On a cool January Saturday night in central Alabama, the final heat rolled off to set the final spots in a prestigious dirt late model race. Stuck in the back was a local favorite, the result of a crummy qualifying effort. No matter for the driver of the black #11. He simply and quietly made his way ahead of his competitors, going high and then going low, grabbing a position seemingly every lap. By the time the checkers fell, the driver was 3rd and into the main event.
It was, on the surface, a quintessential veteran performance. The word ‘veteran’ though literally goes out the window when you see the driver climb out of the cockpit and take off the helmet. The driver of the #11 is thirteen years old. His name is Cruz Skinner, and he’s a proven winner.
Skinner won five Crate Late Model races at the Talladega Short Track last and looks poised to tally on a few more in 2015. He says he will run another full season at the “Hornet’s Nest” in search of becoming the youngest track champion in the history of 38-year-old facility.
Doing so would be a time-honored tradition in the Skinner family. Cruz’s father, Greg, was the track champion in 1999 in addition to other accolades during a 26-year dirt career. Skinner wasn’t even born when his dad won that title, but was born to race nonetheless.
“When I was a little kid, my dad and my grandpa brought me to the track,” Skinner told 51 when we sat down with him earlier this month. “As early as I can remember, I just wanted to race. When I was five, my dad finally asked if I wanted to drive a go-kart. So we went racing.”
Go-karts took to Skinner as much as Skinner took to racing. By the time he was ten, Skinner estimates he had won around 300 races along with seven state championships.
“We decided it was time to move up into a front wheel drive car. In just two years, I wound up winning 28 races in that. So we decided to move up again. And that’s how I wound up in a Crate Late Model last year.”
It didn’t take him long to win there either. On June 7th, still at the age of 12, Skinner wound up in Victory Lane. It was a night that is etched in Skinner’s memory.
“I started outside pole and we knew weather was coming. As we were going down the backstretch, I could see lightning and it seemed to be getting closer and closer. I was thinking ‘Oh crap, I better go get this done while I can.’ So I made my move.”
The weather not only held off long enough for Skinner to win the race at its scheduled distance, but climb out and pose for the pictures just before the raindrops started to fall.
“That win made me feel really fortunate to be able to do what I do. Many kids my age just don’t get opportunities like this in any sport.”
Growing up in the shadow of the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, Skinner certainly admits he has aspirations of winding up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Of course, by the time Skinner could even race on that prestigious tour, it will have a new title sponsor. The driver he’s grown up cheering for – Jeff Gordon – will be long retired. And while making the jump to an asphalt late model intrigues him, it’s just not in the cards this year. He plans on hopping into the NeSmith Crate Late Model Series for a full schedule in the Deep South, but otherwise is just content to keep honing his skills by sticking close to home.
All that to say is it’s clear (and refreshing) this youngster is just simply enjoying his time at the track. He’s laid back and friendly, referring to everyone in the pits as ‘sir’. He’s still trying to figure out social media, balancing PR and growing his name recognition with just kidding around with his friends at middle school. He just took a little road trip to tour the NASCAR shops in Mooresville. Even his favorite racing story hints at his unique mix of passion and youthful exuberance.
“My favorite memory is my first go-kart win. It was in mid-November, the first cold day of the year. I asked my dad if I won if I could go get ice cream after. He looked at me like I was crazy and asked me where on earth I was even going to find ice cream. I turned around and looked at the concession stand and – sure enough – they were selling ice cream. So my dad said okay, but only if you win.”
He laughed when he was asked if he remembers what flavor he had.
“All they had was vanilla. So that’s what I got. Just like Days of Thunder.”
With the addition of the NeSmith Series, Skinner will be racing in around 35 Crate Late Model races in 2015. The Nesmith Series kicks off at Bubba Raceway Park this weekend while Talladega Short Track’s weekly racing season will start in mid-March.
— Tim Quievrn // 51’s Third Turn // @thethirdturn