Ask any professional athlete how difficult it was becoming Rookie of the Year, and they’ll often admit their second season was tougher. Colby “The Kid” Howard may navigate a circular track, but his engine’s idling at the crossroads of high-octane success and sophomore stall. “The last few races, we’ve not had the finishes we’ve needed,” the soft-spoken driver shares. “We’ve been doing big tour races. So, this Saturday, we’re going to a local track and have some fun. It should take a little bit of the stress off.”
At first glance, the easygoing teen appears immune to stress, but an internal warning light flashes the load is mounting. The 16-year-old is not only hauling the 2017 South Carolina NASCAR title on every lap, but he’s got the legacy of his father and grandfather riding shotgun. “It’s not that much pressure going to other tracks,” says the clutching prodigy. “But at Greenville-Pickens [Speedway], Howards have always been winning there. My grandfather won four track championships there, and it’s where my dad raced when he was starting. Everybody talks about how good Papa was. That makes me proud.” Buddy Howard ruled the Speedway in the ’70s, and Colby’s dad, Rodney, raced baby grand stock cars at Daytona and Darlington, working his way to the Busch Grand National Series in the ’80s. Today, both watch with glee as their fast-groove heir laps the competition.
“He’s won more races than I have,” concedes Rodney, who guides the $300,000 operation keeping Colby in the driver’s seat. “He’s probably smoother than me and he ain’t scared. He’s racing against guys my age who I used to race, and he’s fearless.” Colby admits fear doesn’t factor into strategy when behind the wheel of his late-model stock cars, as he pushes more than 100 miles an hour—even the time he wrecked. “It actually wasn’t scary,” he recalls. “Somebody clipped me and sent me into the wall and I rolled. The windshield busted out, and sparks were flying, and gas was pouring everywhere. It was like a rough roller coaster.” All 128 pounds of him (braces included) were ready to ride again.
“Basically, I have to tell him to slow down,” says Rodney. “I’m pretty much the little angel on his shoulder saying, ‘Take it easy here.’” By ignoring the angel, and listening to his pit crew on headset, Colby won the checkered flag seven times in 2016 and moved to the next level. His 2017 point total made him the fifth-best rookie in the United States, placing him second in overall state standings behind NASCAR national champion Lee Pulliam. The middle Howard equates such success and speed to adrenaline. “When this gets in your blood, you’ll do anything to go faster,” he explains. “If somebody says this $1,500 carburetor will go two-tenths quicker, you gotta have it. You’ll go without eating a sandwich to get that carburetor. So that’s an addiction.”
Full Throttle // When not studying for his 10th-grade classes at Hillcrest High School, Colby is in the driver’s seat of #16. He topped out 2017 as the NASCAR South Carolina Rookie of the Year, and was the fifth-best rookie nationally.
It was one of the reasons he swore he’d never introduce his kids to racing. Yet a balmy spring night finds father and son under the hood of #16, swapping out parts. The sleek car sits on a perfectly level surface plate, while complex electronic scales send calibrations to a tablet in Colby’s hand. Both laugh when describing the old grain scales and crude calculators Rodney used just a few decades ago to make mechanical adjustments to maximize control on the curves. “There’s all this technology now,” Colby notes, pointing to various tools. “Different tricks and how cars can handle aerodynamics easier. We’re always testing different shocks, springs, rear-end track bars.” Aside from hanging out at Cook Out with friends, the car-obsessed student lives at the shop and track. “I can’t be going out and partying, and doing stuff people my age do,” divulges the 10th-grader. “I lose that part of my life, but it’s worth it in the long run. My main goal is the NASCAR Cup Series, and I have three more series to get to it.”
Colby must focus on accelerating during each race and his career, as he tries to advance to elite competition, with drivers like his idol Jimmie Johnson. Rodney points out, “Back in my day, they wanted older drivers with experience. Now they want younger drivers like him, who don’t think about nothing else but going fast. Now he’s gotta hurry up, or he’ll be too old. Basically, by 18-, 19-years-old, if you’re not all the way there, you may not get there.” So the shy speed racer, who still has yet to earn his unrestricted driver’s license for public streets, is test-driving 780hp ARCA race cars to move up to the next level. “I recently tested with Mason Mitchell Motorsports. It’s like a try-out,” Colby says. His dad divulges the team wanted his son by his sixth lap, and the two parties are now negotiating.
Rodney finds the business side of the sport as deflating as a blowout in the final turn, and it’s the other reason he never wanted Colby, or his two daughters, to race. “He’s got talent, but it’s all about the money,” the protective father proclaims. “If you don’t get the money, you don’t get there. You’ve got to have money and some luck. If you’ve got those two things, you can go as far as you want to go.” So Rodney networks, while Colby studies at Hillcrest High. As long as Colby keeps his grades up, Rodney will dig for sponsors to run ARCA races, which start at $50,000 each to enter.
The sun is shining at the Speedway, where a pungent mix of rubber, asphalt, and exhaust hovers in the air. Colby’s not missed a shift during the race, his third of the season. After winning pole position, he’s led the entire 50 laps, and defies a late challenger to grab the checkered flag. “We were fast all weekend,” the exuberant driver yells over the engine noise. “It’s relieving to get that win. This has given us a lot of momentum to go into the next few races.” More meaningful than post-event interviews, autographs, and trophies: it’s his grandpa’s birthday. “Papa’s here and to get to wish him happy birthday in victory lane, that’s pretty cool. He told me he was proud of me and that I ran a good race.” With the angel off his back, Colby has no limits.
To keep up with Colby’s career, go to ColbyHowardRacing.com.