It's not the age thing-definitely not that. As a matter of fact, he'd be very happy if that were all over. It's not about his experience-there's no shortage of that. It's not about that thing with ARCA Champ Frank Kimmel-no, that's a done deal. Even with these attributes, it's all about the racing for Shelby Howard, ARCA RE/MAX's youngest winner, who will hold that distinction forever. But it's not really about that, either.
Sticks, Balls, RacingBasically, it's about a 9-year-old Indiana kid who didn't know racing. "All I was into at that point was basketball and football, and that was it," Shelby says. "I didn't know who Jeff Gordon was. I didn't know anything." A friend of his had a Junior Sprint and let him drive it once. The response wasn't the singular "I gotta do this" obsession, but his interest was sparked. The next week, Shelby (IV) and dad, Big Shelby (III), looked at a race car and decided it would provide quality father-son time together. They bought it and started racing the dirt every other weekend. Slowly the racing bug infected the rest of the family. "You know how that stuff goes," Shelby says. "The next thing you know, you're doing it every weekend."
Every weekend also turned into 250- and 600cc-class Mini Sprints. Soon he saw action in other classes such as 1200cc Mel Kenyon Midgets and Mini Cups. Then came a huge jump-racing IMCA-style Modifieds on pavement. The night before Shelby turned 13, he nailed down a Modified win at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
This is a lot different from a kid coming home and saying, "Dad I want to play in a rock 'n' roll band, buy me a guitar." "Yeah, it's a lot different," Big Shelby agrees. The young Howard won his first championship when he was 12, racing against adults on a quarter-mile dirt track. "Next," Dad says, "he got to beating the best there is in the business with the Modified stuff."
The next logical step for any Midwest racer is Late Models, and that's where they went, gaining more valuable experience scaling up to bigger cars and tracks. When Shelby turned 16, they signed up for five races in ARCA RE/MAX Supercars.
If an agenda wasn't already in place, it came to light when they chose ARCA. They pretty much sold off their Late Model and Modified equipment. "I wanted to do something different," says Shelby. "Obviously, I had been wanting to go to the Trucks or Busch or something eventually. ARCA has the same kind of cars as Winston Cup cars. They get to go to all the [same] racetracks. Everything I was wanting to do fit into the ARCA series. That was the cheapest and best place we could go. I thought we could be competitive. That's what's pointed us in this direction. We thought we could learn the most out of being here."
The Tobacco FiascoProphetic words for a 16-year-old. They ran three short tracks at Salem (IN), Berlin (MI), and Toledo (OH) where they grabbed two sixth positions and a DNF. On their bigger forays to Charlotte and Atlanta, the goal was seat time, and they ended up with two top 20 finishes. More importantly, Shelby says, "We learned what we had to come back with to be competitive, really." When asked what else he learned on those big tracks, he answers, "The equipment made a big difference on the big tracks. More than what I thought." The five races set up the Howard team for its full Rookie year in ARCA RE/MAX action, and that would yield a curve ball no one expected.
With the 2002 ARCA series going strong, their Rookie effort was a solid third in points with six races to go. With a phone call from ARCA, though, they would only have five races left of their season. ARCA was running at Chicagoland Speedway in conjunction with the IRL and its cigarette sponsor. Because of all the restrictions about tobacco promoting to people under the age of 18, Shelby was told he would have to sit that race out.
It's no big deal to him now, but then? "It was frustrating, you know," he says. "There was nothing we could do about it. At the time, we were third in points and kind of excited. We didn't know it until the week beforehand. We had the car ready to go and we got the phone call. Oh well, it just made us try harder the last five races. We ended up finishing fifth in the points."
With their first full season under their belts, they knew what they needed for their second season, 2003-Shelby's 17th year on earth. They turned to Dodge equipment with Ernie Elliott motors and a few cars from Chip Ganassi. They had survived the "Tobacco Fiasco," and ARCA had taken a different path than NASCAR on the issue of underage drivers. NASCAR had chosen to chase away the "kids," telling them to come back when they were legal. ARCA also adopted an 18-year minimum age but grandfathered any drivers currently competing.
Beating The ManWhen the tour rolled into Salem, one of Shelby's "home" tracks, he fought a spirited battle with ARCA Champ Frank Kimmel for his first ARCA win. And at 17, he was the youngest of all ARCA winners. With the new age rules, it will be a record never broken. Winning at Salem was a relief for Shelby. "We'd been trying really hard and just couldn't seem to get it," says Shelby. "We had several opportunities to win and finally got it there. It was exciting and it was good for the team."
Not so fast there, Shelby, you beat The Man Kimmel in his own yard. That's got to count for something on the personal scale, right? "That was cool," he says with energy. "He's won like the last six races here or something. We had a caution with like three to go. When we went back green, we had a green/white checker deal. Looking at Frank in your mirror here kinda sucks. I didn't know what we had, exactly, or what he had. I just knew I was going to go as hard as I could, and what happened, happened. I looked in my mirror after we got through one and two, and we pulled about a car length on him and had a little bit of room to breathe. It was fun."
A few weeks later, they showed they weren't just a short-track team with a come from the back to win at Kansas, a superspeedway. By his birthday, July 25, when he finally became legal, he had two wins and became not only the youngest winner, but the youngest two-time winner in ARCA. He broke his own record, and it will be in the ARCA books forever.
As an old man of 18, he went back to Salem for the second of two ARCA races there. If the track had promoted the event as a "wrasslin' " match, it would have been an understatement. In pure Texas Death Match style, so to speak, it came down to a showdown with Frank again. In a finish that is likely still talked about, the two cars evenly drag raced the back straightaway and made contact in turn 3 with Frank eating the wall hard. Amidst boos and cheers, Shelby crossed the line as the winner.
Low-Key And WinningWe noticed a few things firsthand about Shelby before the fireworks started that summer night. The low-key, play-it-down demeanor is Shelby while driving, too. On the team radio, about the only time he talked to his spotter or crew chief was to answer questions about the car. There was no change in his voice for what little he spoke-even when he and Frank got into it. When the dust had settled and he'd won the race, he was still pretty quiet.
The team has gelled to a tight family operation. But the "kid" thing just won't go away. While people his age are away at college, Shelby will be racing. But they've thought about that. "My dad says this is my college education," Shelby tells us. "It probably would have been cheaper to send me to Harvard, though."
With real V-8-powered cars on bigger tracks going 200 mph, at what point did it go from family fun to a serious run at a career? "When he was 13 or 14, that's when we decided maybe he's got a future in racing," says Dad, who is often Shelby's spotter. "It was just something he wanted to get into. We still support him 100 percent. If he came home tomorrow and said he wanted to go play basketball, we'd go play basketball. I don't think that's going to happen at this point," he adds laughing.
Shelby's Mom, Tonya, says it's a family thing. "We thought we'd do something fun with him on the weekends-keep him busy," she recalls. "I thought, OK, it'll be something fun we can do as a family . . . really never thought it would get to this point, or even imagined that this was what he wanted to do. He just never really showed that much interest in racing when he was little. But he definitely has shown us this is something we need to try to help him do. It keeps me very busy because I have a very big part in it." Big indeed. Mom stickers all the cars, takes care of the radios, makes the team's reservations, pays the bills, and still has time to feed the crew. And if that's not enough, Shelby says, "she keeps me in line."
Does Shelby's racing ever get to the mom in her when he's on a superspeedway? "That was a little intimidating," Tonya says. "The first time we went to Daytona to test and the third day he started drafting, I was about in tears. But it's just that step he's taking. You really feel like when they're drafting at Daytona, you know he's really in the big leagues-even when it's an ARCA car, which it still is. To me, it's almost no different because they're going the same speed. I can't say that every time I'm setting up there and he's out there, I'm not worried, and relieved when its over. It's a mom thing. Kelly [his girlfriend] and I sit up there together and grab onto each other."
So is it a problem for her? Not really. "He's made it pretty easy," she admits. "He's a good kid. Any time there's ever a question of what we are going to do, we can always sit down with him and talk to him. I think this is what he wants to be doing."
Yeah, he may be one of the young guns we all hear about, but Shelby Howard has his head squarely on his shoulders and solely on racing. Watch this guy-he's going places.
What's Your Take On Shelby?It's never easy to make the transition from smaller cars and tracks to the bigger versions. Theoretically, it should be more difficult if you are younger and/or a younger team. Also, we all know how a new team gets put under a microscope when it enters a new series. Those racing around a new driver can often be counted on for a good read, so we asked ARCA RE/MAX regulars Jason Jarrett and Mark Gibson for their take on Shelby. They were surprisingly candid about his progress so far.
Jarrett likes the person Shelby has presented to ARCA racers and officials. "He's a competitive person, but he doesn't have to, like, continually prove it to everybody," says Jarrett. "He knows he has that fire within himself to be able to be competitive and win races. I like that in people because I feel like that's sort of how my dad and I are. There are a lot of other people like that, it's just that the ones you see are the ones who are a little more outgoing with their competitiveness."
When asked when he knew Shelby had "arrived" in ARCA, Jarrett says, "It seems like at Salem in the spring , I know he won the race but it's like he had a dominant car and he knew what to do with it. And that's pretty impressive in a young person, whether they're young or old, just somebody starting out in these cars and in this series. That was pretty impressive because I know he came by me two or three times, and I didn't think I was having that bad of a day. He knew that he had a good enough car to win and was able to do that."
Gibson also cites the Salem race, but for another reason: "I think it was here at Salem in the spring. He just drove a heck of a race [to be able to] outrun Frank Kimmel here at Salem. I understand Shelby has got a lot of laps here just like Frank, but still you've got to outrun Frank on his own terms. And he did that. I knew he was running hard and he and Frank were having a heated battle. I think that probably impressed me. I think it turned a corner for him. He got the first win under his belt and outran the best guy over here in this garage. Yeah, it was at his home track, but it was also Frank's home track. I think that was the turning point in his career, maybe."
Gibson knows the often transitional nature of ARCA teams and sees good things for Shelby down the road. "He's a good little race car driver," Gibson continues. "He'll be in Winston Cup soon, I think. His age has probably held him back since the 18-year [minimum age] deal came in. But he's got a lot of talent. He's already won races, the youngest driver to ever win a race in ARCA. He's run at some tough tracks. He doesn't back down-he's pretty aggressive. He outran Frank on his own turf here and wasn't afraid to lean on him to do it. A lot of people are. So, you know, that goes a long way. I'd like to see him stay around another year because I enjoy racing with him. I think he'll make it. I think he'll probably do a Busch or Truck deal next year and probably be fairly successful at it. Will he win a race? It depends on the team he's with. He's probably capable of winning a race on a short track, you know, a Memphis or a St. Louis, or somewhere like that."
You just can't buy words like that-you have to earn them.