If you’re going to go out, do so in a ball of flames.
For 19-year-old Justin Fontaine, his dream of racing at Daytona International Speedway in February ended with a fiery mess after going head on into the frontstretch wall, leaving the rookie driver on his roof just past pit road exit.
Following the scary wreck, Fontaine was diagnosed with a mild compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae and was forced to sit out more than three months of ARCA series racing.
For any young inexperienced driver, kicking off a racing season with an injury is almost guaranteed to put a damper on your entire schedule, often needing weeks if not months to get back into the swing of things. But for Fontaine, the North Carolina boy bounced back quick with an 11th-place finish in his first race back at Elko Speedway on June 3 and is hot off his first career ARCA top 10 at Winchester Speedway in ninth.
Additionally, Fontaine returned to the Camping World Truck Series at Pocono Raceway, making his second career start in the series.
Frontstretch sat down with Fontaine to discuss his Daytona accident, recovering from the injury and what his plans are for the remainder fo 2017 and beyond in ARCA and Trucks.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Pocono is your first Truck Series start since Martinsville last year, out of the blue. Unexpected. Why are you back?
Justin Fontaine: We’ve been planning it for a couple weeks. When we were sitting down over the winter trying to determine what we can do on the Truck side, we knew we wanted to do some but it needed to make sense. We looked at the double-header weekends with ARCA and Truck. Those seemed to me to be the best for seat time and made the most sense to go from this garage to the other.
We certainly don’t think I’m ready to go full time in the Trucks yet. Just take baby steps, get a couple races under my belt and see what I have.
Catanzareti: I bet the Trucks are a whole new mindset, tougher competition, it’s a national NASCAR series. So, how much did Martinsville last year prepare you mentally for this Pocono race?
Fontaine: It did quite a bit. They’re two entirely different tracks but you get an idea of the competition. The guys like [Matt] Crafton, [Johnny] Sauter, Ben Rhodes, the full-time guys, you get an idea of how they race and the level they compete at. I’m not going in completely blind, I have that little in the back of my mind. It was definitely helpful to get that seat time.
Catanzareti: Are you more prone to go to experienced drivers for advice or the younger drivers since they know what you’re going through, they’re more your age?
Fontaine: Honestly, I’ve leaned more on the veterans. When I was making my start at Martinsville, Matt Crafton came to the rookie meeting, I listened to him talk. Then, after that I pulled him aside and we talked, over the weekend, for a couple hours. He let me sit on his box before the race to pick his brain a bit. It’s easier to get information from the veterans, not like the rookies’ knowledge isn’t good, but there’s more to be gained from the veterans.
Catanzareti: Is it the same with ARCA?
Fontaine: There’s a couple. With ARCA, it’s different than K&N but the idea is the same: this is a pure development series, 90 percent of the field is in the rookie meeting. What I’ve tried to do, any time Frank Kimmel comes to the race, he comes to a lot of the races as a mentor, so Ill try to find him and see if I can talk with him a bit.
With short tracks, it’s more or less seat time and figuring out how to go around those places. I’m fortunate to have Bill Henderson as my crew chief, he has a lot of experience at tracks.
Catanzareti: Talking about your ARCA season, obviously it started off rough at Daytona with your big wreck on the frontstretch. Can you go back to that lap, when the accident happened? What was your mind going through through the accident?
Fontaine: Well, right before the wreck I was happy because we were running like sixth or something. We were thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to get a top five out of this if it keeps going this way.’ I was just hanging around the bottom and I felt my corner panel on the right side get a tap and I started to see the nose change direction. And once that started, I knew what was probably going to happen and once it kept going I knew we were in trouble.
The initial impact, that one was — it felt like it took a long time to get there to the wall — but it hurt the most out of anything else that happened. Then the rollover was pretty slow, so that wasn’t terrible, it was just uncomfortable being upside down as long as it was. Sliding down the frontstretch was surreal almost; you got sparks coming in through the side window, there was a little flame under the hood but it died out quick. And just all the noise.
Then when we came to a stop, I was upside down for five minutes or so. Fortunately, the Daytona and ARCA safety crews got me rolled over gently, and the cut the roof off as fast as they could but also as safely as they could. Fortunately, there was no additional damage to what had already been done in the wreck.
Catanzareti: Did you feel pain when you hit the wall? Or did that come after they got your out of the car?
Fontaine: The initial impact just knocked the breath out of me, that’s uncomfortable in and of itself. After that hit, I sort of came to — I didn’t go unconscious, so I felt kind of uncomfortable in my back and then as the rollover happened I felt way more uncomfortable in my back. When they set me back down, I knew something was wrong.
It was like the feeling that you got the breath knocked out of you, but it wouldn’t go away. I was still in a consistent level of pain in my lower back.
Catanzareti: It didn’t take long after the race to see all the support from fans, every team member, driver. When you’re in the hospital for that night, did you feel the support? Or maybe later?
Fontaine: By the time I got my phone back, it was probably 45 minutes to an hour after the wreck. My parents had my phone and I didn’t get to see them for a while. Scrolling through my home screen it was like a book reading and seeing all the tweets. I had Scott Edwards, who is an ARCA driver, he actually came to the hospital, he and I met randomly on an airplane a year before. He came personally to the hospital to come to see me and family, so that was really cool.
The fan outcry was amazing. My friends back in Asheville and up in Maine, Texas, Florida, they were all incredibly supportive of it. That was really neat to see.
Catanzareti: Did you think you may have not been able to race again, any doubt at all?
Fontaine: For me, I knew I wanted to keep racing. There was no doubt I wanted to do it but my dad and I had to sit down — we didn’t know at the time what the doctors were going to say, so we had to prepare ourselves for whatever he was going to say. If he says we could be back in three months, we’ll be back in three months. I was preparing myself for that but I always knew I wanted to keep racing.
Catanzareti: You were back at Daytona that next week in a back brace. When it came to seeing that track again, was it a little spooky or were you already over it?
Fontaine: Honestly, no, I just love being at the racetrack. There was a lot of pain that first week so getting down there was a challenge. Being there and seeing my teammates Austin [Wayne Self] and JJ Yeley. Being there to support those guys was cool, seeing Austin finish second, I didn’t actually get to stay for the race, we went back to the motorhome because my back started giving me trouble. Just being back was cool and seeing everyone again.
Catanzareti: Aric Almirola had a similar incident, he just came back a few weeks ago. When you see that happen, you have the perspective now. When you see that, what goes through your mind? You know what it’s like now.
Fontaine: I was actually watching that wreck when it happened and I remember thinking that it didn’t look [that bad], I mean, it was a hard hit and I hope he’s OK. But when he was still in the car, I got really concerned, because like you said, I’ve been in that situation before. Going back to my race and seeing how long it took to get me out of the car, I could see where people would be concerned for Aric Almirola.
It just goes to show that NASCAR and ARCA do great jobs at keeping these cars safe. But inherently, this sport is incredibly dangerous. I think we’re lucky that’s the most severe injury we get, back injuries are really severe, but it’s good that it’s nothing worse than that. I’m happy to see he’s back. It does change your perspective because you take it more seriously when someone takes longer to get out of the car.
Catanzareti: You said you looked over footage of your wreck. Ricky Craven flipped at Talladega one year and when he watched the footage he said, ‘I really feel bad for whoever that is.’ When you watch your wreck, do you believe that’s you?
Fontaine: It was funny because we got back home the next day, hanging around the house, I flip on FOX Sports 2 and sure enough they’re showing my race. It was about 25 laps to go so I’m like, ‘Dad! Get in here let’s watch.’ My mom immediately walked away because she didn’t want to watch it again [laughs].
Honestly, I thought it was pretty cool, the crash. Now, after the pain and all that was over, that’s pretty cool, that’s awesome. If you’re going to go out, go out in a ball of flames.
Catanzareti: It got a lot of YouTube hits!
Fontaine: That’s right, that’s right [laughs]. It was definitely surreal going back and watching it [and saying] ‘OK, that’s what happened.’ It was a new perspective for it but it was pretty intense.
Catanzareti: Do you feel you gained some respect after that?
Fontaine: I think the biggest thing I gained, out of the car for three months, I wanted to race even more. I was that close to not being able to do it, just a little different angle, or a little harder maybe my back doesn’t heal properly. Even the three months I was out, seeing other guys drive my car; Mason Mingus did a great job in the No. 33 when he was in it. That made my want it even more and made me appreciate what I get to do.
Catanzareti: Your first time back in the car at Elko, you finished 11th. A solid run after being out, but in practice back in the car, were there any feelings at all or does that mindset switch off when you climb in?
Fontaine: Fortunately, we get a Motor Mile test a week or two prior to that race, so I had some track time, albeit a different track. For me, it’s been a light switch. once you’re at the track, you have a job to do. you can’t think about anything else. That being said, I haven’t been back to Daytona or Talladega, that may be different going back to a track knowing what can happen there. Back to Elko, Pocono, I understood I had a job to do.
Catanzareti: Recapping your season since you’ve been back, access your personal performance. you’ve had some reliability issues with your cars but a couple good runs.
Fontaine: The performance, I think, has been really good. We just can’t seem to finish races lately. Elko was a great foundation, Pocono we ran into an issue with practice, went to a backup car and still ran decent. Michigan, we were the fastest Win-Tron car in qualifying, ran into someone’s oil and hit the wall. Madison, we contended for a top five and some shenanigans happened on a restart, fell back. Then, Tanner Thorson got too aggressive and spun me out so we finished 11th again.
It just seems the speed is there. Iowa, we were really fast, but the reliability hasn’t been there. The speed I know is there, my driver performance has been OK, we’re taking in the tracks well for my experience level. I think once we get that first top 10, top five, we’re get the snowball rolling.
Catanzareti: What are you plans? You’re doing ARCA this year, any more Truck races? How quickly are you looking to move up the ranks?
Fontaine: I don’t want to take it too fast. The plan is to run most of the ARCA races, we’re not going to be at the dirt races or the road courses, we want to focus on speedways and short tracks. I’m hoping for another Truck race at the end of the year which we haven’t announced yet. Next year, the goal is to do more ARCA races than this year, potentially the full schedule, not sure yet. obviously, we want to do more Truck races next year.
But right now for me, it’s important not to rush development. The idea of doing ARCA this year, we know he has speed, let’s capitalize on it next year. If next year goes well, we could be in a truck in 2019 or 2020. Hopefully soon we’ll have some stuff to announce on that.
Catanzareti: Are you trying to market yourself? Your building relationships early.
Fontaine: I do try to build relationships with potential sponsors and people who may want to help. Tim Self, the owner at AM Racing, he and I have worked really well together. So as of now, my intention is to stay at AM Racing for the foreseeable future because Tim has been a very good owner for me, putting me in positions where I can best succeed the goals I’ve put out.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Justin Fontaine)