giving them the bang for their buck with us.”
With all of that said, it’s hard to imagine Lofton having any free time to do anything else. However, he managed to squeeze in the Justin Lofton Charity Golf Tournament at the Del Rio Country Club in Brawley, California this past January with all proceeds benefiting the Boys and Girls Club of Imperial Valley. Following the tournament itself, there was an awards ceremony, check presentation, dinner, auction and concert held at the Stockmen’s Club.
“It was a sport that I played with my grandpa and it was something that we could do together, so it became special that way,” he explained. “Then, going to the Bodine golf tournament, Larry McReynolds’ golf tournament, it was like ‘you know, I can do this.’ And where I’m from, we have a lot of really good golfers and that’s one of the big things to do. So, I thought it’d be fun to take on the challenge and see if we can do this — and not only do it, but let’s see if we can top the ones I’ve been to. Sitting down one night around the dinner table, it was like, ‘I wanna try this.’ And of course all my family was like ‘Let’s go for it; let’s do it.’”
“Thankfully, we had a lot of support from a lot of people. It couldn’t have been done without all the people that work at the Boys and Girls Club and a lot of friends — a lot of them volunteered their time. We spent hours and hours and hours and days on the thing just trying to make it different from everything that’s been done before, and this year’s gonna be even bigger and better.”
With over 100 golfers participating and more than 300 people attending the post-tournament fun, more than $40,000 was raised. Plans have already begun for the 2012 event; anyone interested in registering may do so online via the Imperial County Boys and Girls Club website. After a successful first year, Lofton has high hopes once again for all the right reasons — helping the Boys and Girls Club reach new heights.
“Hopefully we can raise more money — we’re working on that — but we just want people to have a great time,” he explained. “And we’re going to get the kids involved and bring them out and really show that it’s a great organization.”
Simply put, Justin Lofton is a well-rounded driver both on and off the track. From being involved at the shop to helping organize a charity golf tournament, somehow he manages to make time for it all — but not without his favorite food.
“Del Taco—you gotta have Del Taco,” he beamed, ending the interview on a hungry note. “I always have In-N-Out Burger when I get home, but if it was to go anywhere, I could eat Del Taco three times a day, seven days a week.”
As the series heads off to Homestead-Miami Speedway for championship weekend, Lofton’s sights will be focused on ending the season with a bang before taking a few months off. With his 2012 plans already set in stone, it’s all about taking notes and preparing for what the team hopes will be a record-setting season.
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