Jody Lavender’s thirst for speed is nothing new.
It manifested itself even before he was legally able to drive and even now, he says with a beguiling smile, his love of going fast is not confined to the racetrack.
It was on the small tracks that Lavender, who hails from Hartsville and now lives in Murrells Inlet, made his mark, driving street stocks and trucks along NASCAR’s truck and stock circuit, and it is the small tracks that he contends, that fans will find the “real racers.”
“The sport has definitely changed a lot over the past 10 or 15 years,” he said. “The direction it’s gone, it’s taken a lot of people such as myself out of the game.”
Like many of the best racers, Lavender came up through the ranks, working on his own cars, understanding what went into driving.
He spent time in Mooresville, N.C. — a hotbed of racing — so he wasn’t the only one loading up the cars and trucks and heading to the tracks.
He would transport his vehicle to the track for the race, then load it back up afterward for the trip back home. He learned how to expertly maneuver the trailer ler into a spot among the other vehicles parked at the track.
It’s the same expertise he uses to park near his business, Custom Metal Fabrication, on Highway 17 Bypass in Murrells Inlet. He backs up his pickup and trailer at the side of the building, easily navigating around the cars in the parking lot to stop near the side of the building where he can easily load gear and equipment for the move to McDowell Shortcut Road. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he laughs when a visitor offers to move her car. “I lost a few side mirrors at the beginning, so this is nothing special.”
Lavender smiles easily as he props his 6-foot-5 frame into an office chair to talk racing – his love of the sport and the changes he’s seen since he ran his first NASCAR event in 2002.
“It’s difficult now to race unless you have some sponsorship money behind you,” he said. “The first question you get asked is, how much money can you bring, not how talented you are.”
He’s also seen the sport navigate from some of the smaller tracks to the superspeedways. “You go to your short tracks to see real racing. You go to Myrtle Beach, You go to Florence. You go to Dillon if you want to see real racing,” he said.
It also let him appreciate the people who made a success on the grand national circuit – those who like him climbed through the ranks.
“Some of the drivers today , especially at the bigger tracks, just show up to race. If they tear up a car, it’s someone else who has to fix it,” he said. “And the fans are changing too. Costs have kept people away.”
The future isn’t all bleak though. Small tracks are luring people in.
It was at the small tracks that Lavender found more than a modicum of success. Without big-name sponsors, he won at Altamahaw, N.C., in 2005, in the X-1R Pro Cup Series. That same year, he finished in the top five seven times and in the top 10 12 times, running just 19 of the 30 series races..
The following year, despite missing a trip to victory lane, he finished in the top five three times and top 10 nine times.
He, his family and friends did the work on the cars and trucks he raced, and it’s obvious that he misses that camaraderie. “We did it all,” he said. “That was fun.”
It was also fun for his family. His daughter, Taylor, is now 8, but spent her early years’ weekend at the track. “Even now,: Lavender says, “she’ll ask me if I’m going to race again. It gets in your blood.”
Since he gave up full-time racing, he and his wife, Tara, have added Chase, now 2, to their family, and being a good father and husband, as well as making CRC grow have occupied much of Lavender’s time.
But not all of it. He’s still indulged his love of racing.
Lat year he raced twice in the Cars series – he’s got a stock car in the garage -- but found out the years away from the sport have taken a toll. “We weren’t as competitive as I wanted to be,” he said.
“But it’s still fun, maybe not as much fun as the beginning. When it stops being fun, that’s when I’ll give it up for good.”