Harvard grad, future doctor lives NASCAR dream
March 19, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
As he studied for classes with such daunting titles as: "Multivariable Calculus," "The Neurobiology of Behavior Physics" and "Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature & Culture" while an honor student at Harvard University, Patrick Staropoli's mind was always racing.
And so was his heart -- more figuratively speaking.
While managing a full course load at one of the world's foremost academic institutions in preparation for medical school, Staropoli was simultaneously calculating a course that would allow him to pursue his passion for racing -- a lifelong aspiration to compete in NASCAR's highest levels.
He'll suit up for Saturday's NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Irwindale Speedway -- about 30 minutes away from this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series venue, Auto Club Speedway -- thanks to an "opportunity of a lifetime," one on which this 24-year-old Floridian continues to capitalize.
Now a second-year medical student at the University of Miami, Staropoli petitioned his professors to allow him to spend a semester focusing on research while he competes for the stalwart California-based Bill McAnally Racing team in at least five K&N Pro Series races as a Michael Waltrip Racing development driver. Any potential future races depend on finding sponsorship.
"I shuffled everything around in my life, taking time off school," said Staropoli, who is currently doing research for the world-renowned Bascom Palmer Eye Institute as part of his medical school educational arrangement. "I subleased my apartment in Miami so I can spend time with my race team, started working on the cars and really immersed myself as much as possible.
"There's definitely a lot of pressure to perform, but I feel like whether it was interviewing for Harvard or getting into med school, or now trying to make this happen on the racing side, I'm kind of used to it and up to the challenge."
"There's definitely a lot of pressure to perform but I feel like whether it was interviewing for Harvard ... or now trying to make this happen on the racing side, I'm kind of used to it and up to the challenge."
-- Patrick Staropoli
It would be hard to argue.
Coming from a typical American middle-class upbringing in Plantation, Fla. -- minutes inland from Fort Lauderdale's famous beaches -- Staropoli established a name for himself coming up through the ranks at his home track, Hialeah Speedway, and winning late model races at short tracks around the state.
But financing for his family-owned team was as limited as the mostly local exposure.
He needed something to happen if he was going to take the next step in racing. And he made it happen.
In 2013, Staropoli prevailed over more than 6,000 other entrants in a unique national talent search, the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge -- the prize being a chance to compete in a PEAK sponsored entry in one 2013 K&N Pro West Series race.
The video he made presenting his case for a shot at the one-race deal earned enough votes to make him a finalist. Then his driving skill impressed judges such as Waltrip and fellow PEAK-sponsored driver Danica Patrick enough to land the ride.
But Staropoli -- applying the same focus to his racing that he has to academics -- showed so much promise as a competitor that what was supposed to be a one-time, largely promotional long shot has now turned into a partial 2014 season and a driver development opportunity with a premier Sprint Cup team in MWR.
His fifth-place finish in his first K&N start last year piqued PEAK's interest and earned him an unplanned second try. He answered with a sixth-place in his next race -- two showings especially impressive considering he was completing a degree in Neurobiology at Harvard and starting his first year of medical school, not racing every week like most of his competitors.
So PEAK upped its commitment and Staropoli has rewarded the faith with two top-10s in three 2014 starts -- including an impressive sixth-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Saturday -- and he sits fourth in the series' driver standings.
"PEAK thought this competition would be a cool way to meet some unique racers," Waltrip said with a slight laugh. "I think we met one. It's just really, really fun for me to see the results of this competition and we had a whole lot of people to chose from. There were four or five on the track whose skills were similar with Patrick, who was at the top of the class. But he just had something about him, just a glow, an energy, a respect and appreciation for it that made a difference for me."
Those qualities are immediately evident when you meet Staropoli, who is engaging, well-spoken and humble about his academic background.
And he is driven, in every sense of the word.
Staropoli's parents, Arlene and Nick, say they noticed that "something" different Waltrip is referring to from the time their son was old enough to talk and walk. He would watch races on television and then act them out in his room with tiny Matchbox cars. But, not with the wreck 'em-and-laugh short attention span you might expect of a young child.
"He would re-enact every race he watched on TV and every race he saw his father in," Arlene Staropoli said. "And by re-enact, I mean if there were 32 cars in the race, he had 32 race cars on the floor and would push them around his track"
His father Nick laughed recalling the scene.
"He'd have cars, grandstands and even people's faces drawn into the grandstands," Nick Staropoli said. "Everything had to be in its place. It all had to come together, then he'd put on a show, be the race announcer and analyst. He'd put on a race for hours, and I mean hours.
"We'd say, 'Are you tired yet?' and he'd say, 'No, we have some laps to go.'
"Everything he'd do was that way. His attention to detail and his focus to be the best he could be at all times never seems to waver. He won't settle for less than 100 percent of what he can do, whatever it may be."
His parents discovered that it would be a recurring theme when they casually offered to keep him in race cars as he moved up the ranks -- as long as Staropoli earned straight As in school. It turned out to be the ultimate motivator -- the good grades not only helped his racing opportunities, they earned him admission to one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
"From the day he stepped into school in kindergarten both things were already in his head, to be good at school and to race," Arlene Staropoli explained. "The very first week of school his teacher said to us, 'you've got quite a kid here.' And we didn't even realize it until each year went by and each report card came."
As Staropoli got older, his mom offered to buy him a Corvette if he graduated from high school with straight As, even wondering if there was any possibility he'd take the new car in lieu of continuing to race.
"We worked all the way through from go-karts; the more he got As the more he kept going up the ranks," Nick Staropoli said. "When it got time, I asked him about that Corvette and he said, 'no.' He wanted the race cars. I had to hold up my end of the bargain and there were times along the way I thought, 'Oh my God, will this kid ever get a B and we could maybe stop racing for a little while.' Spending the time together was just invaluable though. We laugh that we probably could have bought him three Corvettes by now with what we spent on race cars.
"I thought that the more he got involved in school and progressed toward a career maybe the racing would taper off some, but he never slacked off," Nick Staropoli added. "His passion is just as great all the way through. When it was time for school he did that 100 percent and then when it was time for racing, he'd put school away and turn racing on 100 percent.
"He has such a great passion and I knew that's what he wants to do deep down inside and now that he has this opportunity he wants to make the most of it."
Staropoli concedes that balancing a burgeoning racing career as a NASCAR development driver with a high-end organization along with the rigors of medical school is beyond tough. He joked, "Life would be too simple if I just do one thing."
But he also considers himself overwhelmingly fortunate to be able to follow his two passions -- a real life lesson in what hard work combined with dedicated pursuit can produce.
In many ways it is full circle for Staropoli, who first became enamored with the idea of becoming a doctor after his father was in a serious racing accident. The throttle on Nick Staropoli's late model hung open one summer evening in 2001 at Hialeah and he impacted the wall head-on at full speed.
Then 12 years old, Patrick watched as his father was taken from the car and airlifted to nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. While his father spent four months hospitalized recovering from severe head and back injuries -- even having to learn to walk again -- Staropoli came to the hospital daily, fully captivated with the science that healed his dad.
"I remember as a kid being in awe of the whole process," Staropoli said. "That stayed in my mind. And now I'm at the very place learning medicine where they saved my dad's life. Kinda weird how it’s all worked out.
"Looking back, (deciding to go away to Harvard) was one of the toughest choices I've made. I knew what it would do to my racing, being 18 years old and knowing that was my prime age (for young development drivers) and not wanting to leave if there was any hope for racing. That was the time I knew I'd need to make something happen. So I guess I made the responsible choice and I went to college and it's funny how everything kind of worked out.
"Every day I think about racing and it just goes back to having the right opportunity with the right people. And I have the opportunity of a lifetime right now."