It was a partnership that seemingly could not be broken.
A racing relationship that started with Justin Wakefield in a blue Jody Ridley-themed number-98 car with Ridley himself as a mentor for the newly formed Carswell Motorsports team back in 2003 was one of the toughest-to-beat in several forms of Southeastern short track racing.
Together, Wakefield and the Jake and Deanna Carswell-owned 98 team scored victories in the NASCAR Southeast Series and most recently on the PASS South Super Late Model Tour while running the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series in between. They won big races such as last year’s PASS South Mason-Dixon Meltdown and one of the most prestigious races in the country, the World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia. With five PASS South wins, he stood tied for second in the series' all-time win list.
Things appeared to be perfect for both Wakefield and the Carswell team. Together, they were seemingly a strong unit, almost like a family at the track. In fact, last July, Wakefield told 51 that he would not be leaving the 98 “anytime soon.”
But as often does in racing, and in life, things changed. A growing family and the rigors of a busy short track schedule will wear on any driver. Even at the fairly young age of 30, Wakefield started feeling the effects of many long drives from North Georgia to wherever the next race was. It was on many of those long drives home after races when Wakefield came to the realization that something had to change in his life.
Last week, just before the PASS South tour was set to hit Ace Speedway in North Carolina, Wakefield made that change. He made the call to vacate the Carswell 98, the ride that he started his short track career in back in 2003, in order to get back to basics in his and his family’s lives.
“It just seemed like it was time,” said Wakefield. “We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve had a lot of fun,” said Wakefield. “We’ve won some good races, too. It was just getting real old for me, to be honest. I’d rather stay home with the family, hang around the farm, do a little hunting and make a living the old fashioned way.
“It had been weighing on me for a little while. Every trip, you’d leave the house and it’d take you nine hours to get there. It seemed like every time it just got longer and longer. I got less and less sleep. I have been thinking about it for a little while, but everything just kind of worked the other day. I had a talk with them and said I was ready to pursue something else in my life.”
With Wakefield at home, Carswell decided to take his 98 to Ace Saturday night with five-time PASS South winner Corey Williams behind the wheel. It was a strange sight not just for others to see someone else in that ride, but for Carswell as well.
“I hadn’t ever really been to a racetrack with a driver other than Justin in the nine years I’ve been doing this,” said Carswell. “I wasn’t 100-percent concentrating looking at the timesheet (after practice) and I was like, ‘Why can’t I find our name on here? Oh yeah, it’s not a ‘J’ name anymore, it’s a ‘C’ name.' Just seeing (Williams) climbing in our car looked really weird, but once he got out there and we started working on it, it kind of got back to not thinking about it and into the rhythm to get the car dialed in. Unfortunately we weren’t able to show what we could do because of an early wreck.”
Williams finished 21st in his Carswell Motorsports debut. It was a spot start just a few days after Carswell found out his driver of nine years wasn’t going to drive it any more.
“It surprised me with the timing of it, but I kind of felt like it was coming before too much longer,” said Carswell. “You’ve been with someone for nine years; a guy who is like a brother to me. I could tell little things here and there that his heart wasn’t in it quite as much as it had been. I wasn’t sure he was going to lay it down completely right then and there, but I knew that it was getting harder and harder to leave the family. He had a new baby in June and his little girl’s a toddler now and noticing when he’s gone. It wasn’t a complete shock, but it wasn’t something we were looking forward to either.
“It’s all on good terms. There wasn’t a fight or an argument or anything like that. It came down to whether his heart was really in this and he honestly said, ‘No, it’s not.’ I spent a lot of money to put a team out there and you don’t want to be out there with somebody whose heart’s not in it.”
When Wakefield started his venture in the 98 ride at the age of 21, there was, in Wakefield’s mind, time to pursue the racing dream that so many drivers hope to achieve. In the nine years in between, the racing landscape changed from drivers moving up based on talent alone to one of the pay-to-play scene of today’s racing industry. Now, at age 30, Wakefield knows that no matter how decorated his resume may be, it was likely not going to lead to a move up the racing ladder.
“The stars just didn’t align for me to get the goals that I wanted to get out of racing,” said Wakefield. “Those goals probably were never going to be succeeded in my lifetime unless I hit the lottery or something and pay like everybody’s doing these days. That’s not how I wanted to do it. Even if I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t go out and buy a ride just to say I did. I wanted to do it the old fashioned way; the hard way.
“In my opinion, I made a lot of my goals come true by making a little bit of money driving racecars for a living. I was able to get paid every time I went to the racetrack, which I know I was fortunate to do. There’s not many people that have the opportunity to do something like that. I’m very fortunate that I got to work with the team I got to drive for. The way things went down was good. Everybody’s good and maybe they’ll be able to turn around and make a little money back instead of putting money into it.”
While Wakefield will be more the family man, Carswell will continue to pursue success in the Southeastern Super Late Model scene without currently having a set plan on a driver for the future.
“We’re going to keep on plugging," said Carswell. "We thought about just not going to Ace because it was a last-minute thing, but the cars were prepped and there were a lot of other drivers out there looking for rides. Corey was a guy that has always impressed me over the years in PASS and was on the sidelines now. Literally, he was on the sidelines the week before at South Boston when I saw him sitting in the grandstands with his family. He wanted to do it and things were going great at Ace.
“I’m getting tons of phone calls already just in the little bit the word’s gotten out. There’s a lot of good guys out there and it’s hard to pick between a bunch of good options. We’re just going to take our time and use a couple guys to get a feel for it and take the winter before we look at a full-time situation. But we’re definitely planning to come back in 2012 full time. Ideally, we'd like to find someone in the Atlanta area because that's where our shop is, but we're not against finding someone in Charlotte, either. It was fun and interesting trying someone different for a race or even for a couple races, but I think I’ll want to get settled in with someone and get the kind of relationship that Justin and I had.”
Wakefield also plans to keep on going forward with racing plans when it fits into his new life schedule. He just wants to do it in a way he can forget about the bad days when he walks in the front door after a short drive home.
“You can blow a tire leading the race, load it up and drive 30 minutes to the house and be with the family,” said Wakefield of dirt racing near home. “When you drive nine hours and spend three days at the track and you lead the race and get a flat tire with 20 to go or something, it kicks you in the sack pretty hard. That’s too much on me right now.
“I’m always going to love driving racecars and bolting my helmet on,” said Wakefield. “I feel like it’s what I was put here to do. I just want to get out there and sling that thing sideways a couple times and get back to the grassroots racing. You can still have fun there.”