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The Cantrell 500

• Cantrell passes cars, standings with father as big supporter

Posted: June 15, 2008 2:15 a.m.
Updated: August 16, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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Connor Cantrell has been driving since he was seven years old.

But when he went to take his driving test three weeks ago, he was marked off for eight points. Tailgating, stopping too close, not signaling, and turning corners too fast.

When he told his driving instructor after the test he was a race car driver, she laughed.

It's funny, because when he's at the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, those things aren't frowned upon.

Despite a few mistakes, Cantrell passed his test. At Irwindale, he's been passing tests and the cars in front of him for a while.

In his second season in the King Taco Super Truck series, the Valencia senior to be is second in points and won three of the first six races.

Last season, he finished fourth in the points standings and won Rookie of the Year.

At fourteen years old, he became the youngest winner at Irwindale, winning a Legends Car race in his ninth try.

His father, Jim, who acts as his spotter on the racetrack and his biggest supporter got Connor started early. At six, Connor was riding a motorcycle, but after seeing others fly off too often, Jim said "screw this, we're putting four wheels under you."

For Jim, racing was just a dream. Because of finances, he never got a chance to get behind the wheel growing up. He didn't want the same for his son. When Jim was already an adult, and his air conditioning business was taking off, he went to the track, and Connor, as a six year old followed.

The next year, Connor was off the motorcycle and in a Go-Kart.

He developed a love for the sport and Jim saw that he had a unique talent on his hands.

"He saw that I had a passion and he didn't want me to get the short end of the stick," Connor said. "I definitely could not do it without him."

 

Father's Day downplayed by both

It's Father's Day weekend, but Jim and Connor downplay the significance. The father-son bond is there, but when they're at the track, it's all about the team. Connor has two brothers, 15, and 10, and a sister 13, all of whom come to watch his races, but none participate.

When he stumbles to find an answer, Connor looks up at his dad.

It's a natural reaction. Saturdays at the speedway, the two along with their crew of Jeff Latimer, the crew chief Keith Johns, the tire man, Larry Vannix, the mechanic, and Colby Crooks, the shock specialist, are always together.

"It's just something that we do," says Jim.

Natural is also how you could describe Connor.

"It's natural ability," Jim says. "We never had the best equipment. He was always very passionate, very smooth."

When Connor won his first race, Jim was standing with his hands in the air, ready to give a high five. Meanwhile Connor was so excited, he had his foot practically nailed to the gas. So he drove by, trying to slap hands at 30 miles per hour.

The thrill of winning a race drives Connor. But it's not just about that. It's almost as if he was born with racing in his blood. He brought his No. 9 car to school for the car show last year. He spends most of his free time at the track or in the garage.

"Racing is my life," he says.

Even when he crashed and burned in his first Legends race, flipping on his roof and setting his car ablaze, he never thought twice about getting back in the driver's seat.

As Jim watches his son qualify in first place Saturday, a proud smiles comes across his face.

He gets nervous at first but when that No. 9 car gets going, Jim, like his son have their game face on.

"When it first starts, I get butterflies, but once the engines start, I'm OK," Jim says.

Because of the rules at Irwindale, Connor had to roll for position.

With the inverse order the series uses, Connor rolled a seven and thus started seventh. He finished in third.

"We're a little disappointed," Jim says.

 

Losses part of Team Cantrell

On Saturday, Connor had someone else in mind besides his dad. One of his crew members, Keith Johns, who's in charge of the tires, lost someone close to him just an hour before qualifying. Charlie Dale, an 11-year old girl who was a big racing fan, lost her fight with cancer.

Connor told Keith this race was for her.

One of the most important characteristics Johns sees in Connor is humbleness. It's what makes working with Connor so easy and so rewarding.

"He understands and he listens," Johns said.

And he has a feel for the car, according to Latimer, who has worked with Irwindale legend Greg Pursley, owner of the Irwindale track record.

"He's so talented, so I can make quick changes, and I can learn a lot about the car," Latimer said of Connor. "I can make big changes that I normally wouldn't be able to make."

Thus far, Connor has made $3,600 during the season at Irwindale, which awards $1,000 for first place. With the cost of car maintenance and track expense, it isn't much. He has sponsors as well including Hollywood Rentals and My Tire Store, which provides his tires.

One day, Connor hopes to be one of the drivers in Sprint Cup Series.

Every time he watches a race, he imagines himself in the car.

"Every time I watch the on board cameras, I think I can do that," he said.

One major car company has already contacted Connor about possibly joining their team. But it's not a done deal, and he'd rather the name not be revealed. He and his dad are keeping their fingers crossed.

For now, his goals have a one year limit. This year's goal was to win the Super Truck Series Championship. Because he hit a dry shaft rolling around the track in the third race, Connor sits in second place in the standings.

He said he needs an almost perfect season to accomplish his goal. Forget the mistakes in his driving test, when it comes to the track, perfect is plausible.

And in the future, it's possible the on board camera will one day be focused on him.

"If he keeps going the way he's going, without a doubt," Johns said.

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