For years, the JCR3 Racing team was a short track juggernaut. The team won races and championships throughout the late 1990s to late 2000s in competitive series such as the then-Hooters Pro Cup Series and NASCAR Southeast Series/All Pro Series. Drivers such as Clay Rogers and Jeff Fultz earned championships in cars owned by Jimmy Craig, the patriarch of the JCR3 team.
But in 2009, with the family's Charlotte, North Carolina-based boiler business struggling and the cost of staying competitive on the short track level increasing, the highly-successful team shut down. At the time, the JCR3 team announced it had its seat open for funded drivers to take over or purchase the team outright.
The team's next driver after the shut-down wasn't a funded young driver. It wasn't an experienced driver looking for a shot in proven equipment.
It was right down the hall at the Craig household in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Matt Craig, son of JCR3 team principle Jeff Craig and grandson of team founder Jimmy Craig, developed a passion for speed at a young age and at around the same time the JCR3 Pro Cup team shut down.
Craig, now 15, started tinkering around with some go-karts, moved to the competitive karting ranks, then Bandoleros and then to Legends Cars, where he recently competed in the Summer Shootout Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway (NC). He made his stock car debut in the CARS X-1R Pro Cup Series - a series that his family had won races and championships before - in 2014, which started his transition to the full-bodied stock cars with more Pro Cup and Super Late Model starts from there.
This Saturday, August 9, Craig will bring the familiar No. 54 of JCR3 Racing, with sponsorship from C&C Boiler and Schaeffer's Oil, to the Southern Super Series' World Crown 300 presented by Victory Junction at Gresham Motorsports Park. The event, which will be the longest-distance race the 15-year-old Northwest High School student has ever competed in, will be another step along Craig's path towards being the next force behind the wheel of the family's No. 54 cars.
"It's going to definitely be a learning experience," said Craig. "It's going to be difficult because it's only going to be my third Late Model race ever and it's one of the biggest races of the year. We're just going to try to qualify for the race, number one, and hopefully finish all the laps and just not make any mistakes. I want to get as much experience as I can and build on it."
While he may have only been a youngster when the family's cars were dominating the short track ranks, Craig has become a student of the JCR3 team's history that he hopes to re-write as he moves into the Late Model levels.
"We had some really great drivers with our team. Jeff Fultz and Clay Rogers probably being the best two we had. I started racing go-karts and Legends Cars, so my grandpa decided to stop the big team. Last year I decided I wanted to go big-car racing and he said, 'Alright, we'll start working on a Pro Cup car.'
"I learned a lot over the past few months about how good the team used to be. I was little when I ran back then, but I've learned that I have some very big shoes to fill."
Craig understands there is still work to be done before he can get to the elite levels of Rogers, Fultz, Chase Pistone, Travis Kittleson and the other drivers that padded the stat sheets of JCR3 Racing. At the same time, he knows the main goal for a young driver is not necessarily winning, but learning.
"We ran one Pro Cup race at Hickory, finished ninth and actually qualified fifth in my first-ever start," said Craig. "I learned a lot then. In my second start at Motor Mile, it came a lot easier to me. I qualified second and finished third. I kept all four fenders on it and did what I thought was right to come out with a pretty good finish."
Craig will have the assistance of noted Super Late Model crew chief Gary Crooks helping tune his No. 54 car at Gresham.
"He's got a lot of cars that he works on and he's really smart," said Craig of Crooks. "He's led us in the right direction as far as setup. Mainly at the track my dad, Jeff, will be the crew chief. We bounce everything we do off Gary and he tells us what's good and what isn't. He'll give me some good pointers and he's a great driver-development guy. I like working with him a lot."
Aiding Craig's development as a driver has been his exploits in the competitive Legends Car divisions around the Carolinas.
"Legends Cars have a shorter wheelbases and a lot less tire grip, so you really learn a lot of car control. I think it's a really good stepping stone. It's hard to go from a go kart to a racecar, so to go from a go-kart to a Legends Car to a racecar, it's not really a huge step. A Late Model has more power and you're going faster, but it handles better. In my opinion, a Legends Car is harder to drive than a Super Late Model. These cars are never planted into the ground. They're sliding and you never have good control of them."
The World Crown 300 at Gresham will be Craig's second Southern Super Series start. He finished 15th in his series debut at Gresham in July. Beyond the World Crown, Craig already has an eye towards a full assortment of Super Late Model racing in 2015.
"We'll probably run some JEGS Series, CRA Series and the Southern Super Series next year," said Craig. "We want to run the high-competition series to get as much experience as we can."
Craig will battle with some of the top short track talents in the country in the 31st Annual World Crown 300 presented by Victory Junction on Saturday, August 9. For more information on the World Crown 300, visit www.racegmp.com.
- By Matt Kentfield, Speed51.com Executive Director. Twitter: @mattkentfield. Photo credit: Speed51.com