There’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to Sam Hunt.
On the surface, the 26-year-old former racer from Midlothian, Virginia, is just another guy trying to make it as a team owner in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East. But Hunt’s journey to get here is anything but ordinary.
Hunt grew up in The Netherlands, as his father’s job took his family to Europe. When given the choice of soccer or racing, he gravitated towards a go-kart a the age of five. He caught the bug.
Once his family moved back to the United States in 2004, he began racing more and more, getting used to the "Americanized" racing scene. From limited late models to late model stocks at short tracks such as South Boston, Langley and Orange County, Hunt ate, slept and breathed racing.
During his teenage years, a mutual connection got Sam in touch with the late J.D. Gibbs, who was gracious with his time to the then high-schooler.
"We had that family relationship with J.D. Gibbs outside of racing," Hunt told NASCAR.com. "I met with J.D. at one point, just to kind of get some advice and figure out what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be a race car driver and not do anything else like these 18-year-old kids. He told me to go to college, study, basically get a degree and come back to him."
And that’s exactly what he did.
Hunt enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University and got his degree in finance. Following his graduation, he sought out J.D. to finish the conversation they started.
"I came back and J.D. helped me start my company," he said. "He gave me two race cars as kind of an incredible thing he did to help a kid out that couldn’t afford to race, but wanted to be in it. Those two cars have been cycled out, but that’s kind of the reason I have a team. That’s why I run the No. 18. It’s for J.D."
Those close to me know the importance and impact JD had on myself and my program?s beginning. I owe a lot to JD, as I wouldn?t have a team if it wasn?t for him helping out a young college kid with a big dream a few years back. Prayers to the entire Gibbs family ?? https://t.co/ZNjOW5AdTs
— Sam Hunt (@SamHunt22) January 12, 2019
Hunt moved south to North Carolina and formed Sam Hunt Racing, then known as Hunt Sellers Racing, one year removed from graduating from VCU. Although the team was off the ground and running, things weren’t all peaches and cream behind the scenes.
"When I started, I had a Dodge van that I lived out of outside the shop, which a lot of people don’t know," he said. "I’d literally just sleep outside the shop in the van."
"David Lewis (of Roush Yates Engines) gave me a corner of their shop in Mooresville and I didn’t have a place down here so I lived in the van or on buddies couches. Just made it happen last year."
Looking back on the whole year, Hunt couldn’t help but chuckle at what he did to make things work. He said not many people know he lived out of a van right outside his corner of the shop, but is now "living big" in an apartment in Mooresville.
Putting the human aspect of things to the side, the grind of operating a fully functional race team took its toll.
"Last year was kind of terrible," he admitted. "It was great and a huge learning experience, but it’s really made me appreciate just having an apartment and having more of a normal life this year a little bit more. Luckily, I’ve made a relationship with Colin (Garrett) and his dad. We’ve become more of a family and they’ve worked with us to where we’re at now. His dad, the sponsors trust me even at 26 to make the most of that we can with the money we’ve got."
After setting up shop at Peyton Sellers’ shop, Hunt searched far and wide for a driver and sponsor to come in and wheel his No. 18 car.
Enter: Colin Garrett.
Garrett and his father agreed to four races maximum with Hunt to begin their tenure together in 2018. After a sixth off the bat at Langley and a third at South Boston, the two began to re-evaluate things.
Despite being down financially and with a lack of boots on the ground, they would up running the remainder of the season and finished with five top 10s.
"Between the sponsors and the Garretts, they wanted to run the rest of the races rather than three of four, Hunt said. "We had to ramp up to full-time without the money or man power. We just kind of made it happen. Living in a van in David Lewis’ parking lot."
Hunt pointed to Clinton Cram, currently Trevor Huddleston’s crew chief in the K&N Pro Series West, as the driving force for not only keeping SHR afloat, but bettering the organization.
"He was the one who showed really showed me what it took, took what I had, which was very little, made the best of it and made it look like more than it was," he said of Garrett’s crew chief last season. "He could take a little and make the most out of it. I think a lot of crew chiefs or guys that have been around for 10-20 years would be like ‘eh, it’s a 25 year old with a couple cars. I don’t want to waste my time.’"
In today’s climate, Hunt knows that money drives speed.
"We just don’t have as much infrastructure, cars or equipment," he said. "Sometimes you go to a race, hurt the car, and the next weekend you’ve only got three guys to fix it or get another one ready. This year, the races we do run, it’s more of trying to take advantage of having a little bit of time in between races to prepare better. We know we can’t spend what GMS or DGR are spending."
This season, SHR is sharing shop space with Rette Jones Racing, and Hunt is working closely with RJR’s Mark Rette, who most recently earned his first win with Spencer Davis at Worldwide Technology Raceway.
"We’ve got to be creative in how we approach the races, the race cars, it’s tough for us to just unload and beat those guys on speed."
As far as goals in the sport, Hunt is shooting high. Long term, he wants to own a car entered in the Daytona 500. Whether that’s five, 10 or 15 year down the road is yet to be determined.
In the shorter term, Hunt is content and happy with the K&N Pro Series being a proving ground for young drivers like Garrett to come in and for his infant team to grow, albeit slow and steady.
"The goal is to be a staple in the series and maybe just more than the K&N Series," he said. "You see a lot of teams come into the sport, dump a bunch of money they don’t have into something and within a year or two they’ve kind of disappeared. You’ve gotta be really smart about utilizing the budget we do have and trying to have peak performance with what we’re spending. But at the same time not be stupid about running us into debt trying to compete with a GMS or DGR at this point in time. I see that happen in really all of the series too much."
Hunt wants the best for the series and the sport. Without it, he feels empty.
"I’ve got a degree and contacts to fall back on, but I kind of see my deal as it’s gotta survive for me to survive."
From The Netherlands, to a dorm room at VCU, to the back of a van and now his Mooresville apartment, Sam Hunt’s journey to NASCAR team owner hasn’t been an easy one.
And his story is far from done being written.
"It still doesn’t seem like ton, but people don’t really realize what I started with," he said. "So many people in the sport have helped me out in the K&N garage. Without having money it’s been a lot of really incredible people, the good people in the sport, that have taken interest in what I’m trying to do."