CANADA OR FLORIDA? NOT A TOUGH CHOICE by Jeremy Troiano
Speedweeks A Second Home For Many From North Of The Border
When most people think of Florida Speedweeks, they think of bight sunshine, sandy beaches, ocean water, warm weather, fast racecars and good competition.
Maybe those thoughts are what bring so many racers to Florida for Speedweeks; especially those racers whose realities include snow, cold weather, more snow and more cold weather.
JR Fitzpatrick (#8) and Jerry Artuso (#5) are two of the Canadian drivers racing at Speedweeks.
“Smyrna Speedweeks” always draws racers from all over the country. And every year, it draws a lot of racers from out of the country as well.
This year, like many years in the past, the Late Model and Super Late Model divisions have a strong Canadian contingent. During the week, there has been no less than seven different drivers from Canada competing in Speedweeks.
So far, the leader of the pack has been Speedweeks rookie and 17-year-old JR (John Ryan) Fitzpatrick, who is driving the #8 Super Late Model. Fitzpatrick, who has only run a handful of Super Late Model races before
coming to Speedweeks, nearly won the SLM feature opening night before getting run into by fellow Canadian driver Jerry Artuso.
Fitzpatrick, who was sixth in points before Wednesday night’s seventh-place finish, is a close friend to Peter Sheppard, who was recently signed to a driver development deal with Roush Racing.
“You don’t have very much of a race season in Canada,” said Fitzpatrick. “You have about six months at the most to race. We got this Super Late Model off of my friend Petey (Sheppard) and it is a really good car. We just need more seat time for me. I’ve only been in a stock car for a couple of years. I just turned 17, so I need as much seat time as possible. So we thought this would be the best thing for me and coming down here is just a smart move for us.
“Up in Canada, a lot of people come down here to Speedweeks and we just thought we’d do the same.”
A former CASCAR driver, Fitzpatrick is just trying to learn and running against some of the best-of-the-best is helping him become a better driver.
“I grew up with go karts and got into a Limited Late Model for a few races. I’ve been doing the CASCAR Super Series for the last couple of years. This is my first year in a Super Late Model.
“I’m surprised how well I’ve taken to these cars, especially since we are lacking some power. We didn’t come down here with the power that some of these guys did. We were just battling for top 10s.”
Fitzpatrick also has some big-time Canadian help in his corner.
“Pete (Sheppard) has been a big help. We go go-karting together all the time. We are good friends. He was here with me a couple of nights ago when I was leading and got taken out. He has given me a pointer or two. I have a coach, Don Thomson Jr. (former CASCAR Champion). He is my spotter and my coach and he helps me all the time. He is a great crew chief too.”
Fitzpatrick made the 25-hour drive from his home in Toronto to compete in Speedweeks for the first time.
Another driver, Darrell Midgley, had double the drive as Fitzpatrick to get to Speedweeks. He came 60 hours from his home just outside of Victoria, British Columbia.
“It’s too cold to race there now,” said Midgley of why he came down to Florida for Speedweeks. “ I came down here when I was younger and it’s fun. It’s just something that I always wanted to be a part of and here we are.
“I think our truck was on the road for about 60 hours, so it is a long trip down here. They’re all stock cars, but there are a lot of differences between cars here and up there. The cars we race up there are a lot heavier.
“The competition is definitely better down here. Everything that happens in stock car racing starts in the east and works its way west. This is where it all starts.”
Midgley doesn’t do a lot of racing up north of the border. In fact, when he does race, it is in something a lot different than the #81 Super Late Model he is racing at New Smyrna.
“I raced just over 30 times last year. I ran about half the time in these types of cars and half in Dirt Late Models.
Trevor Monaghan is another of the young racers learning the ropes at Speedweeks. And while Monaghan’s Speedweeks haven’t been overly successful, he is a kid that is just having a good time and always smiling.
“This is just a prestigious event and it has been a dream come true to come down here,” said the Hamilton, Ontario-native. “I’ve had a lot of support from my family and my friends. I’m just proud to be here. I wish my luck was going a little bit better. We just need to get laps and seat time.
“I race Late Models and Super Late Models up there. It has basically the same rules as down here, so I’m familiar with these cars. This is just a new track and a whole new group of racers. These are some of the best of the best here and I’m so excited to be here.”
The excitement is evident with Monaghan, just looking at the smile on his face.
“I think it is just the prestige of the event,” added Monaghan as to why so many Canadians come to Speedweeks. “You are running against the best. To come down here and compete is just any racers dream.
“Most of the racers down here are really friendly and are open to giving advice and help. A lot of the Canadian drivers we know and they help us out quite a bit. I love it. I just wish we were running better. We are under funded and looking for sponsors, but I’d come back down here in a second.”
Chatham, Ontario’s Kirk Hooker has had a tough Speedweeks. On night, he was involved in a big accident on the front stretch of the Limited Late Model feature and demolished the car. His team worked all night to get the car back together and he’s been back in the lineup ever since.
Despite that, Hooker has kept a great attitude and has a few good views on why so many Canadians come to Speedweeks.
Trevor Monaghan (#15, top) and Kirk Hooker (bottom, Jim DuPont Photo) have had some bad luck in Speedweeks.
“Well it’s either shovel snow and deal with my wife or come down here and race,” joked Hooker on Wednesday night. “We’ve been running good. Wayne Anderson’s been helping us out. We bought this car from him and he’s been helping us get this thing to be a good hot rod. I met Wayne back in 2000 and we’ve been friends ever since.
“Coming down here gets our season kick started. The other guys that we race with up there are playing video games or playing with themselves while we’re racing and having fun.”
One Canadian driver competing in Speedweeks does more racing in Florida than Canada. That would be Ontario’s Jerry Artuso.
“We started running down here five years ago or so running Limited Late Models and the Modifieds,” said Artuso, who flys down several times a month to race at New Smyrna or other local Florida tracks. “We kept coming down and it’s still fun every year. We’ve moved up to the big class (Super Late Models) and we’ll see what we can do with this.
“We don’t do anything in Canada anymore. I was racing for a guy out of my hometown in Ontario that we were running Outlaw Super Late Models in Michigan with. I ran a limited show with them and basically doing this show here.
Darrell Midgley's #81.
“We fly out of Flint which is about 4 hours away from my hometown. We drive down there on a Thursday night and fly out Friday morning and come down here for the weekend and leave again on Sunday night. It’s a lot of fun and luckily my family supports me. My father in law is the guy that makes this all happen. Mike Fritts houses the car, so with that combination we’re able to come down here and do this.”
The Canadian contingent is strong in 2006 and will likely get stronger as the years go on.
So the sand, the sun and the racetrack has the Canucks shouting one thing… “eh, lets go racing.”