June 7, 2017 - 1:10 pm
Updated June 7, 2017 - 8:00 pm
Not even the old gang at Ridgemont High could have envisioned a fast time such as this.
On Friday night, before gentlemen start engines at Texas Motor Speedway, home-schooled NASCAR Truck Series driver Noah Gragson of Las Vegas will receive his high school diploma. Presiding over the pomp and circumstance will be colorful and bombastic track president Eddie Gossage, who, in keeping with the spirit of the evening, will play the part of Mr. Hand.
Perhaps Gragson’s pit crew will have a pizza delivered.
“I’ll be wearing my cap and gown over my race suit,” Gragson, 18, said during a telephone chat on Tuesday. “I’ll bet there’s not too many high school seniors who can say that.”
It’s blatant publicity stunt, the type for which Gossage and TMS are known. But to write it off as such would be missing a larger point: Were it not for home schooling, Gragson and some of these other young lions most likely would not be gaining valuable experience on such a big stage.
In Richard Petty’s day, and Dale Earnhardt’s, a guy pretty much had to quit school if he wanted to go stock car racing as a teenager. But today’s NASCAR ranks are replete with young drivers and even some older ones — Cup Series veteran Ryan Newman, who has an engineering degree from Purdue, comes to mind — who have managed to combine good grades with fast cars.
“Absolutely, school always came first no matter what,” said Gragson, a Rookie of the Year contender who drives a Toyota for fellow Las Vegan Kyle Busch and ranks 10th in points after six races.
Not the first
The tradition of young Truck Series scholars “graduating” at Texas Speedway began in 2014 when a commencement ceremony was held for Erik Jones, who had missed his at Swartz Creek (Michigan) Community Schools because he was off racing. Jones is now a budding star in the Cup Series.
Last year, it was Cole Custer who skipped graduation night at Tesoro High School in Santa Margarita, California, to compete in the Texas truck race. He, too, was given a diploma and a cap with a tassel.
While those two attended traditional high schools (when they could), Gragson is part of a new wave of drivers striving for early NASCAR baptisms through home schooling. The most famous probably is Joey Logano, who was only three weeks removed from his 18th birthday when he won a Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series race in 2008.
Gragson attended Bishop Gorman for two years before wheeling fast cars and trucks on both coasts began occupying more of his time. He went to his homecoming dance when he was a freshman. Yes, he says, it would have been cool to go to the prom instead of working on a qualifying setup, and to goof off with his buddies during study hall.
But when his buddies were taking their ACTs, Gragson was finishing fourth at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. How’s that for an education and on-the-job training?
Says the rosy-cheeked Gragson: “I grew up a lot faster than your normal teenager. I had a full-time job on top of school.”
It wasn’t exactly making milkshakes after band practice.
Passing on high side
One of his former teachers at Gorman, Sharon Olson, became crew chief of his online studies. She tutored him and helped him pass on the high side — the very high side. Gragson said he aced his online finals, getting A’s from the start of the grid to the back.
What was it they said in the movie: Learn it. Know it. Live it.
Thanks to home schooling, that also is becoming the mantra of promising young drivers in NASCAR’s ever evolving Truck Series.
When he receives his official looking high school diploma from smiling Eddie Gossage on Friday night, Noah Gragson probably will be asked to say a few profound words to the crowd as part of his valediction.
Were he old enough to remember those fast times at Ridgemont High, he might have started this way: “If I’m here, and you’re here, doesn’t it make it our time?”
— KyleBuschMotorsports (@KBMteam) June 7, 2017
Contact Ron Kantowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.