Dale Earnhardt. Carl Edwards. Mark Martin. Those are just a few of the professional NASCAR racers who worked hard to make a name for themselves.
Cole Exum hopes to be added to that list.
Exum, an 18-year-old Valdosta resident, is one of the newest faces in NASCAR after being given a chance by Lafferty Motorsports in Charlotte, N.C., to drive in the ARCA Racing Series. (The ARCA Racing Series is to NASCAR as minor-league baseball is to Major League Baseball.)
While he might be new to NASCAR, he’s not new to racing — the son of Robby and Linda Exum was born into it.
“My dad was racing when I was born,” Exum said. “He was already racing years before that. From the time I was born until I was 4, I was at the track with him every time and, a few weeks before I turned 5, he bought me a go-cart. He sold all his stuff and started mine.”
He began racing go-carts at the age of 5 at Crossroads Motorplex in Jasper, Fla. After winning a few track championships, he moved up to racing at the state and national levels. He has raced all over the Southeast, from Ohio to Florida to
Virginia and even raced against some of today’s NASCAR stars like Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne while racing go-carts.
“Some people want to play golf, play football, baseball and you start doing that in school and you start playing for a school team and, instead of doing all of that, I raced on weekends,” the 2011 Lowndes High School graduate said. “It’s been so much a part of me that, if I’m not racing for a couple of weeks, I start getting jittery. I can’t go without it.”
Growing up, Exum had one race car driver that he admired. Even though NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, when Exum was 7, the driver’s work ethic and drive still linger with the 18-year-old.
“(Earnhardt) never gave up. It didn’t matter what happened,” Exum said. “He’d do whatever he had to do to win the race. He would never blame it on anybody. It was always him, which it didn’t even have to be his fault. He wouldn’t blame his crew. He wouldn’t blame the other guy. If someone wrecked him, he didn’t hold grudges and that’s how it should be.”
While Earnhardt will be his all-time favorite driver, today he favors Kyle Busch.
“I like him because he wins a lot and nobody likes him,” he laughed.
Now Exum is getting his chance to show what he’s got. His resume somehow ended up in the hands of Chris Lafferty, owner of Lafferty Motorsports in Charlotte, N.C.
“They called me one day and they wanted me to come up and test for them, to be a developmental driver,” Exum said. “Well I went up there and tested for them and I was only two-tenths off the track record and so he went ahead and decided to take a chance with me. So instead of me being a developmental driver, he wanted me to be his driver. ”
That test was just a few weeks ago at the legendary Hickory Motor Speedway in Hickory, N.C.
Exum was planning on starting college in August, but decided to wait since he got the call from Lafferty Motorsports and everything went so well.
“I knew I would be going between August and January and I didn’t want to start school until I found out something from there,” he said. “I have to go all through Speedweeks, all through December. I have to test at Daytona and see how I do in the draft before they approve me and then for the actual race. If I qualify for the actual race and actually make it, I’ll automatically get my truck license. That’s their main goal is to get my truck license.”
While a lot of young NASCAR drivers move to Charlotte to live out their dreams, Exum is sticking close to home for the time being, to stay focused on the racing and not have to worry about other things, such as getting another job or money.
But the plan right now is to race, and race hard.
“Hopefully, we’re going to run full-time next year in ARCA for Lafferty Motorsports and hopefully we’ll make a few (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series) races,” Exum said. “That’s one reason why he wants me to get my truck license so I can start testing. Maybe even get a big sponsor or a ride from a bigger team and hopefully move up. I have won everything possible and I feel like I deserve the opportunity.”
Driving the ARCA car at Hickory Motor Speedway opened Exum’s eyes to how much of a challenge driving a stock car could be.
“I love the dirt and the late-model (cars) have a little over 600 horsepower but the ARCA car, it had almost 800 and you come out of the corner and, on those things, you have to have it almost perfect. It’s more of a challenge to drive. It makes you want to do it more to get better,” he said.
Like most drivers, he’s not scared of wrecking, even though he was at first.
“I used to, but now it’s just, it seems like if you think about it, it’ll happen,” he said. “When I started racing late-models, my very first race, I kept thinking about wrecking and I wrecked.”
Exum showed an orange, torn T-shirt, hanging up in his garage. It was a part of one his worst go-cart wrecks.
“That orange shirt, I was in a go-cart and I went up and hit a steel pole and they thought I had broke two ribs, so they had to tear it off of me,” he said. “My worst wrecks have been in a go-cart. I’ve flipped over on my head, had one go over me while I was upside down.”
The most difficult aspect of the sport is sponsorship and money. Something that Exum is currently working on.
“Mom and Dad have given their life dollars for me to race,” he said. “Growing up, they had to put up their bill money for me to be at the races. Now it’s gotten to where it’s comfortable but it’s hard because racing is so expensive. We only have one sponsor right now and it’s hard and that’s why we’re trying to get my name out there so we can get another sponsor.”
On Oct. 16, Exum has a chance to compete in an ARCA race at Ohio’s Toledo Speedway that will be televised live on the SPEED channel. He has obtained a ride through Lafferty Motorsports, but is looking for sponsorship.
When he’s not racing, he’s usually doing some other kind of sports, such as riding motorcycles with his father, playing a round of golf or playing basketball with his friends. However, racing is never far from his mind and Exum wants to make a difference in the sport.
“There’s not many kids from South Georgia that make it,” he said. “After all these years, people have told me there’s no way that I can make it in NASCAR. There’s no way. There might be two or three (in the sport) that’s grew up hard, working for a living, working every day to go to the race track on Saturday, even if they aren’t old enough to work. I’ve had people tell me there’s no possible way. There’s not a chance, but I love it. Even if I don’t make it in NASCAR, I’ll drive a race car until the day I die.”
If anybody is interested in sponsoring Cole Exum, contact him and Lafferty Motorsports at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com