Fitzpatrick born to race

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:05 AM ET

J.R. Fitzpatrick still looks a lot like the boy next door. A hint of boyish reticence. An impish, youthful charm. A smile to make a mother's heart melt. A true hometown boy, except that he doesn't hang with a lot of the kids with whom he used to go to school.

He has left them behind. He has made a lot of people eat dust -- and not just on the race track where he has become Canada's youngest stock car champion.

"I see a handful of them but ... I'm not the kind of person who likes to go out every weekend, go to dance clubs or house parties. I like working on cars and doing my own thing. I'm kind of independent that way."

His way always has been the fast way.

And, today, at age 20, he will fly to Daytona where this weekend Fitzpatrick will slide into a racing kit and throw himself around the historic 3.2-kilometre oval at more than 320 kilometres an hour. It is what he has dreamed of since he first stepped into a race car his father built for him at age 6. It was the beginning of an infatuation with speed. But it has not always been a way without its bumps.

Fitzpatrick is hearing impaired. "I was born with it. My sister has the same problem. It doesn't affect the racing."

He wears small hearing buds in each ear. "I don't wear them in the car. If I take them out I can still have a conversation but if someone's on the other side of room, I wouldn't be able to hear them very well."

Today, the aids hardly are noticeable. It was not always thus. "In school it was tough, having hearing aids -- 20 years ago I had the big giant ones. I got teased. Kids did bug me. It was hard. That's probably where I got most of my aggression from -- getting picked on.

"But now that I look back in a way it helped me. It pushed me to achieve my goals so I could say: 'I did what I wanted. I proved you wrong.' I was never a pushover kind of person."

Certainly no pushover on the race track, where the Cambridge native is on the cusp of becoming this country's next great driver -- someone who seems to be developing the touch and feel for a race car of Ron Fellows and the boldness of Paul Tracy.

There were early indications Fitzpatrick was born to race. The family would go to Sauble Beach where his father ran late-model races.

"It started out as a family thing, just having fun," Fitzpatrick said. "One day we went to the track and he had a small car for me painted up just like his. That weekend I won my first race."

He was 6 years old.

"I just seemed to pick up on how to go fast. I raced my first snowmobile when I was 3. Ran my first motocross race when I was 6.

"I've always had an obsession with going fast," Fitzpatrick said. At 16, he entered the CASCAR Series, racing against drivers twice his age. Two years ago, he won the Series championship. "That's when I figured I wanted to try doing this for a living."

Fitzpatrick caught the imagination of TRG Motorsports, a team headquartered in Mooresville, N.C., the heart of stock car racing country. He made his Camping World Truck Series debut at Martinsville Speedway and followed it up with competitive runs at Phoenix and the 1.6-kilometre track in Homestead, Fla. It was a smooth initiation even though until then the longest oval he had been on was a .6-kilometre track. "I don't know why but it's when I'm going fast that I feel the most comfortable. When I'm racing it's like everything quiets down, it's very smooth and it feels like that's where I belong."

Until last year he never had seen a super-speedway when, at Phoenix, he found himself having a shop talk with Kevin Harvick. "I was having a bit of trouble on Turns 1 and 2. I cheer for Kevin in races. I had butterflies in my stomach going up to talk to him. But he was great. He helped me find the 2/10ths I was looking for."

This winter TRG Motorsports took him to Daytona for three days of testing. "Everyone thought my breakthrough year was when I won (CASCAR). But this year feels different. Everything seems to be falling into place. I've got a great team, great equipment, a great car. If we do it right this is going to be a great year." In testing he turned the second-fastest lap of 61 cars.

"That was out of this world; seeing how big Daytona was -- cool. I'd watched on TV obviously. But I'd never actually seen the place -- never watched a Cup race until the three races I did in the truck series."

The test results convinced TRG to put him in the No. 48 Chevy for Saturday's ARCA season-opener as well as next week's truck series event. "It doesn't feel real yet," says Fitzpatrick, "that this really is Daytona. It's where every driver wants to get to. It means I'm getting a chance to do what I always wanted to do when I was growing up."

His initiation into the art of drafting has been seemless.

"I don't get intimated by much. Obviously there's a lot to learn. People think on a big track you just hold it wide open and turn laps. But once you get in the draft it's totally different.

"You really have to concentrate and anticipate where the air movement is. I had a lot of fun with it. Everyone said Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the best at it because he understood air movement. That's why he always won there. They said he could see the air. I can't do that yet, but maybe some day ..."

That this is the track once ruled by Earnhardt, makes it even more special for Fitzpatrick. "He was my idol. Him, and Junior Hanley, because he is so respected in Canada and the U.S." That respect is what Fitzpatrick hopes to one day earn himself, dispelling any notions that he's some "wild, crazy kid."

"Respect is very important in racing and I'm still trying to earn that. I've always been the youngest in the classes I've raced and I've always been aggressive. Actually off the track I'm quiet and kind of shy. But on the track I'm trying to reach my full potential. I take racing seriously ... and I'll let people know about it."

This weekend a top-10 finish would be worthy of celebration. Just finishing would be a small victory. "Even if the race is disappointing, if I can learn something from it, I'll be that much better the next time," he says.

His parents and four sisters will watch on TV from their Cambridge-area home this weekend, although his father, John, expects to attend next week's Truck Series event. "He won't admit it but he's a little nervous," says Fitzpatrick, "we'll be doing over 200 miles an hour and I think it bothers him a bit. He knows that he and other people have taught me well enough that I won't do anything stupid ... he's just as pumped up as I am."

But his fascination for speed isn't entirely without some family reservations. His mother, Janet, has begged off several of the bigger race events. "She's scared. She has got the typical mother role," says Fitzpatrick, "but, at the same time she's happy I'm able to live my dream. She went to my Homestead race last year. I think you'll see her at Daytona."


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