“It’s awesome,” says Hale, 17, who races out of his grandfather Alan’s shop in Mt. Juliet.
“Winning Rookie of the Year was one of our goals,” says Hale, who was presented his trophy at the Speedway Awards Banquet last Saturday night. “I started going to races at the Fairgrounds when I was three. I grew up watching those guys race and dreaming about being just like them someday. This (rookie award) is a big deal to me.”
As gratifying as the rookie award is, Hale says he can’t help but look back on the season with a tinge of disappointment.
“What I really wanted was the championship,” he says. “I had a shot at it and let it get away.”
“I was third in the point standings when I had a wreck because of a mistake I made,” he says. “I got impatient, wrecked, and that cost us a chance at the championship. From that standpoint, the season was disappointing.”
In addition to running a full schedule in the Fairgrounds’ premier Pro Late Model division last season, Hale also ran a limited schedule at Highland Rim Speedway where he captured one victory.
“It wasn’t a bad year,” Hale says, “but it wasn’t what we wanted. I’ll try to learn from my mistakes, move on, and do better this year. The way I look at it, do it right or don’t do it at all, and I’m determined to do it right.”
Alan, a mechanic for some of the area’s top drivers in the 1980’s, started taking his grandson to the track almost as soon as he could walk.
“When he was two or three he liked to watch me change the oil and work on the cars,” Alan says. “He has always liked the mechanical aspect.”
That mechanical know-how will come in handy this season as the team has decided to build and maintain its race cars in-house. Last year they relied on outside help from veteran driver Willie Allen and others, but this season will do all the preparation themselves.
“It’s a matter of finances,” Hale says of the change. “Racing gets more expensive every year, and we had to cut costs. My grandfather is a great mechanic and I’m confident we can do the work that we need to do.”
“I wouldn’t be able to race without my grandfather. He’s been there for me ever since I was a little kid, and I owe everything to him. I’ve always said that when I start winning, I’ll be winning for both of us.”
Alan describes his grandson as “very focused and a fast learner. He takes his racing seriously.”
Along with running a full schedule at the Fairgrounds, Hale plans to race at tracks in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“I want to get as much experience as I can,” Hale says. “You learn a lot by racing at different tracks against different drivers. But winning the Fairgrounds championship will remain our main goal.”
Hale drew inspiration – and gained confidence -- last season by competing against such veteran racers as Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner.
“I raced wheel-to-wheel with Sterling,” he says. “He’s one of the best, and it was great to keep up with him. Now the next step is winning.”