It all started last year. A young man with aspirations to become a doctor entered a contest to do something that is just as risky as performing surgery. Hailing from Florida, this man has gone from the classroom to the race track – excelling in both extremes with amazing grades and some great runs with the team that took a chance on him.
Patrick Staropoli, 24, edged out over 700 drivers to win the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge in 2013. Michael Waltrip Racing signed him as a development driver after a fifth-place result in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut in conjunction with Bill McAnally Racing. Ever since, Staropoli’s stock has risen at an abundant rate.
“The PEAK challenge gave me an awesome opportunity to get my foot in the door in NASCAR and really turn a lot of heads to get people to notice the career that I have had, which has been mostly in Florida and on the side from the main priority, which was school,” Staropoli said on “The Speedy Digest” Wednesday evening.
During the second race of the K&N Pro Series West season at Irwindale, he drove the No. 99 Toyota to Victory Lane for the first time in his career. He followed that up with the top qualifying position in an East/West combination race at Iowa Speedway in May. In five races in 2014, Staropoli piloted his car to four top-10s and a pair of top-fives.
But the biggest challenge for Staropoli isn’t racing. It’s going to college – medical school to be specific.
After graduating from Harvard University with a 3.94 GPA – putting him in the top 10 percent for his graduating class – he moved over to the University of Miami to pursue a PhD. Adding those degrees to impressive resume, Staropoli nearly gave up his dream of becoming a racer. Fortunately, things have changed to where he can pursue both.
“Up until this whole competition took place last year, that (school) was my main focus,” said Staropoli on his outlook for school compared to racing. “I was 100 percent heading into that direction. I still race my Late Model all of the time. It was always a dream for me and it never really seemed like it would come together.”
“Once the opportunity was there and I have been able to capitalize on some of the chances that I have gotten so far, everything kind of flipping upside down and now – this is what I’m shooting for,” he continued. “Could you launch a career off of it? I think that was the biggest question out of it was. PEAK got behind me and gave me five high-exposure races. The win at Irwindale really sealed the deal and put me where I am now.”
Yet even with his success, there is a lot of uncertainty for his racing future.
With his hard work on and off the track, Michael Waltrip Racing wanted to capture his full potential. In doing so, they hired him as a marketing intern. Moving to Charlotte to chase his dreams, he understands that it might take away some time from school, but that’s fine for him with this once in a lifetime opportunity.
“I haven’t had to get coffee as much as I thought I was going to,” he joked. “They have been great to me over there. I spend my time split between learning how they approach sponsors, how they talk to them, the specific presentations and materials that they use for potential partners. It’s definitely a change of pace from being in med school. You don’t have to go see patients, but it is equally challenging. You have to go cure someone for a disease or sell sponsorship for a race car.”
The internship should help him land some sponsorship for next year. Well, that’s what his goal is. Staropoli believes the extra races on his record have put him in a better position, but he understands that you can’t do much without funding in this business.
If the opportunity comes along, you might just see the Plantation, Florida-native racing more frequently in 2015.
“My school has been working with me the entire year – giving me the space that I need to pursue this opportunity,” said Staropoli. “We’ve had some discussions about next year to see if some things fall into place – I can take time off. Medicine is an incredible field, and I love every second that I have studied to become a physician. I have no doubt in my mind that is where my path can take me, whether that is sooner or later.”
Whichever path he chooses, Staropoli’s level of dedication will surely lead him to a great amount of success. When he becomes a doctor, he’ll either be a neurologist, which he majored in and followed around some doctors to do research, or he’ll become an ophthalmologist.
With support from team owner Michael Waltrip and other team executives, he might just have a future in this sport. However, the clock is ticking. He’s hoping to announce his plans for next year in the coming weeks, but nothing is set in stone as of yet.
“The racing has a stopwatch on it and I know it is now or never to make it happen.”
Larry McReynolds never raced. However, he was one of the best crew chiefs in NASCAR throughout the 1990s. McReynolds won 23 races in 470 events atop the pit box.
Over the course of his career, McReynolds worked with 13 different drivers. But no driver was as important as his own son.
Brandon McReynolds, 23, has earned the opportunity to race full-time in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. After racing four ARCA Series events in 2010 along with a few scattered starts over the past few years, McReynolds had a hard time finding funding. He had teams calling, and his dad wanted to make sure he got a full-time ride. Now, he has that with Bill McAnnally Racing.
“He just turned 23, and he’s been racing since he was seven. Obviously, in his early years running Bandoleros, running the Allison Legacy cars and late models, I spent a lot of time with him because it was our own equipment. We were paying the bills but I was kind of like a crew chief too. Now that he has moved on after doing some ARCA Series races for Turner Scott Motorsports and won at Talladega, and now he is running the West Series with a really good race team with a great owner in Bill McAnally and a great sponsor in NAPA, I can’t even be there with him very often. He sat on the pole at Irwindale and finished fourth. That was back when we were at Auto Club Speedway, so I was able to go over there on Saturday night, but I have not made one of his races since,” the elder McReynolds told Speedway Digest.
Being a father figure has been difficult while trying to focus on his own career. After spending years in the garage area, McReynolds became an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. He hasn’t been around too much for his son’s races, but he will be at Sonoma, and he certainly loves spending as much time with him as possible.
“I will be at Sonoma, which is his next race. I enjoy being a part of his career. I have never pushed him to race. The only thing I have asked him and told him – if you are going to race, then you have to race. You have to be all in. It is too much money. It is too much time,” he said.
“It is too much everything just for it to be a novelty. I have never told him in the 14 years that he has been racing, probably longer than that, I have never told him that he has to be the best racecar driver that there is. I’ve just said ‘be the best that you can be.”
Since McReynolds never raced himself, he wonders where his son learned how to drive so well. He said that he knows for sure it didn’t come from him, but it actually might have come from his G-D father, Davey Allison. Allison, who worked with McReynolds from 1991 until his untimely death in 1993, developed a strong bond with him. The two were like peas in a pod, but McReynolds was strongly effected when Allison was killed, and the same feeling occurred when Ernie Irvan was nearly killed on track at Michigan.
“His G-D father is Davey Allison. Maybe that’s where it came from. But the thing that I am the proudest of him is how he carries himself outside of the racecar. Hopefully, that is the thing I did teach him. I was working him hard to help him understand that our sport today is about what you do out of the car has become as important as what you do in the car and he does a really nice job with that. It is the vertical mountain I have ever tried to climb.”
Now, McReynolds is getting older. This is his first true opportunity to race on full-time basis in cars larger than late models. Through five races in 2014, McReynolds is fourth in points with a pole and three top-fives. But his father thinks that if the sport were structured based on talent and not just funding – he might just be in one of NASCAR’s top-three divisions by now.
“Unfortunately, the way our sport is structured today, I’ll lay the Sprint Cup Series aside, but the Trucks and Nationwide, it is not a lot about how much talent you have, it is how much money you can bring. We have worked hard at that. I always told him – he’s 23 and he makes all the decisions he wants to on his own – I just told him, make sure where ever you go for racing, just make sure it is good stuff. Even if it is top notch stuff, the way competition is today in any series, it is hard to beat them,” he said.
“If the equipment is not there, it is impossible to beat them. That is the one thing we did throughout all of our years. We were fortunate enough along the way to have some good sponsors to help us. Whether it was those bandoleros from 2000-2005, Allison Legacy in 2006 and 2007 or late models from 2008 to 2010, we never left that shop unless we knew we could leave there and could go win. Has he moved at a slower pace than he should have? Probably, but if I’m going to be guilty of one thing, I rather be guilty of moving him too slow verses too fast. Moving too fast kills your career. Moving too slow won’t kill it.
The work has now begun to get McReynolds into a Nationwide Series car or a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride for next season. Matt Loney has been working day-in and day-out to get McReynolds the funding to race in a higher division, and it might just happen in 2015 if sponsorship can come through. If not – the future will be in doubt for him.
McReynolds said the best moment of seeing his son behind the wheel was his ARCA Series victory with Turner-Scott Motorsports in 2012. He was able to capture the victory at Talladega – the family’s home track, and it was certainly an emotional day.
“To see him in an upper series, you are always proud to accomplish things, but when your kids accomplish things, it supersedes everything that you have done. All the story that is behind that win makes me almost a little bit eary because it is my home track being from Birmingham, Davey Allison’s home track (and that’s his G-D father) and we won there in the spring of 1992 with the No. 28 car. Brandon went to victory lane. He probably doesn’t remember a lot about it because he was only a year old and wrapped up in a baby’s blanket in his mom’s arms. Spinning ahead to 20 years later, he drives a racecar into victory lane. It was very cool. That ranks right up there with those two Daytona 500s.”