Cole Custer, a California kid, traveled to aptly named Gas City in Indiana when he was just 12 1/2 years old, but only after the United States Auto Club had allowed him the chance to race against adults.
Racing in what is known as “midgets” — small, four-cylinder, open-wheel, dirt cars that can reach up to 90 mph — Custer was placed at the end of the row of vehicles, figuring there would be less danger there.
What happened next surprised everyone.
Custer launched his car to the outside and passed 30 vehicles.
“The announcer was screaming, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” said Joe Custer, the boy’s father. “He finished third in Gas City and won 15 of 22 races that year, taking the USAC focus midgets title. That was an epiphany.”
Three days after Cole Custer turned 14, he took another big step and drove for the first time in the NASCAR late-models division, where everyone else in the race was between 18 and 45 years old.
Custer won that, too.
“He is one of the most natural race-car talents I have ever seen, and I’ve worked with more than 150 kids,” said Tim Huddleston, who in 2003 started a driver-development program called High Point Racing, based out of Southern California’s Irwindale Speedway.
“It’s amazing what he can do with a race car. We’ve just tried to take his aggressive racing skills and smooth off the rough edges.”
Custer, now 21, is on the cusp of reaching the major leagues of stock-car racing – better known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
On Nov. 16, at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Custer will compete in the Ford EcoBoost 300, the final race of the season in the Xfinity Series, which is, in essence, the Triple A of NASCAR. As of this week, he is one of four drivers still alive in the bid to win the season-long championship that will be decided in Homestead.
Two years ago in Homestead, Custer won his first career Xfinity Series race. Last year in Homestead, he grabbed the pole and finished second.
As it turns out, Custer loves the “worn-out” pavement at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which opened in 1995. The last time the track was repaved was in 2003.
“The pavement’s really old,” Custer said. “The tires wear out fast, and you are slipping and sliding. Your car is sideways a lot of the time.
“It’s fun to race there. You’re able to race right next to the wall in the corners and all the way at the bottom. There are bumps, and there’s more you can do as a driver. You’re not just riding around in circles.”
Certainly, Custer’s career hasn’t been circular – it’s been vertical … as in straight up the charts.
A native of Ladera Ranch, California, Custer started racing “quarter midgets” cars at age 4. His love for racing was a passion he inherited.
His father, Joe Custer, ever since age 18 and as a hobby, had raced dirt bikes in the California desert and, later, off-road trucks in Mexico.
Joe, who had a business that dealt with manufacturing supplies, struck up a friendship with Gene Haas, the owner of Haas Automation.
Both men had a strong interest in racing. In 2001, Haas CNC Racing was created, and Custer traveled to Charlotte to manage the company. Cole, his sister and their mom stayed in California, and Joe commuted back and forth.
The company is now called Stewart-Haas after Tony Stewart in 2009 made a deal to drive for the team in return for 50 percent ownership.
Joe Custer is the president of Stewart-Haas, the company that will decide when to bring Cole up to NASCAR’s big leagues.
“It’s an obvious conflict of interest for me, right?” said Joe Custer of his dual role as father and team president. “It’s difficult, mostly on Cole.
“I leave those decisions up to the owners, Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. But, generally, guys move up only if and when they have mastered their current series.”
Cole Custer, who said his family tree in the U.S. dates to the 1700s and includes general George Armstrong Custer, who died in the famed Battle of the Little Bighorn, has mastered the Xfinity Series, winning seven of the first 26 races this year.
“I could probably do [the NASCAR Cup Series] at this point, but it’s really not in my head very much,” Custer said. “It’s about whenever the team is going to move you up, and it’s about sponsorship and winning races. It’s a combination.”
Huddleston, who has seen Custer grow from a quiet 12-year-old who rarely spoke to a confident sponsor spokesman nearly a decade later, said he sees big things in the future.
“He has a great ability to listen,” Huddleston said. “If you say, ‘Cole, I want you to race the car two feet higher, he would do it, and you could go out there and measure, and it would be exactly two feet.
“When it comes time for the Cup Series, Cole will be a winner and a champion.”