Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
The stage is a Connecticut Fairgrounds with a one-third of a mile paved oval which hosted Saturday night stock car races for the Southern New York Racing Association. An early June evening silence was broken by the growling of racing engines as the track’s Modifieds exited the fourth-turn pit gate. The colorful machines slowly circled the speedway for a few laps before the starter waved the green flag and the cars roared to full speed for their warm-up session. That group exited the racetrack and the next group cycled through the procedure.
A red, white, and blue colored Gremlin bodied car emerged from the gate and the thousands of S.N.Y.R.A. fans in attendance either cheered with approval or booed with displeasure. For better or for worse, this driver drew the race fans’ attention.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
The response could vary over time.
In 1976, when the original scene took place, the answer told to me was “Don LaJoie.”
In 2017 the answer could be rephrased to state, “Corey LaJoie’s grandfather.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. represents many of his father’s fans in NASCAR. Corey LaJoie represents fans of the now-razed Danbury Racearena from two generations ago and the racing LaJoie name.
“I’m trying to fly that (S.N.Y.R.A.) flag,” said Corey LaJoie as he prepared for his first Daytona 500. “And try to be the first LaJoie Cup champion. That would be incredible.”
The crowd noise generated when grandpa Don entered the Danbury Racearena’s racing surface was parallel to the reaction of when Dale Earnhardt was introduced. The Fairgrounds grandstand was often occupied by five to seven thousand people. Scale down a 1990s NASCAR Cup race attendance to that number and the passion and energy was about the same for Don.
The Racearena Fairgrounds closed in favor of a mall and Don LaJoie was the all-time feature race win leader. Don’s son Randy began driving in the Sportsman division in 1980 and won his first race. In 1981 Randy dominated the class and won the championship going away. Randy continued his career in the NASCAR North division and eventually claiming the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship in 1996 and 1997.
Randy’s son Corey began racing and winning early on. At age 25, he can boast trophies from Go-Karts, Bandoleros, Legends, NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East, and ARCA. Now he adds a Daytona 500 start driving for BK Racing to his resume.
“They gave me a shot when nobody else would,” said the young LaJoie the day before the 500. “You got to have money to get in the door. I had a little bit of money to get over there in the Xfinity Series and try to rebuild my stock. They (BK) hired me based on that and my potential in the future rather than my ups and downs so far in my career that I feel that I’ve learned from along the way.”
To get the opportunity LaJoie thought, “Let me try to do a bit of politicking and try to get in this thing (an open BK ride), so I politicked real hard and didn’t feel like I was making a whole lot of headway just because nobody really knows me. They know of me. They know the name. They can see I’ve won some ARCA races. They don’t really know Corey LaJoie.”
LaJoie turned to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver for help. Not just any driver but a seven-time champion.
“I texted Jimmie Johnson,” LaJoie said. “It might have been two weeks… three weeks removed from tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. I said ‘Hey man. Do me a favor and call Ron Devine (BK Racing owner) and just put the good word in for me.
“He (Johnson) has been one of the biggest helpers to my career to date. He did that. Jimmie talked to Ron for about an hour. Two days later I got the call saying he (Devine) wanted me to drive that thing. I’m like ‘if that’s all it took, I’d have done that three years ago,’” said LaJoie.
“They (BK) made the right choice. I don’t know if they realize that yet, but they will,” LaJoie said.
BK Racing has approximately 45 employees and cars that were formerly from Michael Waltrip Racing. The Toyota team builds their own engines and is definitely an underdog compared the TRD power that is under the hoods of the manufacture-backed programs of Joe Gibbs and Furniture Row.
“Kyle Busch passed me at least 12 miles-per-hour faster than I was. Me and Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) were pushing each other and he passed me by himself. I’m like ‘Holy Christmas’” LaJoie said.
Don LaJoie was in Daytona for his grandson’s 500 debut and offered some advice. Corey said that Don told him that if he didn’t put as much grease in the hubs, that the car might roll a little better and be faster. Corey responded with having 80 more horsepower would probably make the car go faster too.
An asset to BK Racing is having experienced Doug Richert as his crew chief. Richert guided Dale Earnhardt to his first Cup Series title in 1980 with Rod Osterlund’s team.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 required LaJoie to work his way through Thursday’s Duels and into a transfer spot. That task came down to a head-to-head battle with Reed Sorenson that ended with a hard Sorenson crash.
LaJoie recalled the incident. “From my windshield, my brain was processing that I had a run and I was going to stick it up in the middle. There may or may not have been a hole there but if I would have gone to the top with that run, then Kyle Busch would have hung me out three-wide-top, and I would have gone to the back and you wouldn’t be talking to me. If I’d have (messed) around with Reed then Kyle would have gone to the bottom and then I would’ve had no help and I’d have just rode behind him (Sorenson) the rest of the race.
“I’ve watched every replay I could find and I haven’t seen one that shows me hitting him,” LaJoie said. “It just ripped the air off of the spoiler and (Sorenson) spun out, which is essentially the same thing as dumping him. It wasn’t intentional but I had to make that move. Did I wreck him and end his day? Yeah, and I hate that for him because I wanted to beat him straight up. I felt like that was my time and he was already loose to begin with. There was a car width in between him and the guy underneath him and I tried to put it there. He tried to block me and he spun out and wrecked. That’s it. I made the Daytona 500.”
LaJoie said on Thursday that he would wreck his own Mother to make the Daytona 500. On 500 morning, his Mom Lisa told me that she saw Corey clarify on a TV interview that he loved his Mother. Lisa was relieved, proud, and in her words “a nervous wreck” as she thought of her son starting the race.
Years ago I remember reading the work of an auto racing writer stating that someone could learn a lot from spending time with Jimmy Means and not always chasing guys like Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty.
This year in Daytona the feeling was the same way on one end of the garage with LaJoie, his BK teammate Joey Gase, D.J. Kennington, Michael McDowell, and others providing good stories to tell beyond the superstar names of Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
“The old horse I’m riding isn’t one of those thoroughbreds like on the other side of the garage. If I can get that little pony in the draft maybe I can lock up with one of these things,” said LaJoie.
The dominant high-funded teams installed fresh engines after the Duel qualifying races. LaJoie and his BK Racing team had no such luxury and sat out the final Daytona 500 practice session in order to preserve the single engine they have to use for Speedweeks’ entirety.
“We got one motor from the time we unloaded, to the Duels, to the qualifying, to the whole deal,” LaJoie said.
“This is pretty much all new to me. This is the most attention I’ve ever had on myself,” said LaJoie the day before the 500. “I’m trying to figure out the right things to say, figure out what not to say at the same time. I’m trying to be genuine with myself and not give PC answers (that) nobody really wants to hear.”
Grandpa Don was proud to brag on Corey being the third generation LaJoie to compete at Daytona. Don had competed in the NASCAR Sportsman and Modified races while Randy is a Cup Series starter and two-time Xfinity race winner.
When Randy was asked what was bigger, his 1995 500 start or his son’s 2017 start, his response was short and sweet.
“This is BIG.”
The Daytona 500 green flag was unfurled with LaJoie in thirty-first starting position. He hung onto the lead draft and peaked as high as eighteenth spot after 20 laps. His competitive drive came to a halt 10 laps later.
LaJoie came to pit road with a group of cars and he did not slow down as much as they did. The BK Racing car overshot pit road and into the outside SAFER barrier.
His pit crew made repairs well enough for LaJoie to continue and finish the race but not at a pace with the lead lap cars. He finished twenty-fourth, seven laps behind winner Kurt Busch.
Following the 500, LaJoie disappointedly walked from his car back to the garage and reflected on his Daytona 500 afternoon.
“We had a sway bar problem early in the race,” LaJoie said. “We had a good car and it sucks that we pounded the fence on the first green flag pit stop. Everybody got slowed down and I didn’t. I bailed out of it and the car shot to the right (possibly due to the sway bar issue) and I pounded the fence. I made a mistake but I can assure you that I won’t make that one again.”
The stage is a Florida 2.5 mile superspeedway which hosts the biggest event of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. On the final Sunday afternoon in February the sports world is focused on the growling of 40 colorful machines battling for the biggest prize in American stock car racing.
A white and green Toyota driven by a third-generation optimistic young racer quietly blended into the field. He did not generate a fan reaction like an Earnhardt, or his Father, or even his Grandfather. The driver is making his own way in the sport, but his last name carries a lineage and connection to auto racing fans who fondly remember a long-lost speedway.
LaJoie was disappointed in his Daytona 500 result but is happy about his family history and his own future’s potential. The Danbury Racearena has been closed for over 35 years yet S.N.Y.R.A. fans have one of their own to root for in NASCAR.
“It’s a journey and it is just starting. Stick with me. Enjoy the ride,” LaJoie said.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://racersreunion.com/podcast-library . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.