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Jake Garcia celebrates 18th birthday with NASCAR speedway debut

Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media

A racer’s dreams often begin on their parents’ carpet rug, get kickstarted at the quarter-midget track and short track Saturday nights until it often evolves into the high banks of some of the fastest places in the U.S.

Jake Garcia has followed that dream and moved toward that last leg Friday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On his 18th birthday, the first day of eligibility for NASCAR speedway races, Garcia finished 10th in his speedway debut driving McAnally-Hilgemann Racing’s No. 35 Chevrolet Silverado.

The soon-to-be 18-year-old driver was named to run the full NASCAR Truck season in December 2022. However, Chase Elliott filled in for Garcia at Daytona when he wasn’t eligible to race.

Garcia was granted a waiver to uphold his playoff eligibility and kickstart the first-generation racer’s childhood dreams.

“I always watched NASCAR races when I was three or four years old and had little Hot Wheels cars that I played with. So, you know, I was definitely into it and my dad and mom decided to get me a quarter-midget car to start out when I was five. I did that when I was five and then raced those for a few years,” he said.

Garcia then raced full-sized midgets before moving into pro late models. At age 14, in 2019, he won the PLM championship at Five Flags Speedway and finished second after leading nine laps in the Snowball Derby there.

He also raced at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time.

“We were going really, really fast and it was a cool experience, probably one of the most fun things that I’ve had the opportunity to do, so I always thought that was a really cool race. We led a bunch of laps in it and it was a neat experience to be able to race at a place I always watched on TV,” he described.

In 2020, Garcia earned three PLM wins at Montgomery Motor Speedway in Alabama – a track he describes as his favorite.

“It’s not the flashiest racetrack, but they put on a good show there. And I feel like for the type of cars super and pro late models are creates really good racing. You don’t have to necessarily move people but you can pass and run side by side. Long straightaways, there’s a lot of character there,” he said.

In 2021, Garcia won three more times at Montgomery and twice more at Five Flags in a PLM but began progressing further.

He won in super late models at Crisp Motorsports Park and the Georgia Summer Nationals. In SLMs, he added two more crowns – track champion again at Five Flags and becoming the youngest Southern Super Series champion.

Along the way, he has popped onto the radar of some high-profile short track racers.

“Crew chief Ricky Turner is a Snowball Derby winner and he is really good at giving me advice. Guys like Bubba Pollard always helped me out if I asked. He’d always gives me good advice and doesn’t get me off track,” Garcia said.

He broke into ARCA Menards Series West competition with David Gilliland Racing at Phoenix in November 2021. He finished 6th of 34 cars in his debut, behind Ty Gibbs, Taylor Gray, Sammy Smith, Nick Sanchez and J.P. Bergeron.

The run epitomized what Garcia believes car owners look for in a driver – almost to a greater extent than championships.

“There’s a few things a car owner looks for in a driver. I’m not sure it was the championships but [one of them is] I always try to keep the car in one piece. They definitely want somebody competent in their race cars and I think I did well to catch the eyes of a few Truck owners, including Bill who has been good to me,” he explained.

Last season, Garcia made five Truck starts with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing. While his results were modest, the 17-year-old progressed from finishing 29th at Gateway to 28th at IRP to 20th at Richmond and eventually 16th in the Phoenix finale.

Photo of Jake Garcia, courtesy of NASCAR Media

For Las Vegas, Garcia said the ultimate goal of a top-10 finish. He finished 10th.

Garcia was realistic about his run, stating he could’ve been better during green-flag pit stops. However, his team commended him for holding his own and even gaining time doing green-flag pit stops for the first time in his life.

Quiet confidence but realistic expectations. It’s what the 18-year-old now carries into the rest of his first full-time NASCAR season.

“I just need to do as good as possible and see where we are right now, especially on a lot of these racetracks that I haven’t been on before. I’ve never been on intermediate race tracks before – or superspeedways, road courses, and we’ve got a dirt race coming up with Bristol – so there’s gonna be a lot to learn. I’d like to just kind of get acclimated to each type of race track here,” Garcia said.

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