When PJ Hernandez drives his late model onto the track at Irwindale Speedway in Southern California this season, the hood of his race car will sport two logos for A Million Thanks and Wounded Heroes Fund of Kern County, organizations that provide support for veteran and active duty military members and families.
But these two organizations don’t sponsor Hernandez or pay to put their logos on his car. In fact, he says it’s “quite the opposite.”
“I don’t take any money from them. I help raise money for them and try to help bring awareness to them so they can keep doing the great things they do for active duty military and their families and all the veterans and veterans families that have suffered losses, or anything of that nature,” Hernandez said.
A Million Thanks and Wounded Heroes Fund are close to Hernandez’s heart because they helped him when he was making the transition out of the military and back into life as a civilian. Hernandez spent 10 years in the Navy, and it was towards the end of his time in active duty that he began his racing career.
This season will be his second driving full time a late model at Irwindale Speedway, a half-mile asphalt track located 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Hernandez has always had a passion for motor sports, growing up racing dirt bikes, and drag racing and road racing when he got the opportunity. But his Navy career pushed back the true start to his career behind the wheel. Seven years ago, when he realized he needed something more for a competitive outlet, he found it in NASCAR.
“My dad used to race… And I was like ‘you know what, that’ll be a fun way for me and my dad to be able to do something together,’” he said.
“I was still active duty at the time and that’s when I bought my first race car. I had a little bit of money, not much, but I had a little bit of money and that’s kind of what got me started in it was just buying my first hobby stock. And I remembered seeing the late model guys and I thought ‘man, someday I want to race one of those. But I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity or the money to do it.’ And each year I kept progressing. I would upgrade from the car I was racing and get to the next level.”
Being stationed closer to home his last three years in the military helped Hernandez seize the opportunity to get started racing. At the time he was driving an hour and a half to and from work everyday while also volunteering as a high school wrestling coach, leaving him little time to work on his car.
But Hernandez said he had a really good support system to help, and he’s always been the type of person to go full throttle into chasing his dreams, no matter how crazy they may seem.
“That was the end goal for me. I want to race these late model cars,” he said. “You’d see them all the time, their cars are so beautiful and nice and fancy and you look at them like ‘man, I want to race one of them,’ And they’re so much faster than a hobby stock car or a street stock. And I just kept working away at it. Kept working towards that goal of getting there. And I just finally when the opportunity presented itself I just kind of took every last cent that I had and borrowed a little bit of money and I purchased my first late model. A limited late model, a super stock… and that was kind of my stepping stone right there to my first late model class.
“When I finally got there I looked at the car that I was able to rebuild and turn into the late model I have now, I looked at it one day and said ‘I made it. I made that dream happen.’ Basically now that I’m there racing late models, anything beyond that is a bonus.”
Now that he’s 32 years old, Hernandez said he realizes he’s older than most others chasing a racing dream, but he doesn’t want to stop at late models. His next goal is to eventually get into a K&N car.
“I’ll keep chasing the dream for as long as I can. I won’t quit at it,” he said. “I’ll probably be one of those guys that will never stop racing.”
And as long as Hernandez is racing, he’ll be racing for a cause. Not only is he chasing his own dreams, but he’s passionate about giving back to those who helped him get this far. His hope is that others will see him starting a racing career as an adult and see that if you’re passionate about something and put everything you have into it anything is possible.
As far as his own career, he’ll be ready to strap in every week this summer at Irwindale, with those who helped him get there along for the ride.
“Your race family is a special family and a special bond you all have together,” he said. “When a Saturday comes up and you all go racing together it’s a lot of fun. Yea, its a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the fun and looking forward to representing the military charities that I try to help out and try to race awareness for them… Trying to help others like me through racing.”
Irwindale will open the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season this Saturday with City of Irwindale Night, featuring late models, trucks, super stocks, INEX Legends, Enduro and jr. late models.
RELATED: Irwindale Speedway schedule
Irwindale is one of two tracks to kick off their schedule out west.
Nevada’s Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will also get the season underway this Saturday. The Bullring, a .375-mile banked oval on the grounds of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, holds four classes of Whelen All-American Series racing, led by Super Late Models.
OTHER OPENINGS THIS WEEK:
Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina, will also open its season this weekend with the CARS Tour Solid Rock 300, featuring late model and super late model 150 races on the .4-mile oval.
Southern National’s first NASCAR Whelen All-American Series event is the Easter Bunny 240 on April 20, which will be headlined by twin 40-lap Late Model Stock Car features.
Hickory Motor Speedway, a .363-mile semi-banked oval asphalt track located in Hickory, North Carolina, will also open the 2019 season on Saturday with Twin 40 lap late model races, limited late models, street stock, super trucks and renegades.