Roddey Sterling Jr. went to his first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he was 7 years old. He thought the cars were too loud and wanted to leave.
Thirteen years later, Sterling will return to the track June 9-11 as one of 18 racers from across the country – including one from New Zealand – competing in the second PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge in Charlotte.
The drivers will experience three days of on-track competition under the guidance of NASCAR drivers Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Danica Patrick and Jeff Burton.
The results of the competition will not be made public until it is broadcast in August on the Velocity channel. The winner will have the chance to race in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series event in a PEAK-sponsored car.
Sterling made the challenge by finishing first in an online voting competition.
The desire to be a professional race-car driver is a recent development for the 20-year-old.
“I guess growing up, I never really knew I wanted to be a race-car driver,” Sterling said. “I wasn’t into it. Not that I didn’t like it, I just wasn’t really exposed to it, you know?”
The SouthPark resident and Charlotte Country Day graduate first got onto a racetrack as a senior in high school.
Sterling’s father, Rob, took him to Virginia International Raceway for his birthday in 2011. Roddey Sterling then took his dad’s blue 2011 Ford Mustang Shelby around the track, following a professional driver and a pace car.
His only racing experience prior to that was in video games, but Sterling said felt comfortable behind the wheel.
“I felt secure with myself, comfortable and happy with what I was doing, and (it was) something I could potentially be good at.”
His career moved quickly from there.
Sterling was introduced to professional driver Tom Long at the VIR event, and Long introduced him to another professional racer, Dean Martin.
Martin then built a training car for Sterling out of a wrecked Mustang late in 2011.
Martin said Sterling seemed nervous when he first got the car, but he loosened up quickly.
“He’s a very analytical guy. He’s methodical,” said Martin, who currently races in the Pirelli World Challenge series for Michigan-based Rehagen Racing. “You get a lot of young guys who get behind the wheel and want to just drive as fast as they can. … Roddey was one of those guys that actually listened to what you said, and absorbed it and executed it.”
Sterling met another driver, Brian Smith, who also helped him in his development.
“I was very fortunate to learn from three talented people,” Sterling said.
“For somebody to go from never racing to really having his first race in 2012 to being in a pro series at Daytona a year later is a pretty tall task,” said Martin, who was Sterling’s co-driver in the GRAND-AM series.
Sterling’s interest in stock-car racing came when he heard about the first Stock Car Dream Challenge in 2013.
He made a video for that challenge, just like he did for this year’s event.
The 2013 video was slickly produced and featured a personalized country song, someone in a gorilla suit dressed up as a nurse and Sterling, who looks very comfortable in front of the camera as he impersonates President George W. Bush.
The video propelled him up high in the challenge’s standings, but Sterling said other competitors criticized the video because it wasn’t about his racing. He said he was even accused of cheating.
Sterling said he paid less than $200 for a few thousand views to get the video started but said the rest of the views – it has nearly 186,000 on YouTube – came organically.
Despite being near the top of the online voting, Sterling wasn’t picked to compete in 2013. But he doesn’t regret the way he approached the challenge.
“People don’t care, so you have to make them care,” he said. “If they’re going to watch you, give them a reason. So I did a video that was more entertainment based. …
“To drive a car, you need money. In order to get money to drive, you need eyes on you to attract a sponsor. That’s what it boiled down to. But it started a lot of controversy.”
Sterling seems as interested in the business side of the sport as he is in the racing. He briefly went to High Point University to study business administration and marketing before realizing that he didn’t have time for school because racing was taking too much of his time.
He’s also a fan of pro wrestling and said he trained to be a wrestler as a teenager. Sterling appreciates the “pageantry and the promotion” that goes into building a successful wrestling brand.
Sterling is as proud of landing a sponsorship with MoonPie as he is finishing high at a race.
“I haven’t been in a go-kart since I was 5 or 4 years old, so what advantage do I have that I can give myself that other people may not have? From what I observe, (marketing and business knowledge) was the advantage,” Sterling said.
“I think it’s a big part of the business, and it’s only going to get bigger.”
Sterling decided to try for the 2014 challenge after learning that the top vote-getters were guaranteed a spot in the show.
The video garnered nearly 73,000 views on YouTube, and Sterling finished at the top of the “Racer Hot List.”
Sterling is currently racing a late-model at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he is ranked No. 24 in the track standings.
He raced in a 28-lap K&N Pro Series East race at Road Atlanta in October, starting 20th and finishing 12th out of 25 drivers.
He’s still transitioning from road-course racing to oval track racing, where, he said, the cars are louder, closer together and there is less room to avoid crashes.
Sterling is happy with his progression in the car and hopes the Stock Car Dream Challenge will help him get into a higher racing series.
“My dream is to come in as the perfect combination of someone who is a driver that you want to watch because you’re entertained by him, and then is not just a marketing tool but also can actually drive a car,” he said.