SLINGER, Wis. — Erik Jones is having some difficulty during his first foray into super late models in 2018 — and in his return to Slinger Speedway after a two-year hiatus.
Oh, he isn’t having trouble acclimating to the nuances of short-track racing on a quarter-mile oval or to a car with vastly different characteristics than what he drives in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — though mechanical gremlins will hamper him later.
No, Jones’ issue is he cannot figure out how to start his all-terrain vehicle as he attempts to speed off to the driver meeting prior to the Slinger Nationals on Tuesday night.
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He thinks he found the ignition button, but soon learns that is incorrect.
“Well, we know the horn works,” he quips.
Eventually Jones fired up the metallic orange ATV and is off to the meeting with plenty of time to spare.
In the race itself, there would be no repeat of what he accomplished just days before when the 22-year-old won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. At Slinger, he wound up heading to the garage after completing only 66 laps, his night ending with a crew member in the garage literally blowing out a fire emanating from his overcooked engine.
That Jones finished second-to-last was inconsequential. What resonated was that he had reconnected to his roots, doing something that holds special meaning beyond where he may be classified in the box score.
It is moments like these he cherishes — a flashback to his upbringing when he and his family would spend countless nights like this at similar races throughout the country.
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The car wasn’t just any car. It was a 1965 Nassau blue Corvette that Jones’ dad, Dave, loved. But to further his son’s racing career, the family needed money to get Erik a super late model — the same style of car he drove at Slinger — and Dave reasoned the best way to do so was to sell his prized Corvette.
Erik, who recalls he was 12 or 13 at the time, says he came home one day and the car was gone. Dave had sold it to allow Erik to continue pursuing his dream.
“I was like, ‘Man, why did you do that?’ ” Erik said. “He’s like, ‘Well, we’ve got to fund the racing somehow.’ ”
Getting Erik in a super late model proved to be the catalyst that has him where he is today. Behind the wheel of a super late model owned by his father, Jones beat Kyle Busch to win the 2012 Snowball Derby. Impressed by what he saw, Busch signed Jones to drive for his own short-track team and touted him to team owner Joe Gibbs and Toyota, both of which would sign Jones to developmental driver contracts.
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Jones has had a meteoric rise ever since. He won the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, nearly won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship the following year and earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Monster Energy Series in 2017.
Last weekend, he earned his first career Cup victory. It is likely to be the first of many.
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As Jones celebrated his Daytona win there was someone missing. He couldn’t share in the achievement with his father, who undoubtedly would’ve taken pride in his son narrowly beating defending Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. in a thrilling finish.
Dave was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2016. It was terminal; he died from the disease just months later on June 7 at age 53.
“He was so supportive, and (his death) was just a horrible thing,” Gibbs said Saturday night at Daytona. “It was just terrible. … I think, winning tonight, obviously, it’s an emotional thing for him because his dad would have absolutely loved it.”
Everything his parents did in paving the road for him to reach Daytona’s Victory Lane is not something Erik has forgotten. Shortly after Dave’s death, Erik set out to reclaim the car that symbolizes what his parents sacrificed.
The quest to track down his father’s Corvette began with Erik calling one of Dave’s former coworkers. What he learned was the guy who purchased the car had been a salesman at the same company, making it easier to obtain the contact info.
Erik cold-called him, asking if he wanted to sell the Corvette. Initially, the answer was no. The two ended the conversation with the understanding if the guy ever wanted to sell, he would let Erik know. Six months later he did just that.
The car is now with Jones in North Carolina. And as often as he can, he likes to take it for a drive.
“It’s just cool to have it back,” Jones said. “I remember a lot of memories of me with my dad in that car and when I get in it, it smells the same, feels the same. It brings back a lot of good memories.
“It reminds me of what they did. That car is the epitome of that. And to have it back is just a great family memory.”