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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Daniel Montanari is the definition of an up-and-coming racing star.
The 16-year-old from Uxbridge, Ontario, is in just his second year of racing mini stocks at Canada’s Sunset Speedway and is already turning heads by going fast and winning races.
It all started when an unfortunate health issue by a friend and fellow competitor opened the door for Montanari to make his debut in the mini stock class last year. He made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“Last year a friend of ours who had a Dodge Neon mini stock had a heart attack, so he couldn’t drive,” Montanari explained. “So he asked if I wanted to drive it. So I said yeah, sure. I figured it was going to be practice a couple times. Maybe do a heat race or something. I got in it and did alright on the practice days, so we decided we were going to run the full first race day. We just decided on the first race day that I was going to start at the back of the field. It was my first year, first time racing with other cars.
“So I went out for the first heat and I finished third, so that changed the plan. I didn’t start scratch anymore, I started where I qualified. In my first race I finished third. That helped a lot and gave me a lot of confidence.”
He ended up running the full season in that Dodge Neon, scoring three victories en route to a ninth-place finish in the mini stock class standings. It was an incredible rookie season, but this year things only got better.
After building a new race car out of a parts car that his older brother Nic, also a racer, had sitting around, the younger Montanari found even more success this year.
Montanari scored three more victories in 17 starts at Sunset Speedway this season, falling one point short of winning his first track championship in the mini stock class. While that may sound disappointing, Montanari still has reason to celebrate after being named the winner of the UNOH Youth Achievement Award by NASCAR.
The UNOH Youth Achievement Award is open to NASCAR drivers between the ages of 14-17 – drivers may accumulate points until their 18th birthday – and are based on the best 14 finishes regardless of division.
Track winners will receive a $500 cash award and a $500 UNOH Scholarship. The national champion receives $10,000 UNOH Scholarship and will be recognized at the NASCAR Home Tracks Awards in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We knew about the award, but we never thought we’d be able to get it racing against guys every night at a track that is NASCAR sanctioned,” said Montanari, who was 19th in the UNOH Youth Achievement Award standings in 2016. “We only have one race every weekend. We didn’t think that we’d even be close to winning it. Then near the end a friend of ours was like, ‘Did you see the UNOH Award points?’ I said no, not really. He said, ‘Oh, you’re up to 16th.’
“We were surprised at that. Then we started watching it more and more and we ended up winning it. It’s amazing to win that against the best guys around.”
Montanari has been involved in racing nearly his entire life. His father, Rino, has been both a driver and crew chief during his lengthy career and has fostered his son’s interest in racing.
“My dad built us lawn tractors,” Montanari said when recounting the first time he got to drive something. “He took the mower deck off of them. Me and my brother would drive the lawn tractors around the backyard. It helped us get use to driving and steering and stuff like that. I was three years old at the time and my brother was seven.”
As he’s gotten older, the youngest Montanari has continued to learn from those around him. He began joining his father, who has worked as a crew chief in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series for the likes of Mark Dilley and Kerry Micks, at the race shop where he learned how to take cars apart and put them back together.
“I would say when I was 12 or 13 I asked my dad if I could go to the shop with him one day,” Montanari recalled. “Me and my brother both went and we’d go to work on the Pinty’s Series cars. We learned a lot about setup and how the cars are built and how to take apart the hub and the front suspension, pretty much everything on it. The last couple of years I’ve been doing some pretty important jobs, like taking out the rear-end gear and inspecting it, things like that. That’s been a big help with the racing.”
This year Montanari admitted he wasn’t sure things were going to go well. Driving the new car his family had built from scratch out of his brother’s parts car, he said he struggled at first to get up to speed. That’s when he got a little advice from his father.
“We spent tons of hours, countless hours on that car trying to make it perfect,” said Montanari, who had sponsorship from Kenzington Burger Bar, Permatex and Canada’s Best Racing Team, among others. “It wasn’t as fast as I wanted it to be and I was kind of down on myself about it. So I figured I’d just try it and see how it goes. So I went out on the first race day and in practice we were alright. We were kind of quick, but not fast enough to win it. I went out for my first heat and I finished eighth. I came in and I was all disappointed. I figured that was how the year was going to go and I’d be lucky if I got a top-10 in the new car. Then my dad told me to just get in there and drive the car. So that’s exactly what I did.”
That advice paid off so well that Montanari now gets to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the NASCAR Home Tracks Awards at the Charlotte Convention Center at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Dec. 8. It’s still almost like a dream according to Montanari and he’s excited that he gets to live it.
“It’s definitely going to be amazing to go down to North Carolina and go to the banquet and meet a bunch of new people and talk to a bunch of people about racing,” said Montanari.
Daniel Montanari had three wins, 12 top fives and 16 top 10s to earn the 2017 UNOH Youth Achievement Award. Eric Uprichard/Sunset Speedway