Greg Cote

He’s a Harvard grad and UM med student. But he also races NASCAR trucks for fun

He is a humble sort, not the type to brag. But imagine if he were that type? Picture it:

Patrick Staropoli walks into a bar, meets someone, and small-talk ensues. This is where, through no fault of his own, the simple truth might sound like boasting.

Um, where’d you go to school Patrick?

“Well, Harvard.” (He’d leave it at that, probably, because mentioning that his classes included Neurobiology of Behavioral Physics, Multivariable Calculus and Victorian Literature & Culture might seem showy. Plus, who really needs to know he was graduated with honors, summa cum laude?)

Harvard, huh! What are you doing these days?

“Well, I’m a fourth-year student at the University of Miami School of Medicine, about to get my degree and become a doctor of ophthalmology.”

Oh, really! You sound so busy! What do you do to relax and have fun?

“I’m a racecar driver. In fact, I’ll be running this Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway as part of NASCAR’s Championship Weekend.”

Meet “Dr. Speed.”

Staropoli is at the intersection of medicine and racing, and he’s revving his engine.

There is nobody in this sport quite like this young man who turned 27 last week and is a South Florida native from Plantation.

His whole life, the same word has applied, literally and in every sense, to his personality: Driven.

“Life would be too simple if I just do one thing,” he says, and smiles.

Staropoli is seated at his parents’ kitchen table in the East Acres area of Plantation, in a middle-class home notable only because there is a No. 97 black racecar taking up most of a garage crowded with tall toolboxes, hydraulic lifts, racing shock absorbers and other accoutrements of vehicles that are not street legal.

Staropoli will be competing Friday night in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, inside the AutoNation No. 07 DrivePink Cure Bowl Chevy Silverado truck, decorated on behalf of breast-cancer awareness. The Xfinity Series race will be run Saturday and then the top-tier Sprint Cup finale on Sunday, all three races crowning a season champion in each series.

Staropoli is hardly the star of the weekend — not when Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano will be center stage Sunday gunning for the Sprint Cup crown. But Staropoli will be the star to dozens of family and friends who’ll be watching him compete in the biggest race of his life.

From strapping into his first go-kart at age 12, he has worked his way up racing’s ladder. He earned his chops at old Hialeah Speedway, which closed in 2005, along with his father Nick, who raced there and is his mentor. Patrick’s big break came in 2013 when he won the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge, a national talent search that got him a ride as a developmental driver for Michael Waltrip Racing in the K&N Pro series, tantamount to NASCAR's top minor league feeder system.

Friday will be his first race in the big leagues — in one of NASCAR’s three main series.

Friday also will be his first time racing at Homestead, his first time behind the wheel of the 07 truck he'll be driving at 150 mph, maybe 175 on the straightaways, and also his first time on a 1.5-mile track.

His first practice run in the truck, and at the track, will be Friday morning, hours before the big race. That’s unheard of, but he’s been busy lately, flying all over the country for residency interviews to determine where his career as a doctor will commence. Wednesday he interviewed at his home base, UM-affiliated Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

How often does his racing career come up in medical interviews?

“Oh, the first question,” he says, smiling again. “Every time.”

The young man wears doctor’s scrubs one day, a racing firesuit the next. Changes lanes from helping save lives to putting his own at risk.

“The dichotomy is definitely there,” he concedes. “But I do see a lot of parallels, too. You give feedback to your crew and they balance the race car. They come up with adjustments. With a patient, they have a problem and you have to figure out a way to solve it. I use that process whether I'm talking to a patient or trying to dissect a race car.”

The former Plantation High class valedictorian will learn Jan. 13, “match day,” where his medical career will begin. He’ll graduate in May, when “M.D.” will officially follow his name and make him NASCAR’s first doctor-driver.

He cannot say how much his medical career will impact or limit his racing pursuits, but is certain he wishes to continue racing.

Staropoli’s love of speed on a track came from his Dad, but, in a way, so did his interest in medicine.

Patrick was 12 years old in 2001 when his father’s late-model racer slammed into a wall at Hialeah. The boy watched as his father was airlifted to Jackson Memorial’s trauma center with serious head and back injuries. He would spend four months hospitalized, and learn to walk again.

His son visited him daily, and became fascinated by the miracle that healed his father. The science of it.

“I remember being in awe of the whole process. It definitely sticks with you,” Patrick said. “My Dad’s accident kept coming back to me. And now I’ve been at the same place learning medicine that saved his life.”

Nick Staropoli is fine today and working as a mechanic. His mom Arlene owns a small gift shop called Picking Wildflowers. They have a daughter, too.

You hear “dream come true” a lot talking to athletes. From Staropoli it sounds truer than usual.

“I’ve been going to races at Homestead every year since I was 10 or 11 when the track opened,” he said at the kitchen table. “It’s my home track. I had friends and my Dad’s friends saying, ‘Yeah, one day you’re gonna race here and we’ll see you out here.’ But I was thinking, ‘You guys are crazy, that’ll never happen.’ Now it’s about to happen. It’s not just me getting to live out my dream, but sharing it with family and friends who have helped me out along the way at every level.”

Nick and Arlene will be watching their grown son on that track Friday night, but maybe also seeing the little boy who used to sit in the living room and reenact races with miniature Matchbox cars.

“He’d put on a show and be the race announcer and analyst, too,” Nick said. “He’d put on a race for hours, and I mean hours.”

His parents would tell him it's almost bedtime and the boy would exclaim, “But there's still laps to go!”

Now Patrick Staropoli is all grown and on the cusp of a medical career, but this much hasn’t changed.

There’s still laps to go.

  Comments