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Beneath a dark sense of humor and a mask of self-deprecation lies somebody that virtually all of us can relate to.
Corey LaJoie is man against the machine, the place where Yankee ingenuity butts heads with the technological age. He's just 19 years old, but the third-generation racer with New England roots seems to have the spirit of someone much older, like a country farmer hardened by tough northeast winters and using his own hands to pluck rough rocks from dry and infertile soil.
It's in his bloodlines.
“It's just playing the cards we're dealt,” said LaJoie, son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie. “Some guys are dealt full houses, and I got dealt one pair.”
LaJoie is trying to call everybody's bluff and use that pair to rake a big pot from from the poker players on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. There are drivers who have come through the series with name recognition similar to LaJoie's – Ryan Truex, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, just to name a few.
But while he has name recognition, what LaJoie doesn't have is a bankroll or a Sprint Cup Series development contract in his back pocket. Quite literally, everything he's got is his own.
“They think we've got five fulltime guys and all the know-how in the damn world,” LaJoie said. “But when it comes down to it, this (car) runs better than it should anyplace it goes. I can only imagine if I was in a good piece how much better we'd run. Coulda, woulda, shoulda – I'm just kind of waiting on somebody to give me a shot.
“But it's hard to get your name out there in front of those guys if you don't bring a big old check.”
For the first time, LaJoie has cobbled together enough cash to run an entire K&N Pro Series East schedule this season. He alone, with no full-time help, prepares his cars to run everywhere from historic short tracks in the south like Greenville Pickens Speedway to NASCAR national series tracks like Richmond, New Hampshire and Dover.
Surprisingly, Lajoie has four career Top-10 series finishes after running third in last week's Blue Ox 100 at Richmond – all of them at national series companion events. Knowing how good he could be with the proper back is equal parts frustrating and motivating.
“It's a little bit of both,” said LaJoie, who works full-time for his father's The Joie Of Seating company. “If I was in that (development) car, I'd lap the whole field. But this old horse here, this ol' lead sled shouldn't be out there dogging the Cup teams.
“It gives you motivation, but it also gets you frustrated at the same time knowing all you need is the one shot and then you'd make the best out of it.”
One thing LaJoie does not lack is confidence. According to his father, who won back-to-back Nationwide titles in 1996 and 1997 and was outspoken in his desire to avoid full-time racing at the Cup level despite offers, the driver of the No. 07 Ford is as good as any driver out there right now.
“He wants to do it. That's his motivation. Corey will do whatever it takes to race. Corey wants to do this, and he knows he can,” Randy said. “As far as holding the steering wheel, I'll put him up against anybody in any of these garage areas. If he would get a test in a guy's Truck that is 1-win-for-400-starts, he'd outrun him every time out. I don't doubt it. He's that good.
“But is he ever going to get that chance? That's what I'd hope for for him – that he does.”
The only thing holding the younger LaJoie back from better results every week, both he and his father firmly believe, is not having more help with race car setup and preparation between races.
“It's tough when you've got guys out there with four full-time guys working on (their cars) all day long and this one's got zero – me working welding seats all day and then working on it until midnight,” Corey said.
“He's smarter than I am out of a race car,” Randy said. “He knows more about a race car than I ever have. He probably knows more about his race car than anybody in this (K&N Pro Series) garage area. That's because he works on his own car. Other than Eddie MacDonald, Corey's probably the only one here who could build a race car by himself – and its just because I can't afford to pay anybody to do it for him.”
Corey LaJoie is coming off a third-place run at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Getty Images
Corey LaJoie hasn't spent the last few years running race cars anywhere and everywhere. In fact, the last time he competed in full season of any kind was in a Bandelero division in 2003 – when he would have been 11 years old. Instead, he's sewn together something resembling a “race schedule” each year with whatever he can find.
Despite that, or in spite of that, he nearly won the September race at New Hampshire last season and then went to Dover the following week for the season finale and finished second to Brett Moffitt, who was in a Joe Gibbs Racing car at the time. He also won the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified season opener at Atlanta Motor Speedway last season.
His other racing venture is the stuff that will one day become part of folklore. He's spent countless hours competing at what's know affectionately as the “Field Filler Fairgrounds” – a 1/19th mile go-kart track on the family property – against guys like Joey Logano, Marc Davis, Brandon McReynolds and others, just to name a few.
And here he is, on the cusp of the next step in his racing career.
“I think I race with a chip on my shoulder no matter what,” Corey said. “I always get all pissed off in a race car. I always think I'm not going fast enough. I just want to get in a race car and go as fast as I can and show these people I can get the job done.
“I wouldn't have it any other way. It gets to be more about business when you get to the upper ranks. I get to hang out with my buddies and BS at the shop and take tips from my dad here and grandpa there – instead of having PR guys and sponsors and crew chiefs and engineers and all this other stuff. I'm not saying its a bad thing, but I'm enjoying what I've got right now and I'd be willing to take any opportunity out there that there is.”
Which brings the racing goals for a driver with Connecticut roots into clear focus.
“I want to win a couple of races this year,” he said. “The bad runs make you want to run even harder, and the good runs make you want to keep doing it. I guess my motivation is to try to be there and race on Sunday instead of Thursday nights. That's my goal.”
“He's a quick learner with everything he does,” Randy LaJoie said. “If I can get him some help where he's lacking the knowledge on some of his (setup) stuff, once he gets that, this division will be in trouble. He'll kick their ass.
“It's just too bad he can't do it sooner rather than later.”
And there's the man-against-the-machine mentality we all see a little of in ourselves.