Thursday, July 25, 2024

Corey LaJoie trying to grow his career and NASCAR through his outspokenness

It’s always difficult to be the one person who says “wait a minute” when the consensus is being formed.

When safety concerns about the Next Gen car boiled over several weeks ago, it was as if open season had been declared upon NASCAR competition officials by the entire garage area. When given a platform by the media, drivers concerned for the safety of themselves and their competitors did everything from accuse NASCAR leadership of not listening to them to outright calling for the sport’s leadership to be changed. Everything came to a head with a spirited meeting between the drivers and sanctioning body at Charlotte, which was compared to Seinfeld’s Festivus and seemingly left everyone having said their piece and satisfied with doing so.

Only, Corey LaJoie had not said his piece. Dissatisfied with the narrative surrounding the sport, LaJoie told NBC Sports that he felt his competitors were more fixated on how the safety situation had gotten to the point it reached than how to move forward constructively with what they had. Then, on his Stacking Pennies podcast, his voice was the one that advocated for NASCAR’s side of the story — including how hurt competition officials had been to hear the competitors accuse them of not caring about safety.

“I think it’s easy to point the finger at the sport and say whatever’s wrong with it, but at the end of the day, we’re all in this thing together whether you think so or not,” LaJoie told CBS Sports. “There’s been a lot of big houses on the Lake (Lake Norman in North Carolina) built by what we do for a living, and a lot of full gas tanks on jets that keep showing up to NASCAR races.

“At the end of the day, I just love the sport and I want to see it succeed.”

At 31 years old, LaJoie has carved an interesting niche for himself in a sport he has grown up in. The son of two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, Corey LaJoie struggled for years to try and find a full-time ride in NASCAR, eventually taking what opportunities he could to race Cup cars at the back of the pack. A place where he realized very quickly he would simply toil in irrelevance, unless he did something to distinguish himself.

So, LaJoie has become an outspoken and outward-facing presence in the garage area. He has become a skilled podcaster, with his current podcast produced by NASCAR.com itself. He is prominently featured in USA Network’s Race for the Championship, a reality series that includes him among the recurring cast of NASCAR stars. And he is also a member of the Drivers Advisory Council that works directly with NASCAR on competitor concerns and the sport’s growth.

That’s gotten LaJoie to the point where he is the face of Spire Motorsports, a still-fledgling race team that earlier this week announced LaJoie would continue to drive its No. 7 Chevrolet next season while introducing Ty Dillon as his new full-time teammate. It’s a position that LaJoie has been able to capitalize on as his relevance within the sport grows and his motivation to succeed remains.

“It does mean something that the group that you’re with believes in you and gives you the responsibility of being kind of the anchor driver over the last two seasons at Spire,” LaJoie said. “… The No. 7 car’s been the flagship car at Spire, and trying to keep the team relevant, trying to keep my career relevant – (team co-owner) Jeff Dickerson said it yesterday in the press conference: Everybody is at Spire, one way or another, because either somebody gave up on you or moved on from you, or you’re there because you want to prove a lot of people wrong.

“And that’s been my whole Cup career in a nutshell is just trying to prove everybody wrong. Just because I haven’t been in the opportunity yet to show that I can compete on a regular basis. I continue to get better, I continue to find out what my weaknesses are and keep honing on that, and I do believe that I can win races and be a playoff guy one day.”

That “one day” almost came at Atlanta in July, when LaJoie led 19 laps — including on the final restart with three laps to go — before a potential race-winning move ended with him getting put in the wall. Months earlier, LaJoie had earned his best career finish of fifth, and he’s led five races this year for a career-high 31 laps.

But otherwise, LaJoie and his team believe that they’ve somewhat underachieved compared to what they thought they were capable of in 2022. Mechanical failures have been a continued problem, something compounded by the limitations Spire has had with its personnel and ability to develop its cars at a desirable rate.

While he looks for ways to improve Spire, LaJoie has come to contribute to the big picture of NASCAR’s future in a way other drivers have not necessarily thought to. Rather than accuse the sanctioning body and key competition leaders of not doing its due diligence on safety or being unfit to do so, LaJoie has advocated for NASCAR’s leadership while serving as a voice of caution against ulterior motives in the sport’s current safety hiccups.

“I think that safety is, and always has been, an effective Trojan Horse to want to get across other ideas, or other motives or narratives,” LaJoie said. “So if you are in certain situations and you want to be able to get certain points across outside of what the overall safety is, if you lead with safety and point the finger on what is noticeably wrong with the car to try to get what your motives are, it’s a pretty effective way to do that whether you realize it or not.”

For the past 15 years, LaJoie has spent his offseasons at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center, where his father has been instrumental in helping make safer racing seats through the family business, The Joie of Seating. LaJoie spoke highly of John Patalak, NASCAR’s managing director of safety engineering, calling him “the smartest guy when it comes to racecar safety in the world” as well as one of the smartest people he’s ever met.

“Knowing him, knowing Steve O’Donnell, John Probst, all these guys that developed the car, those guys are human, they have feelings, and they want to do the best job for their own pride as well,” LaJoie said. “So to say that those guys aren’t doing a good job – we might have swung and missed on a couple things that are new to us as a sport, (and) I think that they’ve been maybe not so proactive as what we’d all hoped.

“But I think they have been responsive and reactive in a pretty swift manner to make the cars better to start next year.”

The knowledge that LaJoie has not just his own best interests at heart, but the best interests of NASCAR as well, has helped him build his legitimacy within the sport and grant his voice credence and authority. And with a third season at Spire on the horizon, his hopes are that his race team — something that has grown into a solid mid-pack presence from little more than a hope and dream — will continue become legitimized as well.

“It’s pretty cool to see what our group of friends have kind of built to be a fairly consistent and competitive race team,” LaJoie said. “We ultimately want to get way better than where we’re at right now. It’s been a grind, but I think it’s been slow progress that we’re starting to see some tangible goals being met.

“And I’m excited to see what 2023 can bring with a consistent teammate and feedback in Ty, who’s obviously got a year of Next Gen experience under his belt. To bring another line of feedback, and consistent feedback, to continue to build our notebook on what our baseline setups are.”

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