Derek Kneeland long ago gave up his dream of being a full-time race car driver.
The native of Windham, Maine, bid adieu to his racing dream at the age of 17 at the end of 2005. It was a selfless decision, one he made to prevent his family from pouring their life savings into his racing career.
“As it goes, the cost of things go up, and we don‘t own a family company or come from a lot of money like that,” said Kneeland, who now works as a spotter for multiple race teams at every level of NASCAR competition. “I told my parents, ‘I don‘t want to keep spending your money if I can‘t come up with the sponsor money.‘ They still needed to retire one day. I pulled the plug on racing myself.”
Kneeland, whose father Jeff Kneeland was also a race car driver in the 1970s, may have thought at the time he was done as a race car driver.
It turned out that wasn‘t the case.
Fast-forward to 2022, and Kneeland races his own Late Model in his limited free time. He‘ll make his first start of the season this Wednesday in the Money in the Bank 150 at Michigan‘s Berlin Raceway.
It was a long road back behind the wheel of a race car for Kneeland, who got his big opportunity as a spotter when he worked with Brian Scott during an ARCA event at Pocono Raceway in 2008.
“I went and did it, they liked me, they hired me and just like anything people can pick up a head set and a radio and listen,” Kneeland said. “I‘ve gotten a lot of opportunities since. I‘ve just tried to make the best of them.”
That opportunity eventually led him to his current career, where he works with teams in the NASCAR Cup Series (Tyler Reddick), NASCAR Xfinity Series (Austin Hill), NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (Corey Heim) and ARCA Menards Series (Daniel Dye).
As his career in motorsports gained momentum, Kneeland eventually made the decision to jump back behind the wheel of a race car during his spare time.
In his limited opportunities to race, Kneeland has focused mainly on Maine‘s Oxford Plains Speedway. He has qualified for the legendary Oxford 250, one of the biggest Late Model races in the United States, twice.
Last year he raced twice at another legendary short track, North Carolina‘s Hickory Motor Speedway, and this season he is broadening his schedule even more.
As Kneeland was looking at schedules trying to decide when and where he would be able to race this year, it was a comment on one of Kneeland‘s Facebook posts that put the idea of racing in the Money in the Bank 150 in his head.
“Jeff Striegle, a buddy of mine who is actually the general manager at Berlin, and he‘s also the voice of MRN, so I see him every weekend,” Kneeland recalled. “We‘re friends on Facebook, and he saw my post and he put, ‘Berlin Raceway, June 8.‘”
Kneeland didn‘t immediately commit to the idea of racing at Berlin. After all, Berlin is a 15-hour drive away from Kneeland‘s home in Maine.
A conversation with his cousin and fellow racer, Rusty Poland, is what eventually helped Kneeland decide to tackle the Money in the Bank 150.
“I kind of ignored it at first,” Kneeland continued. “I talked with my cousin, Rusty Poland, who races up here as well and is my crew chief whenever I race. He‘s like, ‘Man, that‘s a long ways away.‘ We went back and forth on it and I was like, ‘You know what, I want to do something completely different. Let‘s go ahead and change it up totally.‘”
The Money in the Bank 150 is first of three races on Kneeland‘s schedule this year. The second will be a $10,000-to-win race at New Hampshire‘s Lee USA Speedway that is also scheduled to include Reddick and Corey LaJoie.
His third and final race will be the Snowflake 100 on Dec. 3, the annual precursor to the Snowball Derby at Florida‘s Five Flags Speedway.
Poland will be with Kneeland for each race as crew chief. He has also had help from his father Jeff Kneeland and friend Nick Brown, who have made sure his car will be ready for Wednesday‘s race.
— Derek Kneeland (@SpotterDerek) June 5, 2022
His car will carry sponsorship from several businesses, including Sumerian Irrigation and Bonang Concrete, that are making his three-race schedule possible.
Kneeland expects there to be fierce competition just to qualify for the Money in the Bank 150. The entry list features several NASCAR stars, including NASCAR Cup Series regulars William Byron and Erik Jones.
Other familiar names on the entry list include NASCAR Camping World Truck Series star Ty Majeski and defending ARCA Menards Series East champion Sammy Smith.
Bubba Pollard, Terry Senneker, Kyle Crump, Boris Jurkovic, Tyler Roahrig, Mike Garvey and Brian Campbell are among the Late Model stars also entered.
“Excitement isn‘t the word. I think I‘m very much looking forward to it,” Kneeland said about the Money in the Bank 150. “I think my biggest goal is just go in honestly. I‘m not one of those guys who gets in their mind and says, ‘I‘m going to go win.‘
“My biggest thing is make the race and make all the laps and wherever we finish, we finish. Hopefully we‘ll earn some respect from those guys.”