Justin Grant is grinding his way into the record book

Justin Grant Chili Bowl 2024 car - Toyota Racing.jpg
Justin Grant Chili Bowl 2024 car - Toyota Racing.jpg

TULSA, Oklahoma — Justin Grant is standing on a precipice. Having won the USAC Sprint Car championship in 2022 and 2023 plus the Silver Crown championship in 2020, he is one step away from becoming the eighth Triple Crown USAC winner, joining the likes of Pancho Carter, JJ Yeley and Tony Stewart. Grant's been close, finishing second in the last two USAC Midget championships.

Whether he gets that final spot in 2024's top midget division, Grant knows he is blessed to be in a position to make a living doing what he loves. Grant is a regular guy who gets to drive dirt cars for a living.

"Before things took off in 2020, it was just a lot of grinding it out and beating my way up down the road," Grant told NBC Sports, standing beside his Toyota -powered midget as he prepared for the 2024 Chili Bowl Nationals. "Trying to make ends meet, trying to make enough money tonight to get to tomorrow - and a lot of trying to make everything add up at the end of the month and keep going down the road. It’s no more fun now than it was then. I loved it back then. I love all of it."

Short track racing is about the grind. The work is its own reward.

During a dirt track season, drivers race more than twice as often as the most proficient stock car racer and four times as much as most open wheel contenders. They are often the chief mechanics of their own cars and help fill the role of most crew members. They don't have the luxury of disappearing into a private yet once the checkered flag waves. The work continues late into the night and the next morning.

"It's still one of the parts of racing and the way that we race that I love - going to the car wash at night and getting up in the morning and doing maintenance and getting to the next racetrack," Grant said. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of success the last few years and things are a little more comfortable in my world, but I still love the same stuff about it.

"At our level, your destiny can be in your own hands. I do lot of hands-on stuff. But I'm fortunate to be surrounded by, great crews and car owners and partners and people that allow me to be in that position - and makes it possible for me to be successful while I'm doing that."

MORE: Justin Grant beats Kyle Larson in 2022 Turkey Night GP

Every driver has an origin story and many of them are similar. Sweeping floors, sleeping on couches, turning wrenches on cars driven by the men and women who will be next year's competitors is part of the equation. With Grant, the long road began in the mid-2000s. He ran a handful of regional races in the Western region of the country but to become a national success, he needed to be in the Midwest.

For Grant, paying dues was not something to endure, it was a major contributor to his success.

"I moved to Indiana in 2008, went to work for a team and learned as much as I could," Grant said. "I was getting entry level rides. They didn't have a mechanic or a crew chief and I could kind of fill that role as well. If I didn't have that background, I wouldn't have been very successful in those cars and not made it to the next level of car. So that served me well on the way through. At our level of sport, it's just that you can be in charge of your own destiny if you put in the work and put in the effort.

"When I first started, I would do anything I could do to be around racing. Anybody that had good race cars, that would let me come and hang around and be a part of the team, I would jump at the opportunity.

"So, I swept a lot of floors, scraped a lot of mud, slept on guy's couches in their shops. Eventually I met Jeff Walker. who hired me to come work for him. He had an apartment in his shop and I lived there and he paid me to work for him and ran up and down the road with him for a couple of years. He was one of the first guys to, to put me in a Sprint car. Let me run one of his cars and then from there I got hired and just kept trucking along. It's been a long road, but it's been a lot of fun."

The Best Was Yet to Come

After ten years of grinding it out, Grant had a crisis of faith. He and his wife Ashley were expecting twins and the pressure of that expanded family was intense. Change was needed and Grant was ready to leave the industry.

"In 2017, my children were born - my twins, so, that was a big moment for me," Grant said. "It was time to get serious. That was a big component for me actually getting to be fairly successful at this. I had been in a pretty big slump there and had just been beating around, trying to scrub it out and we were pregnant.

"I went to my father-in-law, said, 'we have some kids coming. I've been working on getting my CDL and I'm going to drive dump trucks for this guy.' My father-in-law, he's Bobby Jones, a long-time racer - and he' says 'Well that's stupid. Why would you do that? You can make way more money driving race cars than you can driving dump trucks - you've just got to get in good race cars.' Yeah, okay, so if I'm going to do it, I'm going to focus and I'm going to do it. That focus got me from '17 to '19. And I got in better rides and thing started clicking."

Grant won his first USAC Midget race in the season opener of 2017.

After taking the checkers in that 50-lap race, he's graced victory lane every season since. But it wasn't until he won four races in 2021 that Grant truly became a contender in that division, finishing third in the points that year. He finished second in the USAC National Midgets in 2022 and 2023, which has him tantalizingly close to putting his name in the record books.

Grant Larson Turkey Night
Grant Larson Turkey Night

You Can’t Take Trophies on the Track

Success has not changed his outlook or how he feels about the sport.

"It doesn't really feel much different," Grant said. "It's nice at the end of the day to feel a little validated. I've got a few trophies on my shelf at home, some championships and things like that. Every now and then you glance over and look at them and it feels pretty good. This has all been pretty good."

But there are a few gaps.

Standing in Grant's hauler in the SageNet Center, where this week's Chili Bowl is being run, car chief Lacey Doyle told a story about visiting Grant's home during Halloween. There were photos of Grant's Silver Crown and Sprint car championships, but the wall was unbalanced. That Midget photo was missing.

Missing also is a Golden Driller trophy, which goes to the overall winner of the Chili Bowl Nationals. Grant came closest so far to earning that special trophy in the 2021 season when he switched to Toyota Power and joined the team owned by Dave Estep.

"Today there are 360 race car drivers here," Grant said. "I can't take my past wins or championship trophies up to the ramp with me and say, 'hey, move over for me, these matter for something' - because they don't, they might as well be in a dumpster somewhere. That's what is really cool here: You push off as an equal with everybody that's in the building. You've got to fight your way back to the top every single night. That's how our sport is all year long is. You start equal and fight your way to the top every single night.

"When I was trying to get to the level I am now, I thought that was the hard part - was getting there. And it was; it was a lot of fun and there was a lot less pressure. And now that I am here, it seems like the hard part is staying here. Now you know how much work it takes and how much effort it takes and how many moving parts have to be right, how many people you have to have in your corner, maintaining all of those relationships and components and then performing. It's fun, but every day is a new day and you've got to fight it out again."

Grant raced in the Friday night qualifier. As he battled for second and a locked-in position for Saturday's A-Main, he pushed high on the frontstretch, climbed the wall and flipped. Grant's path to the big show will go through numerous mains, not-so-affectionately called the Alphabet Soup. Once the race is recorded in the record books, no matter where Grant finishes, he will leave the track with a smile on his face.

After all, Grant is still doing what he loves: Beating his way up and down the road to the next dirt track race.

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