Wednesday September 24th, 2014

The place was TGI Fridays—apparently the only restaurant around Loudon, N.H., that didn’t have at least an hour wait for dinner last Saturday night— and Cole Custer's party of four included his mom, Cindy; his dad, Joe; his uncle Chuck. The occasion was festive, as Custer had just taken first place in the UNOH-175—a Camping World Truck Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway earlier that day.

The table came available quickly, but the etiquette around it was less than exemplary to start. Everyone was on their phones catching up on the many congratulatory messages that had come pouring in the wake of Custer’s triumph. The big finish transformed the SoCal product from a hypothetical talent to, at the very least, a genuine trivia night stumper: the youngest driver—at 16 years seven months 28 days—to ever claim victory in one of NASCAR’s three national touring series.

The kid alone received upward of 600 Twitter notifications. One, from Dale Earnhardt Jr., praised his performance. (“I’m a believer,” Junior wrote.) Another, from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., teased Custer’s curious habit of tucking his ears inside his baseball cap. (“[G]uess the hat was too big needed to take up space,” Stenhouse wrote.) Every now and again Custer would look up to acknowledge the odd well-wisher who positively IDed him outside of his racing livery—not that it took too keen an eye to recognize the baby-faced guy in the jeans and Haas Automation polo as the teenager who had just dusted his elders only hours earlier.

The phones weren’t holstered for good until everyone around the dinner table had screened the race’s highlights, an emotionally charged two minutes that seemed to take an eternity to pass when it actually happened. The most electric sequence came during a restart on lap 171, when Custer rushed his black No. 00 Chevy Silverado past the neon green truck of Matt Crafton—a man 22 years older and 22 ranking spots higher than the 23rd-rated kid. (“I don't know if he missed a shift,” Custer said in Victory Lane, “but I cleared him.”)

[youtube: http://youtu.be/XY1qv82SLg0]

That family time that the four spent gracing the table with their heads bowed, as if giving thanks for the racing miracle glowing in their palms, stuck with Custer long after the savory bites of sirloin that followed. The moment might well go down as the last one he shared with them before his life got really crazy. This week was just the beginning. Good Morning America, SportsCenter, and Sirius/XM Radio were among the raft of media outlets demanding a piece of him.

“It’s a little different, even for a sport that already has a lot of media in it,” says Custer, who is still trying to get over a bout of media shyness that is more than understandable for his age. “The media part is something that I have to get used to so I can get better at it. But I don’t hide from it.”

He can’t anymore. Not after leading the UNOH-175 for a staggering 148 of 175 laps en route to overtaking another impressive young man in the record books. That would be an 18-year-old named Joey Logano, who won his third start in the Nationwide Series at Kentucky in June of 2008. The same Joey Logano who grabbed the checkered flag in the Chase for the Sprint Cup race the afternoon after Custer’s truck race. The victory, Logano’s seventh at the Cup level and fourth of the 2014 season, came six years after that first breakthrough. Custer, though, appears to be on an even faster track.

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Whiz kid

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In 2011, nine years after taking up racing as a four-year-old quarter midget pilot, Custer claimed the checkered flag in 15 of 22 events while coasting to the USAC national championship. The next year, after NASCAR allowed 14-year-olds to race in its single-A league, the Whelen All-America Series, Custer won 10 events. The year after that, he moved up to the double-A level, NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series, and notched four top-10s, six top-fives and two wins—including one, at Iowa Speedway that August—that made him the youngest winner in a K&N Pro Series East event (at 15 years six months 10 days).

The New Hampshire race was only Custer’s seventh in the truck series. He might’ve run in more events if NASCAR’s soft age limit for truck drivers were just a wee bit softer. To lap tracks of 1.25 miles or shorter, a racer need only be street legal. But to race any distance longer than that, where speeds get really quick, a driver must be 18 or older to apply for a spot on the grid.

This rule, which NASCAR only put into effect this year, might strike some as unfair to a young prodigy like Custer. But he can’t complain. Who would listen to the kid whose dad is the executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing anyway?

“Last year I couldn't even have been running a truck when I was 16,” he says. “I think some of us could race on the bigger tracks, but it's definitely a good precaution for NASCAR just to have us prove ourselves on the shorter tracks and have us work our way up to the bigger ones.”

Clearly, the 1.058-mile oval at New Hampshire wasn’t too big for Custer. He qualified on the pole—which, ironically, was sponsored by a campaign called 21 Means 21 that discourages alcohol vendors from doing business with the under-aged. This was three months after he became the youngest pole sitter in national touring series history while qualifying for a truck event at Gateway Motorsports Park, a 1.25-mile oval in southwest Illinois that bears a strong resemblance to New Hampshire in Turns 1 and 2. There he placed sixth, kicking off a streak of five finishes in the top-nine.

Custer’s ascent seems sudden to just about everyone but him—“I would say it’s going at a pretty good speed,” he quips—and NASCAR, which likewise has been bracing for liftoff. In April it tapped the teen for its Next program, a PR effort that’s fairly good at marking young racers for future success. Two of its anointed, Jeb Burton and Darrell Wallace Jr., race trucks alongside Custer.  Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Dylan Kwasniewski are asserting themselves in the Nationwide series. One more, Kyle Larson, is currently slacking jaws in the Cup series.

The average age of this honor roll? Twenty years old—too young to rent a car on their own, but plenty old enough, evidently, to drive one like they stole it.

It’s the rare grid where Custer brings up the rear these days. Still, there are times he can feel his career momentum carrying him past his childhood. This year he went from attending a public high school near his home in Orange County, Calif., to learning via online classes so he could take on a more demanding racing schedule. He knows he’s missing out on a lot, “like, going to high school football games or dances or whatever,” Custer says. It also stands to reason that many of his school chums would probably give anything to trade places with him and enjoy a Friday night like the one he enjoyed last week at Loudon, when a teammate’s random lobster hookup—50 crustaceans in all—sparked a parking lot feast.

So Custer will keep on trucking. He’ll be in the grid again at this week at Dover for the K&N East series race and run in a few more truck events before winding down his season this November in Phoenix. As for where he goes from there, “Who knows what’s gonna happen?” he says.

Thus far, the only driver Custer can’t seem to get ahead of is himself.

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