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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014

Sikeston native Daron Clayton hoping to reach racing's big-time

Sunday, December 24, 2006

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Daron Clayton
SIKESTON -- Daron Clayton's need for speed has driven him to hot pursuit of a childhood dream.

The 23-year-old Sikeston native, who got his first car at age 4, is already a veteran race car driver with 14 years experience on tracks across America's Heartland.

"I got a yard cart when I was 4 years old and just rode it around the yard until we finally took it to the racetrack and the rest is history, as they say," said Clayton, who now resides in Indianapolis, the Mecca of auto racing, but still considers Sikeston his home.

From go-karts at Sikeston Racepark to the USAC (United States Auto Club) sprint car circuit, Clayton has made inroads into the highly-competitive world of big-time auto racing.

Nicknamed the "Modern Day Cowboy" for his hard-charging driving style, Clayton is described, in his USAC driver's profile, as "energetic, electrifying and sometimes downright scary. Clayton possesses a heavy right foot and the ability to excite the crowd on any dirt track. The Missourian showed he was fast in USAC in 2006 and may be a force to be reckoned with in the coming seasons with his rim-riding antics."

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Clayton's No. 92 car
For Clayton, 2006 was a breakthrough season as he recorded seven wins and 11 top 10 finishes, with purses totaling about $60,000. Punctuating his season were wins in his first three career National Sprint Car Series features which placed him 12th in the point standings.

"This season has been the highlight of my career," he said, "the way I've learned how the cars work and how I've improved my driving skills, like planning ahead and being a smart driver."

It hasn't always been an easy path for Clayton. There's been a few speed bumps along the way.

"It's taken a lot of time, effort and work," he said. "When you get one thing straightened out, two more problems pop up and that's the way it's been for the last four years or so. I get one thing under control and then I've got more problems to fix. It could be the car or me as the driver. Overcoming the obstacles has been difficult when you don't have success running against such tough competition.

"I've been down, ready to sell it all and buy a boat. It's been rough, but that only makes it better when things do turn around."

To the question, what keeps him motivated when things aren't going so well, Clayton responded, "The dream. The dream of making it as a driver is what keeps me going. That's all I've ever wanted to do and, hopefully, the thing I do best. I just want to make a living driving race cars and however I do it is fine with me."

Through thick and thin, one constant in Clayton's career has been the unflagging support, both emotional and financial, of his parents, father Gene Clayton and mother Bonnie.

"They've been behind me 100 percent the whole time," he said, of his parents who reside in Sikeston but travel to all of his races. "We're not a sponsored team, so we're doing it all on our own budget. Everything comes out of Mom and Dad's pockets.

"I owe them all the thanks for investing a lot of money in me--my college plan, I guess."

Clayton also credits 65-year-old racing legend Norman "Bubby" Jones for imparting vital knowledge as a mentor and member of his racing team the past two years.

Jones, a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, won 22 times on the USAC Sprint Car series circuit and also raced in the USAC Championship Car series, including the 1977 Indianapolis 500.

Jones is splitting with Clayton to take on management duties with the Tony Stewart sprint car team next season.

"We're separating this year, but he's helped me out the last two years and taught me most of what I know now," said Clayton. "I benefitted a lot from his knowledge and he's been a really great friend the last couple of years."

Californian Chris Ferrari will assist Clayton during the upcoming 2007 season.

Clayton said, to make a decent living, a USAC driver must drive sprint cars, midgets and Silver Crowns, USAC's premier series of larger, more powerful cars which run longer distances than the normal sprint cars.

The USAC circuit has spawned Formula 1 legends A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Gary Bettenhausen and Parnelli Jones as well as current NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

"This year (season runs from April to November), I'll be running the USAC sprint car division fulltime," said Clayton. "The past season we didn't run for points in any division and that's why I didn't really finish in the top. I ran the bigger paying races instead of just racing every show we could."

With racing in his blood, inherited from dad Gene who raced street stock cars locally, Clayton has goals to expand his budding career.

"My immediate plan is to win the USAC sprint car division championship next year," he said. "I'll be racing (on) pavement and dirt and that takes two different types of race cars and that's where we struggled last year, coming up with the money to pay for the pavement races, because you have to test run at those tracks and you're going to spend almost $2,000 for tires for both the test and the race."

Clayton, who has persevered to reach the doorstep of a promising future, is unsure how his career will unfold, but he's certainly hoping it involves his passion -- driving.

"Whatever pays the bills," he said, "but I'd definitely like to go to the next level and try to compete with the best drivers in the country. I'd love the chance to do that. That's all I can ask for, the chance to see if I've got what it takes."

Beyond his current job as a sprint car driver, Clayton sees the ultimate challenge in Formula 1 racing.

"I would love to drive a F-1 car for my country," he said, "and if I could qualify and start the Indy 500, I would die a happy man."

No denying it's a tough business, but the future in racing looks bright for Clayton and his No. 92 car.

He said, "If last season had not turned out good, I probably would have thrown in the cards and decided I needed to find something new to do. But, as things turned out, I'm pretty happy with where I'm at right now.

"I could be a little bit further ahead, but that's life."