As race teams and officials began assembling at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, everything seemed just a bit odd. To use an old term, this would be a “still date,” signifying it was a race decoupled from a regularly-scheduled fair.
No mattered what time one entered the gates at Springfield in the past, there was always traffic to contend with and a landscape covered with carnival rides and booths offering the standard fare that is part and parcel of the annual event.
Not that anyone complained this year. The ease of entry was coupled with the sheer amazement that this race was even happening.
Many had already resigned themselves that, due to the concerns over COVID-19 and corresponding government restrictions, this event would not see the light of day.
It was but one more surprise in a season that was full of them.
Unfortunately, no single USAC-sanctioned tour suffered more in this crazy year than the USAC Silver Crown Series. That was the bad news.
Then again, no one really thought the Big Cars would ever return to the Indiana State Fairgrounds but, due to the hard work of USAC’s Levi Jones and Track Enterprises leader Bob Sargent, a near miracle had occurred.
Now, in a pinch-me moment, cars were lining up for practice at another one-mile dirt oval.
Justin Grant was thrilled to be there too, and he had unfinished business on his mind.
Following the Hoosier Hundred, he sat atop the point standings, but winning races, not championships, was his foremost consideration.
While cold-hearted rational thinking might lead one to believe he would have secretly been delighted that a scheduled date at Toledo Speedway fell to rain, nothing could be further from the truth.
Grant puts food on the table by racing, and if a championship came his way, he wanted all to view it as something he earned.
Particularly in the context of today’s racing world, Grant’s rise to the upper echelons of his profession was close to improbable. The early days of his racing life have been well-documented.
Grant began in quarter-midgets in 1997 at the age of six, and he had immediate success. The transition to outlaw karts was seamless, and by 2005 he was the 500cc national champion. But even at this point, things were not as easy as they seemed.
His father became very ill, and at one point his life truly hung in the balance. It was not out of the realm of possibility that Grant’s time in racing would come to a premature end.
Luckily, he connected with Karl Pavlik Jr., who worked in the industry, and he helped get Grant’s kart to and from the race track.
In order to be able to race, Grant worked a variety of part-time jobs, including at QRC Karts, and he devoted his earnings to his racing program.
Also critical to his development, he lent a hand at a driving school owned by Hall of Fame racer Jimmy Sills, who continues to serve as a mentor to Grant to this day.
With a host of significant accomplishments already on his racing resume, he felt the time had come to climb the ladder. He had his heart set on moving to a full midget, but prevailing rules in place at the time stated that one must be 16 to compete with both the Bay Cities Racing Ass’n and the USAC Western States Midget Series.
His first step involved petitioning the BCRA for an exception. The BCRA board relented, and he quickly demonstrated that their confidence in him was not misplaced.
His BCRA novice flags were removed after his first heat race, and by the end of the year he was named the Johnny Boyd Rookie of the Year. In 2007 his star continued to rise.
Finding work in Dave and Wendy Thurston’s midget, he became the youngest BCRA champion to date in the club’s 70-year history. From that point on he began scheming to somehow get to Indiana, and try to chart a course to become a professional racer.
The city of Indianapolis is full of former racers who are still licking their wounds and confronting the reality that their dreams have been dashed. Grant could have easily been one of them.
When he arrived at the Hoosier State, he had little more to offer than a strong desire and a proven work ethic. There was no rich dad or trust fund to support him. He was clearly on his own. His story is the kind of tale writers love to pounce on.
When pressed, Grant admitted there were obstacles along the way and, therefore, he is proud of where he stands.
Yet, in the next breath he added, “But it isn’t something I need to tell everybody about.”
Nonetheless, as Grant stood outside his trailer on a raw October afternoon, he knew that if he was reasonably successful over the course of a 100-lap race, he would be the champion of USAC’s premier division.
No matter how much Grant tries to deflect attention from his past, it really was quite the journey.
Later he remarked, “When I look back and I think about coming to Indiana and getting a chance to race a sprint car, I just kind of get overwhelmed. I think about all the opportunities I had and those that were given to me. A lot of times people say, ‘You didn’t have anything when you moved back here.’ And I didn’t.
“When I moved to Indiana, I bought that little Pontiac – I think I paid 1,500 bucks for it – and I had like $300 left. That was my life savings. I would carry a little cardboard box in my trunk that had laundry detergent, dryer sheets, and my five days of clothes. My whole life was in that Sunfire. I didn’t really have a plan. I showed up and got a chance to work for Jeff Walker. I moved back here because I wanted to race, but I was so happy just to be around it, and just be at a sprint car race.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was getting paid to go to sprint car races. I wasn’t driving yet, but it was still the coolest thing ever. Then I got hired to drive a sprint car, and that was the coolest thing ever.”
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