*Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in an ongoing feature where Stephen Mallozzi documents his journey as a driver in the NASCAR National Series ranks. The first installment, documented his journey to getting in position to make his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut. In this installment, Mallozzi breaks down that debut at Mid-Ohio in 2022.
2022 looked to be a dead end for my racing career. I was out of money, and out of hope to accomplish my dreams of making a NASCAR start with my dad, who has inoperable Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, around to see it.
Sometime in early May, Josh Reaume told me to submit my approval request to NASCAR to see if I could get behind the wheel for Mid-Ohio. It was denied fairly quickly, and NASCAR recommended that I go back to late-model racing or attempt to run some ARCA events in order to gain approval to run at the National level.
I pleaded with NASCAR to hear my case and consider the extenuating circumstances.
Now, there were some behind-the-scenes actions, but for the most part, I was at the sanctioning body’s mercy. NASCAR decided to re-review my application, and in the end, approved me on a random Friday afternoon. Josh was notified, but I never received any phone calls from Reaume or NASCAR. That same day, Jesse Iwuji was behind the wheel of his No. 34 car at Portland International Raceway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Iwuji practiced 23 seconds off the pace.
I was utterly staggered. How could this happen with a known entity in a series which is considered to be above the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, yet I wasn’t even given an opportunity to prove I belonged?
Against my better judgment, I took to Twitter to express my frustration that Iwuji had approval while I and others continued to be shut out. I later received a phone call from Josh in the middle of the night asking me to take the Tweet down. Knowing I had already been approved, Josh understood it was not in anyone’s best interest to say anything negative about NASCAR or the approval process.
I still, at this point, had no clue I had actually been approved to run Mid-Ohio.
First thing Monday morning I got the call from Brett Bodine and NASCAR telling me I had been conditionally approved to run Mid-Ohio. I remember walking into my mom’s room in tears. I could not hold myself together. All of the hours learning how to drive and working on race cars had paid off; I was going to get my chance in Ohio. It was surreal; I went from retired and never expecting to pick up a steering wheel again, to an actual NASCAR driver.
Just getting to Mid-Ohio required a Herculean effort from everyone I knew. I had friends and family chip in. I had a mildly controversial NASCAR Facebook group raise money in a GoFundMe to get on the deck lid of the truck. An old go-kart manufacturer that I raced and worked for stepped up in a big way to be the primary sponsor (An added huge thanks to all of those at Compkart). My ex-girlfriend (both now and at the time) allowed me to stay at her house while I commuted to Charlotte from New Jersey to complete the number of logistical tasks required to be a NASCAR driver. Amir Alexander, Reaume Brothers Racing’s team manager, allowed me to stay in his home on numerous occasions as well.
As multiple spotters are needed on road courses, I called in friends of mine from my past to be my spotters. The whole thing was utterly insane.
Come race week, I hopped in my dad’s Ford Explorer to drive seven hours from my hometown in Jersey to head for Ohio.
My Uncle Michael and one of the aforementioned best friends/spotters Noah Nichols joined me on the car ride. Noah was one of my only friends growing up who had a vested interest in NASCAR. Having him along for the ride provided an element of comfort that I am not sure any of my other friends could’ve provided me. We left on Wednesday at around dusk, as we decided to spend a couple of extra days in the area.
For what it’s worth: I had switched day jobs and was a server at Outback Steakhouse at this point. We ate there three consecutive days, including the night before race day (sorry guys, have to chase the potential sponsor). Side note: Uncle Mike should stay away from the Bloomin’ Onions. While unbelievably delicious, they make him gassy.
Now, some of you probably know what happened when I got to Mid-Ohio. While learning how to really drive a NASTRUCK, and honestly, figuring out how to shift a stock car on a road course, we ran into someone else’s mess. Another team (if you’d like to know who, just click here to read the story) had lost an oil line for the second time in the day’s only practice session.
Unfortunately, we were the first truck through the Turn 9 area following the issue, and I lost control after slipping through some oil and then I smashed into the Turn 9 tire barrier.
I was in complete awe. That was it. I thought for sure we were done. I remember getting out and seeing the TV cameras on me, and deciding flashing finger guns was the best way to go.
It’s probably what I am most well-known for.
My mom, brother, sister, friend, and piano teacher who lives in my basement (that’s a story for another day) were all on the way from NJ when I crashed. My dad, being the stoically dramatic figure he is, had my mom convinced I was dead. In reality, I was maybe in the care center for fifteen minutes. I was more angry than anything else. The first phone call I received was from Toby Christie himself, to which I gave a scathing review of the team at fault. It was probably even more aggressive than the article let on; Toby really toned it down for me.
There were two reasons for my anger.
One, I had spent all my money on this one race. It truly felt like this was my ONE opportunity. I really couldn’t afford crash damage at this point. Not to mention, the truck was destroyed, and we were without a backup.
Two, my NASCAR Driver’s License approval was conditional. There was legitimate concern between Josh and me that NASCAR would yank my approval. In the end, though, they didn’t.
The issue of the battered truck still remained. Josh assured me the truck wasn’t that bad. He lied.
After it was all said and done, the whole driver’s side had to be torn off, and we hit the wall so hard that it needed a new B-post. It’s extremely difficult to damage a truck that badly. But, the guys at RBR thrashed trackside and got the truck through tech in time for qualifying.
We ran one super slow lap in the wet, just to make sure everything stayed on the truck. The last thing we needed was more damage. It did mean we would start last, however.
Pole position, or last place starting slot, it didn’t matter. I would get the chance to race.
Raceday was such a surreal experience. I remember signing autographs and truly questioning whether or not I belonged. I sat two seats down from Hallie Deegan, who was getting an overwhelming amount of attention.
While standing on pit road for the national anthem, I started to cry a little. It was such an emotional moment. I had my best friends and family all there, watching as I achieved my life’s greatest accomplishment.
The glory was short-lived.
Lap 1 was a disaster. For one, I didn’t even know the race was starting, which is hilarious because if you look at the race replay, you can see me not even out of the final corner in the background as the green flag dropped, well behind the field.
The other major issue we had was that some of the damage meant that for some reason the truck would not turn right at all. We drove straight off the racetrack in Turn 4 on Lap 1. I did not make minimum speed during the first three laps of the race. However, the problem oddly fixed itself as the laps ticked away, and by Lap 4 we were fine.
As we were about to lose a lap in Stage 1 due to the numerous issues, an ironic twist of fate occurred. The same team that sent us into the Turn 9 wall, blew a motor and kept us on the lead lap. We would remain there for the end of Stage 1. No matter what, with Mason Fillipi out of the race, we would finish higher than we started.
Stage 2 presented another set of challenges. We didn’t buy the full allotment of sticker tires, so we would be on scuffs during this Stage. That really killed our speed, and we lost a lap. However, we would do just enough to be the lucky dog.
I ripped around the racetrack to get my lap back at the end of Stage 2, and I had a fresh set of stickers waiting for me in the pits.
By this point, I was really starting to feel comfortable behind the wheel. We actually had the pace to keep up with some of the trucks in the back of the field. A number of wrecks occurred too, and by the final restart, I found myself inside the top 20. This was an incredible feat; RBR had only had three top 20s all season at this point.
My teammate Kenko Miura, who was 30 laps down after mechanical issues earlier in the day, had other plans with two laps to go. After stupidly racing me side-by-side into Turn 4, he would wheel-hop, and then slam into my right rear. This sent me spinning through the grass. Our truck, which had needed a jump box to start all weekend long, sat stalled in the Turn 4 grass.
Again, it looked over. It looked like we were going to end my debut in the grass, never seeing the checkered. I was gutted. On the radio though, comes Josh Reaume, calmly telling me to “Believe in the truck.”
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what the fuck that meant. But, at this point, I had no choice but to listen. So I took a deep breath, flipped all the switches, and out loud said “I believe”. And, wouldn’t you believe it, the dang thing roared to life.
I puttered around the racetrack to finish 22nd. That would be RBR’s best finish for the rest of the year. Not only that, but we would end up being the highest finisher out of the five drivers who made their truck series debut that day. Not too shabby for a guy who almost wasn’t approved for the race.
I got out of the truck and hugged everyone, saving my old man for last. I savored every moment of it, recognizing and accepting I may never get to do what I just did ever again. And truthfully, I was okay with that. I was tired. I had worked my tail off for that one start. I had accomplished more than I ever thought I would. I truly thought I was accepting the end. And for almost nine months I truly thought it was the end.
However, in March of 2023, I paid my spotter Noah Nichols a visit to his small Catholic University in Pennsylvania. It was one of the first times I had seen him since Mid-Ohio. He, along with three of his friends, Alex, Ariel, and Lauren, changed my own perspective on my career and they brought something very small, clearly into view: Martinsville.