DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — By Tom Bryant, NASCAR — John Harrelson photo — Most students enter their senior year of high school facing a number of daunting choices that will shape the rest of their lives – weighty stuff for teenagers.
For Jesse Little, a 17-year old senior at Bandys High School in Catawba, North Carolina, his future path is crystal clear: he wants to be a professional racecar driver.
And with a win in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, Little is well on his way to making that dream a reality.
“I’ve pretty much been around racetracks as long as I can remember,” said Little, driver of the No. 97 NASCAR Technical Institute Chevrolet and a native of Sherrills Ford, North Carolina. “Some of my earliest memories are of my birthday parties at racetracks, when my dad was racing in the Cup series.”
Jesse’s father, Chad Little, is the series director for NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series and an accomplished former driver in NASCAR’s three national series.
For Jesse, being around racing from a young age afforded him the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of racing and race cars, and he’s translated that experience to success on the track.
With two races remaining in the 2014 K&N Pro Series East season, Little is fourth in the championship standings with a win, four top-5 finishes, and nine top-10 finishes – including his current streak of seven consecutive top 10s.
“His drive and will are second to none”
Harold Holly has spent nearly three decades in the racing industry, serving as a crew chief since 1994 for numerous NASCAR drivers including Chad Little, Jeff Green, and Johnny Sauter in all three national series. He is currently the Competition Director at GMS Racing, which fields multiple teams in both the NASCAR Camping world Truck Series and ARCA Racing Series from its Charlotte base.
He has known Jesse Little since he was a child, and has played a key role in Little’s development as a racer. According to Holly, Jesse Little’s rare ability to combine an unyielding desire to win, an analytical approach to racing decisions, and an unmatched work ethic is what separates him from the competition.
“He has so much drive, he’s so athletic, his comprehension of the engineering aspects of the car – it amazes me,” said Holly.
Jesse’s racing career has followed a familiar path in the stock car community – starting in quarter midgets at age 7, then racing Bandoleros in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout Series, a stint in Legends cars, and finally the move to Late Models in 2010.
Not as common has been Little’s commitment to learning the mechanical intricacies of the cars, and that’s a difference that Holly sees on the track.
“He’s been able to unfold the deck of cards and see what each one is, to understand the geometry. He’s at the shop at 6:30 in the morning when he’s not in school. And when he is in school, he’ll get up an hour early and go to the shop before he has to leave for class,” Holly said.
Maturity brings Success
After winning the 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the K&N Pro Series East, Little was named to the 2014-2015 NASCAR Next class. NASCAR Next is an industry program that spotlights and develops emerging talent in the sport.
“Being a part of the Next class is a huge honor,” Little said. “It has opened so many doors already, and seeing the success that other drivers who’ve come through the program have had, I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”
Holly points to Little’s maturity – on and off the track – as a key factor in his current run of positive results.
“He and I talk quite a bit – I take him fishing, and while we’re out there he’ll ask me about racing, how I view a particular problem or situation. He’s always thinking, analyzing a situation, always learning,” Holly said.
Little agrees that he’s adapted a more strategic approach to in-race decisions, considering the long-term consequences before making a move.
“Previously I was one of those drivers with a fast car who would put myself in a bad position and ruin our whole day. At the end of last year, I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, and now I weigh the risk versus reward and try to put myself in position to be there at the end, to finish well,” Little said.
That reasoned approach balances Little’s intense desire to win every race.
“Jesse’s got – I won’t call it a temper, I’ll just say he turns his passion way up at times,” Holly said. “He drives hard all the time, when he’s out there he’s giving you 110 percent every second. But he’s learned that when the race car and racetrack aren’t there for you, you can’t just take it – not with points implications.”
Still a Teenager
Little’s racing career brings an added level of difficulty to the normal high school senior’s daily challenges, but he knows the memories he makes now will last a lifetime.
“I really just enjoy being a teenager – I have a good group of friends I hang out with, I enjoy going to football games on Friday night and basketball games in the winter – it’s a lot of fun,” Little said. “My senior year is special and something I’ll remember forever. The staff at Bandys is awesome and they are really supportive of what I’m doing.”
As this season comes to a close, Little has no doubt about what lies ahead for him.
“I don’t see myself doing anything other than racing professionally, I want to make it to the top. It’s something that will take a lot of work and I’m willing to do it – I like the challenge.”