Learning life lessons on the oval track
Almont student earns the grades at school and honors in a stock car
|Jimmy Novak III with his red Monte Carlo #53 and the checkered flag at the Owosso Speedway during the 2008 race series.|
March 04, 2009It's not uncommon for Jimmy Novak III, to reach speeds of 110 mph or more when he's in his car, a brightly colored Monte Carlo. Jimmy's had a heavy foot for a couple of years now and he just recently turned 16 years old.
Now you may think Jimmy has drawn the attention of the local police department, but he hasn't. No, instead, Jimmy has drawn the attention of seasoned stock car racers, as he runs door to door, bumper to bumper, with the veteran drivers at stock car race tracks like Auto City in Clio, Owosso Speedway and Dixie Speedway in Birch Run. In late January, Jimmy earned "Rookie of the Year" honors at Auto City and "Runner-Up" at Dixie and Owosso. At age 15, Jimmy completed his first full season of racing.
Impressive honors for a young man without a license to drive himself to school, until recently. Jimmy attends Almont High School where he has managed to stay on the fast-track with his grades too, consistently making Almont's Honor Roll. He's quickly earned a reputation as a solid student and as a "driver to watch in the future."
In Jimmy's first full season in the "Sportsman Class"
he won six qualifying races, has finished in the Top 5, five times and in the Top 10, an impressive 22 times.
As you might expect, Jimmy's parents, Jim Jr. and Suzan Novak of Dryden, are pretty proud of their son's accomplishments on and off the track.
Jimmy's been described on the track as showing uncommon patience and skill for his age, earning praise and respect from his fellow racers, fans and track writers.
Off the track, Jimmy is a humble soft-spoken teenager, with an incredible desire to learn the sport of racing. In talking with him, it's clear he knows what he wants from the future, and that's to be in the car racing industry.
It's a passion to go fast, and a passion to be the front-runner. Jimmy is living that passion.
"I like to get in the lead and stay there. It's what I try to do in each race, get the lead and make everyone else chase me. I like that the most," he tells me.
His father, Jim Jr. witnessed his son imitating racers early on. "Jimmy was only 4-years-old when I first noticed his natural desire to race. He used to terrorize his sister, Sarah in those little toy dune buggy cars," Jim. Jr. laughs. "Anytime they were playing, soon Jimmy would turn it into a race, bumping her and passing her. Sarah would get so mad at her brother. There was no little stroll around the yard with Jimmy. It was always a race.
"Then it was the go-cart, on the farm, he spent hours at it, running circles around the barn," he continues. "If we couldn't find Jimmy, we could hear him."
Jimmy moved on to motorcycles and snowmobiles, buzzing around the family farm. Again, going fast seemed to be the ticket to fun for Jimmy.
Later at age 14, when it was clear his parents were not going to allow him to race snowmobiles, by happenstance he found a stock car at a family friends home. It was something Jimmy had to have.
As his father explains though, there was a problem with his son launching himself into the racing business. It appeared Jimmy's grades were not very good. So a deal was struck.
|Jimmy Novak and his father Jim Jr. with the “Rookie of the Year” and runner-up trophies from the 2008 stock car circuit. photo by Randy Jorgensen.|
"His mother and I told him that if he wanted that car, he had to make the honor roll. I explained he needed to set some goals and if he achieved these goals, I would help him with his stock car dreams," Jim Jr. recalls.
Jimmy, of course, made the honor roll and has stayed on it. A deal is a deal as they say.
Jimmy went to the friend's house and told him he wanted to buy the stock car he had for sale.
It was covered with a blue tarp behind the barn. As they yanked at the tarp, Jimmy's dad saw a faded, rusty blue Monte Carlo, no fenders, and no doors. Jimmy though saw something entirely different, he saw his dream come true. Jimmy saw a car that with some extra parts, which are easy enough to find, some elbow grease and a rebuilt motor, he'd have a racing machine.
It may have taken Jimmy's life savings, but the Monte Carlo was his.
It was a lot of work, but with the help of some friends, the father/son team rebuilt the car, painted it a bright red and it was now ready for the track. Or so Jimmy thought.
In his first race, Jimmy got the 'Black Flag' which means he was going too slow for the track. "They were passing me like I was standing still," he remembers.
In his second race, the dreams, the hopes and hard work came to a startling and abrupt halt.
"Out of turn four, I didn't have the right line and I was headed for the wall, head on," Jimmy explains, recalling his first crash.
"I saw that wall coming at me fast and I remember thinking, 'Oh boy, this won't be fun,'" he told me.
Although he wasn't severely hurt in the crash, he did injure his neck. Of course he was wearing all the required safety equipment, it left Jimmy questioning if the racing industry was for him. His thoughts turned to giving up his young racing career. The car he and his father worked so hard on was being towed from the track. A crumpled mangled heap. It took a toll on Jimmy.
His father though, wouldn't hear anything about quitting from Jimmy. For Jim Jr. it was all about getting back on the horse after it throws you. A life lesson and not quitting.
They found another car, one that was a proven stock car, one with the right suspension, power and tire sizes. Fellow racers, John Summers and Rob Sullivan took Jimmy under their wings and began teaching Jimmy the right lines around the track, tactics and techniques.
In a new car, with proper tutoring and practice, Jimmy was back on the track as his father had insisted. In the first training session it was clear Jimmy was still tentative and apprehensive, his times were poor, his thoughts were still on his crash. The second time they had gotten better and his times had improved. His third time out, he had started to raise bystanders' eyebrows and his times became more than respectable.
"When I stepped out of the car that third time, I knew I wanted to race again and I knew I could compete," Jimmy said smiling.
Since then, Jimmy has buckled in for 40 races at three different tracks, and he has not caused or been involved in any major crashes on the oval track.
"I learned my best races are the ones when I get out fast and in front right away. I like having the rest of the drivers chase me, I like trying to keep the lead," he explains.
And how does Jimmy's mother, Suzan feel about all this racing?
Jim Jr. answered it best.
"At first, she was hiding her eyes and yelling, 'slowdown, slowdown!' Now she's yelling 'pass 'em Jimmy, pass 'em!' Still though, she gets nervous," he laughed.
So what's next for Jimmy?
"I will continue to race and get better, it's what I want to do," the humble young man told me.
"I'd like to make it my life. I've got a long ways to go and I understand that. And a lot of people have helped me."
He has set his sights on attending the Nascar Technical Institute in Indiana after graduation from Almont and he has an opportunity to become involved with a driver development program with General Motors.
In reality, the step from local racing is not an easy one. It can be done, but it requires some talent, some luck and very good planning. There aren't many seats available at the top. Although there is a good number of people who are willing to do what it takes to get one of those seats.
The life lessons Jimmy has learned, whether it's working to get and maintain better grades or getting back on that horse again, just may serve him very well.
So Jimmy, work hard, race clean, and keep learning. We'll all be watching for you on the podium.
Editor's note: Jimmy is looking for sponsors, if you would like to talk about sponsorship opportunities contact Jim Novak, Jr. at Novak's Supply and Equipment, 810-798-8533.