Matt Mead navigating a path to NASCAR
Erie native Matt Mead, family navigating path to NASCAR dream
Matt and Letty Mead moved from Millcreek to North Carolina for their 17-year-old son, Matt, to build a career in racing.
Matt Mead dreaded the reaction he would receive from the owner of the race car he crashed moments earlier.
His parents didn’t own that pricey piece of machinery and the equipment that now needed to be replaced. Highly regarded Late Model team owner Anthony Campi supplied it all, and Mead figured he would be upset over spending more money on repairs.
“When I made a mistake and wrecked the car, that really was a tough wake-up call,” Mead, 17, recalled of his disappointing debut with Anthony Campi Racing in April at New Smyrna Speedway, a NASCAR-sanctioned, half-mile track in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
“You want to perform because it’s a business, and the business owner wants good finishes,” Mead said. ”(Race teams) work hard at everything to do their job, and they want to look good too. That does put pressure on you. You just want to do the best you can.”
Hometown: Millcreek Township
Resides: Denver, North Carolina
Race team: Anthony Campi Racing (Sarasota, Florida)
Racing class: Pro Late Models (1st season)
Home track: New Smyrna Speedway (New Smyrna Beach, Florida)
2017 results: DNF (April 1), 2nd place (April 15)#
Upcoming schedule: July 15 and August 5
# Rained out May 13 and June 17
Campi, a soft-spoken, easy-going 26-year-old from Sarasota, Florida, with 22 years of racing experience and a well-respected driver development program, instead used that mishap as a teaching tool. Mead took copious notes, which soon became ingrained in the Millcreek Township native’s mind, and went back to work. Campi won’t put a price on that rare level of commitment.
It’s invaluable, Campi said, because “we know he cares just as much as we do. In my business, you don’t always find that.”
Guarantees don’t exist in the highly competitive sport of racing, not even for hard-working hopefuls with pure skill like Mead.
Hefty financial investments in the projected potential of aspiring drivers, often made with someone else’s money, are critical to building a successful career, and costing his new boss more of it isn’t the start Mead had in mind for his latest challenge.
Still, racing people such as Campi have stepped up to help the Mead family along a path they began cautiously five years ago in the Bandoleros class at Lake Erie Speedway in Greenfield Township. That path now continues full speed ahead in Pro Late Models, a class of 420-horsepower stock cars that not long ago featured current NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series drivers Chase Elliott and Erik Jones.
“He’s got something special,” national Legends racer and Mead mentor Peyton Saxton said. “He does all the right things. He’s got the dedication and heart. I can see him making it to NASCAR. If he gets into the right crowd with the right people, he’ll be there.”
Perseverance on, off the track
Campi took a calculated gamble on Mead’s abilities and passion by signing him to a 12-race deal for this season.
His parents, Matt and Letty Mead, also took a risk, personally and financially, in January 2016 by moving to Charlotte, North Carolina — the center of the nation’s racing industry — for their son Matt to pursue a dream born from lifelong admiration for former NASCAR great Jeff Gordon, and from seven years spent convincing his skeptical mother to allow him to race cars like his idol.
He raced for the first time at LES in the spring of 2012, in a Bandolero with the No. 24 emblazoned across the car in honor of Gordon and his No. 24 Cup car. Mead crashed it in that race because, his family learned, they didn’t properly connect the shocks.
“Of course, he was fine,” his mother said.
Letty Mead initially wanted no part of racing, because of concerns over high costs and her son’s safety, and the family’s little knowledge of the sport, when Matt first asked to race at age 5. She didn’t budge from her position for five years, no matter how often he begged her.
But one day, the expression on 10-year-old Matt’s face, and not necessarily what he said, began to break down the wall she built between her reservations and his love for racing.
“I said to him, ‘When you turn 12,’ ” she recalled, hoping he would find a passion for anything else in the next two years.
“I kicked myself for not saying 18,” she chuckled, because in hindsight, she knew Matt, who still has the same large Gordon wall decal and bed sheets in the bedroom of his suburban Charlotte home that he had at home in Erie, wouldn’t give up.
He turned 12 in November 2011, and asked for a race car for Christmas.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get a car. Do you know in January a car came available,” she said, with help from the family of Wattsburg native Chase Firestone, who raced Bandoleros at LES.
That first crash at LES notwithstanding, that car was a positive sign of what lay ahead for Matt Mead — his first feature win at LES in August 2012; the track’s points championship in 2013; an opportunity to race in the 2013 Summer Shootout, an annual summer circuit for Bandoleros and Legends at Concord Speedway in Concord, North Carolina; and six Bandolero feature wins at LES in 2014.
He finished sixth at the Bandolero Nationals in 2014, and 15th in the national point standings, which prompted a move to Legends, and advice from then-Legends racer and Erie native Justin Hines’ family about racing out of state to gain much-needed exposure.
That led to the ultimate summer adventure in 2015 — racing with Saxton, a high-profile Legends driver from Las Vegas, Nevada, whom Mead met at LES two years earlier. The Meads stayed in the Saxton’s guest house while Matt competed in Nevada and Idaho.
Matt’s road to NASCAR grew clear. Mead’s father, Matt, retired in December 2015 after three decades at Erie Times-News, and he and Letty invested in their son’s future. Even while living in a hotel room for their first two weeks in Charlotte, the elder Mead said, “we just wanted to concentrate on him, to get (him) into school and adjusted, and not miss a beat race-wise.”
The family’s racing budget for this season, he said, which covers anything from safety equipment and travel expenses to promoting Matt’s career and doesn’t include a sponsor, is equal to “putting him through college,” even while the odds of turning a dream into his livelihood are stacked against him. Watching his son grow into a man in this high-pressure business is its own reward.
“We don’t take it for granted that this is next to impossible,” the elder Mead said, “and if it happened, it would be a gift from God.”
On track for bright future
The Meads moved into a new home last week in Denver, a quaint town of a few thousand people on the shores of Lake Norman.
His racing simulator, and the custom seat from an old race car, were the first items the younger Mead unpacked. He enters his senior year at Christ The King Catholic High School in nearby Huntersville in the fall. He does volunteer work through the school.
Otherwise, life is all about racing.
He earned three wins and finished second in points in the Semi-Pro class at the Summer Shootout last year for Mark Nahrstedt, a noted Legends team owner from Charlotte that Saxton recommended. Rain has curtailed his schedule with Campi’s team at New Smyrna Speedway this year. But when Mead isn’t racing, he’s at Charlotte-area tracks learning how other teams succeed.
J.R. Longley, owner of Performance Marketing Group, a motorsports marketing and consulting company in Huntersville, paired Campi’s vast experience and laid-back demeanor with the Mead family’s passion and conviction.
“They truly want this to happen,” Longley said. “So far, it’s working out really well.”
Mead finished second in a Pro Late Model feature at New Smyrna two weeks after crashing in his first race for Campi. Similar results in upcoming races will determine what happens in 2018.
He could gain experience at other tracks as a traveling Pro Late Model driver, or move to Super Late Models, which would move Mead closer to the ARCA Racing Series, and then NASCAR’s Trucks circuit.
But each step, he said, “is really about finding out what I want to do in life. We try to do the best we can, and see where that leads.”