Two months before the Chili Bowl Nationals, Justin Grant went in search of his dream.
The father of three had always wanted to start his own midget team. After the affable 28-year-old Ione, California, native parted ways with Clauson Marshall Racing, one of the top USAC National Midget teams, he did just that.
Sometimes it takes a village. And with help from the racing community, Grant not only made it to Tulsa, but he also finished on the podium of the Chili Bowl A-Main on Saturday.
“It feels really, really good,” Grant said after finishing third. “It was a very gratifying week. It’s awfully silly. I’m sitting here beating myself up over leaving the car third-place free. I want to be happy, but I’m really struggling. I’m really proud of what our team did. It’s been a lot of work, and we don’t even have like a full-time crew or anything.
“I’ve had A.J. Parker, who's a 16-year-old kid from Indiana, that’s been coming by the shop to help me mount tires and working with me at night. He came down to help me out. Clinton Boyles, a guy that we race against back home, he started coming by the shop.”
From the Hemelgarn Racing shop, just south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Grant used the resources and worked around the clock preparing for the race. RAMS Racing team owner Rick Young provided Grant with additional support for the 4a NOS midget. He repaid Young with a repeat win on his preliminary night—the only driver to upset the mighty Keith Kunz juggernaut—albeit in a Bullet by Spike chassis.
Grant went to Kunz at the beginning of the week and asked for advice on the setup of the midget.
“Anybody who comes to me for advice, I do it,” Kunz said. “I tell anyone just about anything. A lot of people won’t believe you, and a lot of people won’t do what you tell them. I think Justin took to heart what I told him, and he went out there in hot laps and felt good and adjusted from there.
“He’s a good race car driver. He’s a darn good race car driver.”
Kunz had 11 midgets entered in the 2019 Chili Bowl Nationals. Logan Seavey won the first qualifying night followed by Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu and Christopher Bell. Grant won his prelim night, holding off Tanner Thorson and beating the KKM midgets of Tucker Klaasmeyer and Spencer Bayston.
Not surprisingly, Grant has nothing but respect for the program Kunz has built.
“I feel like I worked my way from a little 10-foot trailer at the back of the building to here, and it’s been with a lot of help from people like Keith along the way,” Grant said. “I appreciate that help tremendously, and it helps when they say nice things about you.
“With Keith and the whole community coming together, I’ve been really fortunate to have good people come in and help me to do this—and do it the way I want to do it. It’s been a bit surreal, and I’m sure I’ll quit beating myself up here in a little bit and enjoy it looking back.”
Grant has a reputation as a smooth racer who doesn’t tear up his equipment. While he was able to come from fifth to third in the feature, Grant was realistic enough to accept he had nothing for the dynamic duo of Bell and Larson over the closing laps of the A-Main.
“They were racing hard,” Grant said. “I knew I couldn't really race with them. I could hang a couple of car lengths back. That was about all I had. I wouldn’t have wanted to win it with them getting together but I was hoping there, on the last lap, they would at least not crash but maybe go bouncing across the middle and wash high off of 4 and I might have a bit of a prayer there.
“But those guys are really good, and racing with them and watching what they do in a race car is amazing—and you learn a lot racing them. They’re so good about being at the right place at the right time. It forces you to evaluate your own game and try to elevate it as much as you can.”
Grant’s post-race drill following the Chili Bowl was simple—go home, take a nap, then head to the car wash. He’ll kick off his USAC season in Sprint Cars at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., on Feb. 14.
“We’ll go home and get this stuff cleaned up and get ready for the next midget race in DuQuoin (Ill.) in March. I think that’s the next one that RAMS Racing is going to hit,” Grant said. “Looking forward to that—hopefully, we can finish a few spots better than we were here.
“Then really looking forward to starting the Sprint Car season again with TOPP Motorsports and NOS Energy Drink is coming on board there as well. It’s been huge for the RAMS Racing team—not only what NOS is doing for me—but what they’re doing for all of racing and dirt track racing, specifically. They’re changing the game and we appreciate all of their support. Hopefully, we’re representing them well or as well as we can.
“But really looking forward to this year, all of 2019—and working with them across all three series. I feel like I’m with three really great teams in Sprint Cars, Silver Crown and the Midget. I don’t think I’ve had more of an optimistic year going into a season and, hopefully, we can keep things rolling.”