Becoming a competitive Late Model driver is a different journey for all, with some picking up on it rather fast, while for others it is an unachievable destination. For Jake Garcia, it is the former. At just 15 years of age, the Georgia native has become one to watch every time he gets behind the wheel of a race car.
The 2019 season was Garcia’s first full year driving Late Models, after moving to Pro Late Models in the middle of 2018. In a whirlwind schedule that saw him winning multiple times in the PLM ranks, Garcia also made his first starts in Super Late Models. At year’s end, he shocked the racing world by nearly winning the biggest Late Model race of them all, the Snowball Derby.
Fast-forward to the present day and Garcia has put in another respectable year with more PLM wins and strong finishes in the SLM. With the 53rd Annual Snowball Derby looming near on December 2-6 at Five Flags Speedway, Garcia and the No. 35 team led by crew chief Ricky Turner are easing towards the big weekend, rather than thrashing like most teams in November.
“Got a few weeks off to prepare for it. For the most part, we’re leaving the car alone, concentrate on the setup and all the routine stuff,” Garcia said. “Just double and triple check everything because it is such a big race. Need to make sure we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it. The car makes a lot of laps that weekend with all the practice we got. You need everything right before you get there because everything goes so fast.”
Scoring two additional runner-up finishes during the 2020 Blizzard Series season at Five Flags, the always humble Garcia has just a little bit of confidence before returning to the half-mile in Pensacola, Florida.
“It definitely does, finishing second last year was a big thing for me,” he said. “We didn’t have the fastest car, but we were able to use a little bit of strategy and be smart the way we raced to save our stuff to be there at the end. We didn’t have a scratch of the car when it was over, and we hope to do the same thing this year. That way when Lap 300 rolls around, we’ll be in a spot to improve one position.”
But, before then there is the crucible of Snowball Derby qualifying. The annual crunch to be one of 30 drivers to make the field on their time trial run. Even at his young age, Garcia has learned that no driver can go into the session with any confidence.
“Getting into the race is pretty hard. Like everybody says, it’s really stressful considering only half of the cars are locked in,” he said. “It’s really stressful if you qualify early, last year I qualified early and it was a while before I was locked in. Staring at scoring all that time to see where we stacked up.”
All in all, Garcia sees it as a race that is as much about survival as it is about having speed.
“Travis Braden won last year and he qualified 30th, the last car to make in on time. He definitely didn’t have a slow car, but it shows that the fastest car doesn’t always win the Derby. You’ve got to know how to race over 300 laps as well and be smart with how long it is. At Pensacola you got to manage your tires, too.”
In his heart, Garcia believes he has what it takes to raise the Tom Dawson trophy. In reality, it will be a while before his brain can be in full agreement.
“It’s tough to say right now, I’ll have a better idea once I can make some laps and see how we compare to other cars. Pensacola, we have a couple of podiums in the Blizzard Series races this year, and of course the Derby last year. I think with how we’ve been the past year we’ll have a shot, but we won’t know for sure until we get there.”
Race fans unable to make it to Five Flags Speedway will be able to watch the 53rd Annual Snowball Derby live on Speed51.TV. Video tickets can be purchased now by clicking here.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51 Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51