What do you do if you’re a local dirt track racer who wins his first-ever heat race after 10 years of competition at the Kankakee County Speedway?
Take a victory lap? Wave the flag at a charged-up race night crowd?
Not if you are Justin Witthoft.
“I got out of the car, held the flag and off we went to get ready for the feature (race),” Witthoft said of his victory in the I-Mods division.
That “on to the next’’ mentality holds a special meaning as we celebrate another Father’s Day weekend. Stock car racing is a way of life among the Witthoft family, and although Justin faced challenges at the start of his own life, he has continued that tradition and is passing it on to the next generation.
You see, Justin was born with only a thumb and pinkie finger on his right hand and only a thumb on his left hand. His right leg was missing the ankle and foot. His left leg only had a tibia bone. He uses prosthetics to achieve mobility.
Justin began attending races with his parents and grandparents at the age of 6. In the succeeding years, Justin moved behind the wheel and competed on the racetrack. Now 41 and the father of 12-year-old twins Braydon and Ashlynn, Dad said he will race for three or four more years before the focus will shift toward Braydon’s career.
But for the moment, Justin’s career is in the spotlight. He grabbed it when he won that heat race during the first weekend of the 2018 speedway season.
The win was not surprising to his car owner, Rick Kingsnorth.
“He’s an excellent wheel man. I like his ability as a driver. He is not afraid to mix it up,” Kingsnorth said.
Kingsnorth, whose team also includes Dan Kroll and Nate Kroll, offered Justin a chance to race for him when he added a third car for the 2018 season.
Nor was it a surprise to Justin’s straight-shooting father, George: “He’s a pretty fair racer. He can take care of himself.”
His mechanic the past five years, Kelly Hannan, said Justin “has done alright.” Hannan compares their relationship to that of the characters played by Tom Cruise (driver Cole Trickle) and Robert Duvall (crew chief Harry Hogge) in the hit movie “Days of Thunder.”
“We did it his way. We did things my way. And we are still doing things my way,” Hannan said.
Justin just laughs at the comparison.
“He actually has done good, and there are bigger things ahead,” Hannan said.
Maybe it’s a case of like father, like son, George said. “He doesn’t beat around the bush.” When asked about his son’s driving ability, George said, “He can do anything anybody else can.”
His rivals sense the same thing.
“There is no sympathy [on the track],” Kingsnorth said. “He is treated like everybody else.”
Justin uses the sense of feel in his legs to tell him when to give the car more gas or tap the brakes. Determination is something he clearly exhibits. “I like proving people wrong. That is the biggest thing,” he said.
He appreciates a shot at driving for a team. Justin was an independent driver the past four years, and he said spending between $3,000 and $6,000 a season made it a challenge.
“You don’t win that back,’’ he said of the annual expense. “It’s Rick’s car. I get a pleasure driving it.”
For Justin the sport is more about “passion and fun than racing for money.”
Prior to Thursday’s races, he stood seventh in I-Mods season point standings. Nate Kroll was second and Dan Kroll fourth. Leading in points is Chris Tippit.
Right now the Witthoft-Hannan duo is focusing on top five finishes in the heat races. Winning a feature is nearing, they say.
“I think this is the car that can do it,” Justin said.
His young son thinks he can be the next successful racing Witthoft. Braydon has been pushing to race go-carts at the facility. Justin is not so sure about it. But George said the time is now.
“He has been racing for a few years on a track I built,” the elder Witthoft said of his grandson. “We can’t keep up with him. He needs to be out there now.”
Another Witthoft is determined to prove he belongs.