Tom Bowles
Thursday May 6th, 2010

According to The Beatles, all you need is love. In stock car racing, it's not always that simple. But for a man handpicked to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s newest prodigy, it's been the glue holding together a rise to the precipice of racing's top level.

"The first time I got in a race car, I knew," says 26-year-old Steve Arpin. "Everyone has something, whether it be hunting or fishing or stick and ball sports, whatever it is... the one thing you just love.

"Since I've been a small child, racing was it for me."

How far can emotion carry you? Certainly, talent has a lot to do with Arpin's rise. But have just one five-minute conversation with the Canadian upstart (by way of Missouri) and you'll see why Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and others in the NASCAR community helped steer him toward a potential rise to stardom.

Edwards was the first to step up. After a chance meeting in 2008 when he drove Arpin's dirt car, Edwards formed an instant bond with the racing novice. Whether it's a few words of advice or personal introductions, he's quietly worked behind the scenes to do the little things that help keep ambition alive -- and help jumpstart a career.

"We never could afford to come down here, rent a car, get hotel rooms and plane tickets on top of that," Arpin said of trekking down to the mecca of stock car racing, Charlotte, all in the name of pursuing a dream. "Carl gave us a place so we can come down here, have a place to stay, have a vehicle to use, and network."

Love for a sport breeds friendship. The truth is Edwards, a former substitute teacher who once handed out random business cards at the track to get his break, saw in Arpin the passion he once had. The two are blessed with engaging personalities, sharing similar stories of knocking on every door until they worked their way up racing's ladder.

And Arpin's persistence and affable personality have paid off. Running an ARCA race at Chicagoland -- the equivalent of NASCAR's "A" level -- Arpin got a call from his friend last summer. Edwards had run into some JR Motorsports people and suggested he give them a call. Considering the magnitude of the team and Arpin's lack of credentials at the time -- he'd never earned a podium finish at the ARCA level -- most teams would have shied away from the young upstart.

But how often does love make you forget common sense? So Arpin took a deep breath, picked up the phone and spoke the words that changed his life.

"I called the guys up, introduced myself," he claimed. "And said at some point in my career I'd like to drive for you."

You'd think they'd laugh. Instead, that initial conversation grew into a bond that strengthened. More calls led to personal meetings, which led to shop visits where relationships were built with the crew. JR Motorsports personnel saw the passion with which Arpin lived his life, and after his two wins in the ARCA Series last month they decided to give him a chance shortly after Kelly Bires was released from his contract.

"I actually never met Dale Jr. until we were in Texas a couple of weeks ago," said Arpin, an example of how networking with everyone else paid off in recommendations to the head honcho. "It's just one of those deals where I say, 'I can't believe it is happening.'"

Through it all, he's stayed firm to his roots of loyalty, entrenched in a deep support system, almost unheard of for development drivers these days. At almost the same time Edwards came along, Arpin met a man named Billy Venturini. Now, they're paired together on the ARCA level, the perfect match of mentor and mentee in a world where patience no longer exists for up-and-comers. Amazingly enough, Venturini's sponsors have given Arpin the comfort zone he needs, understanding he'll simply use their car as a springboard without the expectation of growing with him.

"What they're trying to do in motorsports is to be a stepping stone for drivers coming up and making it in the higher levels," Arpin says of the Venturini family. "They see it as a failure if we keep on going together.

"They've already all been in tears, gave me a hug and told me how proud of me they are."

What a concept for development drivers: minor-league teams, without major-league connections, content with their role in developing superstars. It's an old school mentality not lost on Arpin, who responded with some loyalty of his own -- he turned down more races with JR to keep his promise of running for the ARCA championship with Venturini this season.

Of course, personalities can only carry you so far in a sport that's purely driven by performance. Earnhardt has high expectations for a ride that propelled Brad Keselowski to Penske Racing this year, firing Bires despite four top-20s in five starts at the Nationwide level. But love breeds optimism, leaving Arpin looking on the bright side despite a disappointing start (26th at Talladega and 25th at Richmond last week).

"I see it as a great opportunity," he says. "But I know it's a flat-out, performance-based industry. I definitely don't have this ride yet. It's not down solid, and it's never going to be. Even if Junior comes out and says Steve Arpin is going to drive the No. 88 for the next 10 years.

"So I gotta go out there, do my job, stay focused. If we're bringing winning race cars to the track every week, for lack of a better word, I better damn well go win some races."

It's an honest assessment from a man who's all right with being fired if he fails. But he won't allow himself to think about the flip side of the coin, mainly because he's never once considered doing anything else.

"My dad used to go and put me out in his race car, just fire it up and let it idle," he said of a childhood built around cars and competition. "And it used to put me right to sleep. So I guess you could say I loved race cars from the time I was a newborn."

Now, as he takes baby steps towards stardom, feeding on that love will be key to drowning out the pressure and putting him in position for long-term success.

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