John Hunter Nemechek was 5 months old and in diapers when he made his first appearance at the Homestead-Miami Speedway’s Victory Lane.
It was Nov. 9, 1997, and his father, Joe, a sentimental favorite with a very heavy heart, had just won the most emotional race of his career as the crowd of 55,000 got choked up and roared.
Joe’s younger brother, John — an aspiring truck racer for whom that baby in diapers was named — had died eight months earlier at age 27 from head injuries sustained in a crash on that very Homestead track. Joe’s wife, Andrea, was six months’ pregnant at the time, and they decided the baby would be named after the uncle he never met.
That baby is 18 years old now, an accomplished truck racer, and Friday he will pay tribute to his late uncle and namesake by racing a No. 8 Chevrolet Silverado — his uncle’s car number — in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at the Homestead track.
It will be his first race on that track, which was reconfigured to a true oval with a six-degree banking after his uncle’s death to reduce the chances for that type of crash.
“It’s very special for me to carry his name on the No. 8 Chevrolet this weekend going to Homestead,’’ said John Hunter, as he is best known. “He’s always in the back of our minds, he’s always cheering us on up there. He’s still around.’’
Joe Nemechek, owner of the NEMCO Motorsports team his son races with, said Homestead is “a tough place’’ for his family to go, but he loves the track, has had great success there and is looking forward to another great weekend watching his son behind the wheel.
“The main thing is, I lost my best friend,’’ the elder Nemechek said of his brother. “I think about him all the time. He’d be very happy to see how John Hunter is doing.’’
There was never any doubt that John Hunter Nemechek would go into racing. He was at the track at three weeks old. He got his first go-kart at age 3 and his first Motocross bike at 4. He was racing quarter-midget cars and dirt bikes in elementary school.
“I was going to be a racer, no matter what; it was just whether it was going to be in a stock car or on two wheels,’’ said Nemechek, who grew up in Davidson, North Carolina, and graduated high school there in May.
He dabbled in other sports. Nemechek played offensive and defensive line on the middle school football team, and he played on a travel lacrosse club. But nothing captured his attention like racing.
“Racing’s in my blood, and I’ve always liked the sensation of going fast,’’ he said. “I love speed. I love trying to figure out how to go faster and faster.’’
By 13, Nemechek was racing stock cars in the Allison Legacy Series. At 15, a year before he got his street driver’s license, he won 10 out of 18 poles and won the Allison Legacy Series championship.
All the while, he was an honor student at Davidson Day School. His parents and sponsors had a rule: He had to maintain A’s and B’s if he wanted to race.
“I was in all advanced classes, so I had to get all my work done before I left for races or when I came back,’’ he said. “I was always carrying my school backpack with me when we were traveling.’’
He went to the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade and cherished his graduation day, which he spent with his parents and sisters Blair, 15, and Kennedy, 12.
“You only get to walk once from high school; to have that opportunity as a teenager was really special,’’ he said.
Like parents of any teenager, Joe and Andrea Nemechek sometimes get nervous watching their son drive.
“Most of it I’m immune to because I’m used to it,’’ said Joe, 53, who has been involved in racing for four decades. “The most nervous I’ve been this year was at Talladega. With him the first time restrictor-plate racing, being out there in a pack of cars or trucks, you’re at the mercy of everyone around you. I know I’ve been in some pretty bad accidents at speedway races. I definitely don’t want to see that for him.’’
The younger Nemechek won a race in Chicago in September and said he continues to learn from his father.
“My dad has been a great influence, mentor, boss, Dad all put together,’’ he said. “He’s taught me everything from on the race track to speaking in interviews. What he’s learned in a 20-year period he’s taught me in a three-year period. I can go pick his brain, and I know he’ll shoot me straight.’’
Both the father and son say they have similar personalities, but their style of driving is completely the opposite. Joe says he learned to drive “the Donnie Allison way’’ in the 1990s, while John Hunter has grown up with better tires, technology and role models like Kyle Busch.
“He’s a little more old-school, likes to turn the wheel a lot more than I do,’’ John Hunter said. “Our car setups are very different.’’
Trucks are not as aerodynamic as cars, so John Hunter said it requires different strategy.
“Cars don’t get as loose up underneath people or as tight behind each other. Truck racing is all about keeping air on the nose and air on that right side to keep you turning,” he said. “I feel like we have a truck to compete in the top three and hopefully win. It’s the last race of the year; we’d like to go out on top.’’
Uncle John would like that, too.
Racing: Gates open, 9 a.m. Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 final practice, 9-11:30 a.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series first practice, noon-1:30 p.m.; NASCAR XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300 final practice, 1:30-4 p.m.; NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 qualifying, 4:15-6 p.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 qualifying, 6:15-7:15 p.m.; Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200, 8-11:15 p.m.
Music: Erin Kelly, 3-4 p.m.; Liddy Clark, 4:30-5:30 p.m.; Different Faces, 6-7 p.m. (all prerace performances are on the Smithfield Stage). Postrace concert, 10 p.m.-midnight (in the RV Lot).
Entertainment: Monster Energy Snowmobile Show 10-11 a.m., noon-1 p.m., 2-3 p.m., 4-5 p.m.