By LOGAN NEILL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001
John Coleman knows that the learning curve in auto racing can be a long and winding road.
Even after seven years of driving Mini Stocks at Citrus County Speedway, he's certain there is much more to improve upon before he can earn that coveted championship trophy.
That is why the son of longtime speedway veteran Frank Coleman says he keeps his father's sage advice close to his heart.
"My father told me you have to be willing to keep putting the little things together, keep plugging every week, even when you're frustrated," said the 30-year-old Zephyrhills driver. "The way I look at it, if I think I have a chance to win every week, it'll keep me interested."
Though he never has won a division title, Coleman is viewed as a perennial contender. Since his rookie year, he has failed to finish sixth or better in points just once. Last season, he rebounded from a slow start to wind up fifth. But Coleman, who works as a finance manager for Bank of America, admits his devotion to career and family would have to take precedence in any run for a championship.
"My father came very close many times, so I can tell you there's a lot of ups and downs in going for a championship," Coleman said. "It's very time consuming, and dealing with that every week for eight months can really wear you down."
Growing up in south and central Florida, Coleman considered himself the penultimate "racing brat."
Each day after school, he'd wait for his father to come home from work so the two of them could dive beneath the hood of his father and uncle's race cars. Weekends were spent traveling to short tracks around the state where Frank ran in a modified series.
Shortly after moving to Hernando County in 1978, Frank began competing in the newly-formed Mini Stock class at Citrus.
"Back then, Mini Stocks were just that -- stock Mustangs, Pintos and Toyotas," John Coleman recalled. "My father learned everything from the ground up, built his own motors and did the setup, so by the time I got into it, he was the best teacher I could hope for."
Though Coleman continually pressured Frank to build him a car, his father suggested he wait until he finished college before he turned his interest toward such a time-consuming hobby.
His 1994 debut proved an auspicious one. Running a limited schedule, Coleman earned several top-five finishes and rookie of the year honors.
But competing against veteran heavy-hitters such as Mark Sowell, the late Lenny Brown George Neumann and, of course, his dad, made winning a tough prospect. Coleman squeezed past all of them to earn his first victory in 1995.
"I learned a lot by watching those guys," Coleman said. "But in the end, nobody can really teach you how to get the feel of it. You have to figure it out on your own."
Coleman thinks he could be on track for his best season yet.
His newly rebuilt No. 21 machine has been a proven performer in the early weeks, thanks largely to his constant attention to improving the car's handling.
"The track is really different this year, and a lot of guys have been forced to adjust to it," Coleman said. "I think the fans are going to see a lot better racing from us this year."
WHAT: Short-track stock car races featuring the LaPerle Memorials Late Model 30-lap event, Sportman, Mini Stocks, Street Stocks, Hobby Stocks, Street-Legal Junkers classes and Dwarf Cars.
WHEN: Saturday. Grandstand gates open at 4 p.m. The first heat race is scheduled for 6:30.
WHERE: 2 miles south of Inverness on U.S. 41.
ADMISSION: Adult general admission, $10; seniors and students to age 17, $8; children under 10, $2; under-12 child with paid adult, free; pits, $20.
INFORMATION: (352) 726-9339.
- LOGAN NEILL