Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fueled by tragedy, Matt Poole chases his racing dream

Matt Poole. (Courtesy of Matt Poole)
Matt Poole is not your typical racer. Most drivers’ journeys start in their childhood or their teens. But for the Kannapolis, N.C., resident, his started a little later – when he was 40. And it was fueled by the most unfortunate of circumstances. Poole is chasing his lifelong dream of becoming a racecar driver to honor the memories of not one, but two important people in his life.

In 2003, Poole lost the rock of his family: his mother Peggy died after a sudden heart attack. Poole had always told his mother he wanted to become a racecar driver. With a renewed focus, he was set on making his dream come true. But not even three years later, Poole suffered another loss: in 2005, his dear friend Tonya Schultz was murdered by her husband.

When tragedies occur in life, they can either make or break us. But for Poole, the latter was never an option.

"My goal is to make it as far up the racing ladder as my right foot will take me," Poole recently told me.

Poole is on a journey to turn personal tragedy into triumph, and the aspiring driver is growing ever closer to reaching his dream.

Poole started out at SpeedTech Racing School, owned by Randy Baker, son of legendary NASCAR driver Buck Baker. Since then, Poole has tested in the Camping World Truck Series, ARCA Series, Late Models and Street Stocks.

In 2007, Poole gained noticed when he tested a Camping World Truck Series (then the Craftsman Truck Series) truck for Lafferty Motorsports and impressed team owner Chris Lafferty. Poole made his racing debut for Lafferty Motorsports in the Street Stock Series at Hickory Motor Speedway in Hickory, N.C., finishing 12th and 7th respectively in his first two races.

After demonstrating his talent on the track, Poole, who works as a driving instructor at the NASCAR Racing Experience, has labored to get his name out there and has developed a following on social media sites. Recently the 47-year-old racer caught the eye of a racing team. Kansas-based Jeremy Petty Inc., under the ownership of ARCA and Camping World Truck Series driver Jeremy Petty, is interested in developing Poole’s skills, but is lacking sponsorship for the 2011 season. Poole’s dream is on hold as the search continues for a sponsor.

I had the chance to interview Poole and learn more about his racing journey. Poole not only has the heart of a racer, but the fire and determination to overcome the odds. It is my pleasure to share this interview with our readers at Skirts and Scuffs.

RK: When/how did you know you wanted to be a racecar driver?
MP: I grew up about 2 miles from a dirt track, and as kids we used to sneak into the track through the woods to go and check out the race cars. The very first time I ever saw a race car, I knew right then and there that I wanted to drive race cars. The sights, the sounds, the smells of being at a race track had me hooked the very first time I experienced it.

RK: Unfortunately tragedy has touched you not once, but twice. How did your mom and your friend Tonya ultimately inspire you to set out on your racing journey?
MP: It was the death of my mom that originally set me on the path to racing. Tonya knew how bad it hurt me losing my mom. The day mom died, Tonya came to my parents’ house right after we got home from the hospital, and she went to mom's funeral as well. Both my mom and my dad thought the world of Tonya. I decided after mom's funeral that I was going to honor her memory somehow, and since it was my childhood dream to be a racecar driver, I set my mind to racing something, anything, as my way of keeping her memory alive. Ironically, it was Tonya who told me, "I'm not saying this to beat you down, I'm just being realistic. You're too old, you got no experience, and nobody is going to sponsor you. It's not likely you'll ever see the inside of a race car." My reply to her was "You hide and watch." Then after Tonya was murdered by her husband, it only gave me more drive and determination to make it happen. And when I finally got to that first race at Hickory Motor Speedway, I ran my very first race of any kind with a picture of Mom and Tonya taped to the dash of the car. They rode along with me for that first race, and I know somewhere up there they were smiling.

RK: How did your friends and family react to your decision to pursue your dreams?
Poole tests a truck for Lafferty Motorsports
at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2007.
(Courtesy of Matt Poole)
MP: Most of them told me I was crazy. My own father told me I was crazy. They said it would never happen. All the odds were against me, AND I was crazy. They cracked jokes. They took their jabs. But at the same time, they told me "go for it." They wanted to see it happen, but they just didn't think it was likely to happen. But if mom was still here, she would be the first one to say, "Don't ever tell him he can't have something or do something if he sets his mind to it." When it came time for my first race at Hickory, my father told me something he had never told me in my life. He said, "I'm proud of you, and if your mama was here she would be proud of you too" I will never forget that moment, because he had never said that to me, ever.

RK: As you pursue your dream, you are working at NASCAR Racing Experience. What does your job entail? Has this opened up opportunities for you?
MP: My job at NRE is not near as glorious as some would have it to be. Even though I am an "instructor," my job is basically a spotter. I talk to the students on the radio while they are driving the race car, I tell them what line to run, what RPM to run the car at, when they are passing other cars, or when other cars are passing them. It all boils down to watching other people drive race cars, which gives me motivation because I know in my heart if I don't give up I'll be the one driving the race cars one of these days. Other than that it's chores like cleaning cars, loading cars and equipment in the haulers, changing tires and fueling the cars, as well as talking to customers and answering questions.

RK: Like you, Jennifer Jo Cobb has logged lots of miles as a driving instructor (Cobb worked for Richard Petty Driving Experience). How has logging those laps carried over to your racing?
MP: There is a BIG difference between Jennifer Jo Cobb and me, and there is a big difference in our jobs at our respective racing schools. Jennifer Jo Cobb is famous, she has raced a lot more than I have, in several series. Nobody knows who I am yet. When she works at her racing school she drives the ridealong car, giving rides to customers, and she has the experience behind the wheel to give advice to drivers that I don't have yet. She is an established racer, and a good one, and working at a racing school is just a part-time gig for her that shows her love of the sport. It's just a job for me, and I'll never be anything with this company. It would be an honor and a dream come true to be able to race with Jennifer Jo Cobb one of these days, when I make it to that level I know my dream will have really come true. Jennifer Jo Cobb is a female driver trying to make her mark in a male-dominated sport, and I am an older driver trying to make my mark in a youth-dominated sport. Those difficulties could be considered somewhat similar.

RK: You made the decision to donate your winnings to the Victory Junction Gang Camp and the American Heart Association. Why did you decide to donate your winnings, and why these charities?
MP: The decision to donate my winnings was my way of honoring the memories of Mom and Tonya. I chose the American Heart Association because Mom died from a heart attack. That was an easy and obvious decision. I chose the Victory Junction Gang Camp in memory of Tonya, because the camp helps children who suffer from various diseases and health problems, and those kids lives are difficult. Tonya had two children, Kenny and Ava, who were 5 and 3 at the time she was murdered by her husband. Now that their mother is dead, and their father is in jail for life, Tonya's kids are without both of their parents for the rest of their life. Tonya loved kids, and helping kids through the Victory Junction Gang Camp is something that Tonya would absolutely adore. As I progress in racing, there will be other charities and organizations that I will choose to make donations to, and those donations will be made in the name of me, my car/team owner, and any potential sponsors, but always in memory of Mom and Tonya.

RK: You do your own PR, and you have built a following on Twitter and Facebook. How did you come up with the idea to turn to social media? What kind of doors has it opened for you?
MP: I started out doing my own PR and Marketing. I started by doing my own website. I made phone calls, sent letters, and emails, knocked on doors, and I tried everything I could possibly try to get my name out there to the racing community. After I got on Twitter, I started following Summer Dreyer, who along with writing for Skirts and Scuffs, she is also the host of the “Next Time By” radio show on Blog Talk Radio. Summer had me on her show several times as both a guest and a panelist. I give many thanks to Summer for doing a lot to help get my name out there. Not only that, Summer's mother, Tori Dreyer, has recently taken on the role of my marketing director, and she has been working very hard to find sponsorship to help make my racing dream come true. Tori does a fantastic job in motorsports marketing, and I have all the confidence in the world that we will be able to secure sponsorship soon now that I have her in my corner.

RK: You now have the support of Jeremy Petty, Incorporated racing team. How did they become aware of you?
MP: Jeremy Petty, Inc. is based in Kansas. My marketing director, Tori Dreyer, also lives in Kansas and has worked with Jeremy's team doing marketing for them. Tori is the one who gets credit for making them aware of my story, and although I am not under contract with Jeremy Petty, Inc., they have expressed an interest in developing my racing skills. All we need to make that happen is for a sponsor/marketing partner to step up and be a part of my racing dream.

RK: Like many drivers, you are facing the hurdle of finding sponsorship. What would you like to say to any potential sponsors?
MP: I would say to potential sponsors that my racing story is not the garden variety racing story. I'm chasing the racing dream the hard way, I'm working for it, and being a part of my racing dream as a sponsor/marketing partner will put your business in front of the most brand loyal fans of any sport. My racing story is unique because I am the underdog, and I already have a substantial group of fans who are behind me, before my dream has even come true. Go with me to Victory Lane!

RK: Which drivers in motorsports are an inspiration to you?
MP: The drivers who are the most inspirational to me are of course the older drivers. Even though they have been racing for many years before me, the fact that they are racing at their age is an inspiration to me. Especially drivers like Morgan Shepherd, and of course, James Hilton. The fact that they are still racing in their 60s and even 70s shows me that I still have a long racing career ahead of me, all I have to do is get there. I got to meet Morgan Shepard at Charlotte last year and told him my story, and what I have accomplished so far, and he told me, "Don't ever give up." Those words were definitely inspirational to me, especially coming from him. Other inspirational drivers to me would have to be Mark Martin, Kenny Schrader, and just about any other driver who is over the age of 40. Just because I started a little late chasing my dream doesn't mean I should give up. And I won't.


Potential marketing partners and interested media members may contact Matt Poole at Matt@MattPooleRacing.com or visit his website for more information: www.mattpooleracing.com. Poole also maintains a Facebook page at Matt Poole Racing.

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