Teenage driver pays tribute, climbs NASCAR ladder
To Martha Nemechek, the mannerisms, the work ethic and the charisma are what get her.
To watch John Hunter Nemechek, 15, circulate in the garage area and wrench on his NASCAR K&N Pro Series car is to watch the spirit and image of his father, Joe Nemechek, who started his 20th year of Sprint Cup racing in last Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The uncanny resemblance makes the family matriarch, now in her 70s, shake her head and marvel.
"I have some big shoes to fill, but I’m going to try to make a name for myself."
—John Hunter Nemechek
"I went testing with Joe and John Hunter and kept lap times and I told Joe walking back, ‘Joe, he’s exactly like you — exactly like you,’ " Martha Nemechek said. "He works hard, works on his car and he’s happy that his nana and papa are here to be with him. … It’s nerve-wracking to watch him, but I understand where he comes from."
But there’s more than just the "chip off the old block" story for the next generation of this racing family. John Hunter’s rise up the stock-car ladder also carries a fitting tribute to an uncle he never got the chance to meet.
John Hunter Nemechek was born June 11, 1997, less than three months after his uncle John, an aspiring racer in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, died from head injuries suffered in a crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The newborn, a ray of light in a time of extreme darkness for the Nemechek family, was given his uncle’s name. Now, to further honor his memory, he’s been given his uncle’s car number — 8.
"I have some big shoes to fill, but I’m going to try to make a name for myself using the number also," John Hunter said. "Just trying to follow in my family’s footsteps and maybe be even bigger."
The youngest Nemechek cut his racing teeth in quarter-midget cars and go-carts from the age of 4. As he grew, he made his earliest forays into the Allison Legacy series and super late model events, but the No. 51 that adorned his cars didn’t seem to fit.
"He called me up and said, ‘Nanny, I don’t feel right,’ " Martha Nemechek said. "He says, ‘I’m named after Uncle John. I have all his stuff. Can I have the 8 number?’ He looks up at heaven and he says, ‘Do you think Uncle John is going to care if I use it?’ I said, ‘Uncle John would be happy for you to use that number.’ Every time he won a race, he gave John credit for using his number. I know John is looking down at him and I’m happy."
The number that might mean just as much to John Hunter’s career right now is 15 — his age. He doesn’t hold a valid driver’s license for public streets, yet seems adept wheeling a race car at triple-digit speed.
At least partial credit for the rapid growth lies with his father, a four-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series who remains active both as a driver and a mentor for his son’s efforts.
"With his 20 or so years of experience, he can teach me a lot in two years compared to me learning it all on my own," John Hunter said. "That’ll give me a little advantage but he’s an awesome teacher. I couldn’t say it any better about him than that."
So far, the teen has proven to be a quick study. He won the championship in the developmental Allison Legacy Race Series last season, then qualified second, led 46 laps and finished 10th in a star-filled field for the Snowball Derby, one of the offseason’s most prestigious late model events.
The results have been enough for his father to discount any concerns about his teenage son’s youth.
"He’s so mature for his age," Joe Nemechek said. "The thing with John Hunter growing up around the race track, he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly of how drivers conduct themselves, how they race on the track … just all the aspects of it. The past few years, he’s really gotten to see it and know what all that means. There’s so many pieces to the puzzle.
"You’ve got to figure out how to do this and do it quickly these days. You don’t have the luxury of having five or six years of getting up to speed in a series. So far, I think it’s worked out well. He’s been incredibly fast everywhere he’s been, still just needing that little bit of experience and he’s getting it quick."
The youngest Nemechek got a dose of his first competition in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series at the UNOH Battle at the Beach last Tuesday at Daytona International Speedway. He finished seventh in a qualifying heat, but retired early from the main event with broken oil cooler.
His plans for the rest of 2013 include more super late model events and a partial schedule of K&N events, including the series’ next race March 16 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
All the while, John Hunter Nemechek will carry on his uncle’s legacy, flying the banner of a cherished number.
"It’s all good," Joe Nemechek said. "It doesn’t matter what number he wants to run, but that’s cool that he has my brother’s number and his name. It’s all good stuff."
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