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Alumni

Talent Behind the Wheel

A Harvard summa aims for NASCAR.

January-February 2015

A grinning Staropoli celebrates after winning the NAPA Auto Parts 150 in Irwindale, California, last year.

A grinning Staropoli celebrates after winning the NAPA Auto Parts 150 in Irwindale, California, last year.

Photograph by Victor Decolongon/NASCAR/Getty Images

Gearing up at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Peak Stock Car Dream Challenge in 2013

Gearing up at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Peak Stock Car Dream Challenge in 2013

Photograph by Garry Eller

In 2008, amateur racer Patrick Staropoli ’12 was blasting down the straightaway at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, strapped into a stock car. Even on the tight track, he was traveling close to 100 miles per hour. A cacophonous roar filled the cockpit and the car shook from pure velocity, yet Staropoli stared down an approaching turn that required balancing the 1.5-ton car on the knife-edge of traction.

Near the end of the corner, just as all seemed fine, the car’s steering wheel popped off and fell in his lap. “I glanced up,” he recalls, “and an instant later I hit the wall.”

Staropoli limped away from the wreckage with minor bruises. His main concern was the mechanical damage: “It destroyed the whole front half of the car.” The third-generation racer later learned that the steering wheel had been improperly installed when he and his crew worked on the car only a few minutes before the crash. Undeterred—even by the fact that a crash at the legendary Hialeah Speedway seven years earlier had nearly killed his father—Staropoli and some friends repaired the car in time for him to run a few more races that summer before heading north for his freshman year at Harvard.

The South Florida native is the first in his family to attend college. During four years in Cambridge, he developed an interest in neurobiology and ultimately graduated summa cum laude, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and went straight to medical school at the University of Miami. In the spring of 2013, he was contemplating a career in ophthalmology, which would enable him to race as an amateur in his spare time. While studying for final exams, he got a call that changed everything.

On his smartphone screen was Michael Waltrip, a two-time winner of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and owner of a team in the Sprint Cup (NASCAR’s highest level of racing, akin to organized baseball’s major leagues). Staropoli, he announced, was one of nine finalists, chosen from 700 entrants, to compete in the Peak Stock Car Dream Challenge. “It was the single moment I’d been praying for my entire life,” Staropoli says. It was a one-time opportunity to showcase his driving in front of NASCAR teams, sponsors, and fans, who would also see a video production of the event.

To enter the contest, Staropoli had submitted his racing résumé and the required self-produced video. But he was aware that the Dream Challenge was as much a public-relations exercise for its sponsor (Peak makes antifreeze and other auto products) as a serious attempt to identify the next Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. An exceptional performance would win him the opportunity to compete in a single professional race. It was a very long shot. A four-car NASCAR team can employ 200 people and require an $80 million budget—a stark contrast to other sports where equipment and participation fees are relatively low, and talent alone is often sufficient to attract attention from the professional leagues.

Racing runs deep in Staropoli’s family. Both his father and grandfather competed on weekends in cars they built and maintained themselves. Staropoli’s first trip to the track was at six weeks: he mostly slept, nestled in his mother’s arms, while his father, Nick Staropoli Jr., raced. Following a four-month recuperation from that 2001 accident at Hialeah, the elder Staropoli, who owns an auto repair shop, returned for three more races, winning one before hanging up his helmet.

At 13, Staropoli told his parents he wanted to join in the family hobby. “They said they’d let me race go-karts and help me do it, but only if I kept my grades up,” he says, noting that the work ethic and abilities to organize his time and develop strategies, mastered through racing, have also served him well in his academic career. He kept his end of the bargain, eventually becoming president of his class three years in a row and valedictorian. Starting in 2003, he and his parents drove back and forth across the state from their home near Fort Lauderdale to a go-kart center in Fort Myers. “We bought a used chassis from one of our friends and a used engine from another, carried it on an old landscaping trailer that we towed behind a 17-year-old GMC Sierra,” he reports. “It was about as bare-bones as it could be.”

With a family less dedicated to the sport, his very first go-kart race might also have been his last. In the opening laps, the 13-year-old passed several other karts and nearly passed another. But not quite. “We touched tires and my kart just flipped instantly,” he recalls. “I was sliding along on my helmet and the kart’s air cleaner. My mom was up in the stands and her knees literally buckled and she passed out.” The race was halted and track workers pulled the upside-down kart off the rookie. “I wasn’t hurt,” he adds. “They got me going again, but I had to restart last.”

He finished third and an amateur career was born. The following year he progressed to racing an aging, slightly modified Camaro in Hialeah Speedway’s entry-level stock-car class, where his debut was more auspicious: he started last and finished second.

During the next eight seasons, while in high school and college, Staropoli won more than his share of races. The family devoted thousands of hours to his racing; instead of going on vacations, they all trooped to the track. But the escalating cost was at times a strain. Go-kart races cost about $100 each to enter; to compete with a “hobby-stock” Camaro runs $200. The price jumps to $2,000 per contest for the more specialized “late model” cars (the highest class in local stock-car competition), which Staropoli drove starting his senior year in high school. Prize money was plowed back into the car.

At Harvard, he raced during school breaks. But initial plans to become an engineer, and eventually work on the technical side in Formula 1 or NASCAR, gave way to a burgeoning fascination with how neurons work in the brain. “There’s the action potential of a single neuron,” he explains, “but that evolves into these big complex thoughts about how we look at the world.” He was also drawn to the field’s broad applications and by sophomore year was working in a Harvard Medical School lab run by neuroscientist Robert Stickgold. For his senior project, which examined whether learning occurs during sleep, Staropoli recruited 50 subjects to spend nights hooked up to monitors in the sleep lab.

The interest in medicine became personal when he was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010. He took time away from his studies and racing to counsel young people with the disorder, wrote a column for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness about how to manage a gluten-free diet in college, and conducted and presented a research project on “The Social Perception of Celiac Disease” during his senior year.

He describes college as “a long process, just grinding it out and making slow progress, while driving a race car is the opposite—learn quickly and then do it. But now, chasing a career as a professional racing driver, I see how much more there is to racing than just driving the car and how similar it is to the process of going through Harvard.”

In the summer of 2013, after finishing his first year of medical school, Staropoli joined the other eight Dream Challenge finalists at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the sprawling motorsports facility that serves as the heart of North Carolina’s stock-car racing industry. There they were put through a rigorous three-day program that included tests of their driving ability (including car-control skill on a skid pad), execution of pit stops, and timed laps on a short oval track, a road course, and the 1.5-mile high-banked superspeedway. And because successful drivers—as the public representatives of their commercial sponsors—must be articulate and personable, their appeal outside the cockpit was evaluated through simulations of a press conference and a TV commercial, judged by Danica Patrick. Here, Staropoli’s ready smile, good looks, and media-savvy nature probably helped out.

Of the driving-skill tests, only the short oval was familiar to Staropoli, but he turned in his most impressive performance on the road course. His lap times were so fast, the event organizers sent out a NASCAR regular, Clint Bowyer, who struggled to match his speed. The worst pressure came with the towering 1.5-mile oval, a track configuration none of the candidates had experienced. The approach of rain clouds also meant the time allotted for that exercise was sharply compressed. “It was crazy,” Staropoli reports. “They put new tires on the cars and we each had three laps to set the fastest time we could. It was cool, but I don’t remember ever being that on edge or alert in a race car.”

At the end of the evaluation, the aspirants were assembled in a garage around a canvas-covered racing car to await their fate, as cameras recorded the event for Peak’s promotional purposes. The cover was yanked off, Staropoli reports, “and there was my name.”

“Patrick’s energy and enthusiasm are really exciting,” Waltrip says of Staropoli, now an intern in the marketing department at Michael Waltrip Racing in North Carolina. “And it turned out he had the necessary talent behind the wheel.”

Winning the Peak challenge gave Staropoli the chance to compete in a NASCAR regional junior series, the West Coast-based K&N. His car was prepared by a top team, Bill McAnally Racing, but Staropoli doubted their hopes were very high: “I think they figured I’d qualify near the back, run off the pace, and get black flagged”—removed from the race by officials for traveling too slowly. Instead, he ran among the leaders, finishing fifth and beating Waltrip, who had come out of retirement to compete.

After that showing, Peak entered Staropoli in another K&N race that fall, and then five more high-profile competitions with the McAnally team last summer. He finished in the top 10 six times and won one race by passing the two top drivers on the circuit. “He’s the total package,” says McAnally, who has spent three decades in the sport and developed some of its current stars. “Compared with the people he’s racing against, Patrick doesn’t have a lot of races. But I’m impressed with how good he is at communicating what he needs from the car to go faster. He’s very smart and great in traffic. He’s aggressive, but not so much that he tears up the car. There’s no doubt in my mind Patrick can make it to the pinnacle of this sport.”

To run all these races, Staropoli was granted a year off from medical school. That period officially ended on October 31, but Staropoli is working with the school on a possible extension. For now, besides learning more about the business side of the sport, he’s been networking with race teams that compete in the two national-level series just below the Sprint Cup: NASCAR’s Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series. He’s also secured one smaller sponsor and is in contact with three major ones, looking for upwards of the $1.5 million required to put him in a car this year. If he gets the chance to compete professionally, he will take it. “It’s a life-altering decision,” he says, “but in my mind it comes down to what would you regret more 10 years from now? Medicine is an amazing, constantly evolving field that I would miss but ultimately be able to return to. Racing is now or never.”

And if it’s never, will he still do it for fun? “Yes, absolutely,” he says, smiling. “Going racing with my friends and family is what we’ve always done.”  

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Portrait of Moorfield Storey by John Singer Sargent, 1917. Charcoal on paper

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of James Moorfield Storey

Moorfield Storey, first president of the NAACP

Eunice Kennedy Shriver races her brother Ted and others in Washington, D.C., to kick off a 1975 Special Olympics fundraising coast-to-coast marathon.

Photograph by Bettmann/Getty Images

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