Matt Campbell 2
Matt Campbell (Dan Demarco Photo)

Matt Campbell’s Big Opportunity

Matt Campbell knelt on the concrete floor of the Premier Racing Team shop, working on the operation’s No. 21 sprint car.

For 17 years, Brian Montieth handled the potent machine. But now with Montieth, one of the more electrifying sprint car racers in central Pennsylvania, gone from the team, Campbell has taken over in the driver’s seat, inheriting the winning expectations that come with the ride.

Campbell’s right where he wants to be.

“All the stuff going on in the world, all the stuff going on in your life, it’s all gone,” Campbell said. “You can call it my happy place.”

Still, the 22-year-old can’t escape the pedigree that surrounds his new ride.

The shop’s walls are adorned with the wing panels from all eight of the cars Montieth drove to track championships at Lincoln Speedway and there are numerous giant winner’s checks, including the 2012 Tuscarora 50 at Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway.

Walk up the wooden steps to the attic, where the team stores spare parts, and one sees a collection of trophies.

It is enough historical evidence to move a young driver to stage fright, but for Campbell it fuels his desire.

“You come to a place like this,” Campbell said, “you get to look around and you know you’re going to be better. Now, it’s just aligning my shoes. Now, it’s up to me.”

Whatever pressure lies ahead, it will never amount to the burden Campbell has carried to reach this position. As Campbell prepared to make his debut aboard Jerry Parrish’s No. 21 sprint car, he marked the third anniversary of his father’s death.

Ron Campbell died of a heart attack on Feb. 4, 2018, at the age of 55. Matt Campbell is fiercely determined to continue what his dad started.

“My dad lived out of our race shop more than he did our house,” Campbell said. “That’s how he was. I guess that’s me taking after him a little bit.”

Memories of Campbell and his father, like those created attending Pittsburgh Steelers games or on fishing trips to Ocean City, Md., are comforting.

“We did everything together,” Campbell recalled.

The heart of their relationship revolved around a single thing and nothing else came close. “Racing,” Campbell started, “it’s all we knew. It’s what me and dad always did.”

In a lot of ways, Ron Campbell is still guiding his son through the competitive waters of Pennsylvania open-wheel racing. How Campbell landed in one of central Pennsylvania’s top rides was not through a family with deep pockets, but by building relationships.

Parrish and Ron Campbell met many years ago through the automotive business. Since 1989, Parrish has owned Premier Auto Works in New Oxford, Pa., and Ron Campbell served as the co-owner of Harrington Body Shop in Rising Sun, Md.

As the years passed, Ron Campbell’s face became more recognizable to Parrish. Then, when Ron Campbell began taking young Matt to sprint car races in central Pennsylvania, father and son became fond of Montieth, who was known to many fans as “The Edge.”

“We had a lot of similarities,” Parrish said. “He was a fun-loving family guy. He had a passion for racing. … And it was more than just racing. He enjoyed the camaraderie and the relationships, too.”

The Campbell family has been involved in racing all the way back to when Matt Campbell’s great-grandfather, Frank Rose, raced late models at Lincoln Speedway in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Ron Campbell frequently helped his grandad and when he crossed into his 20s he raced go-karts at Hunterstown Speedway near Gettysburg. He tried a year of late model racing along the way, but it his racing career and his involvement in the sport quickly fizzled out.

When Matt Campbell was a child, the family slowly returned to the sport. First with a go-kart and then climbing through Pennsylvania’s fervent open-wheel dirt ranks.

Matt Campbell won the 125cc micro sprint title at Selinsgrove Speedway in 2008 and transitioned to racing 358 sprint cars at Lincoln in 2014. He narrowly missed winning the track title in 2015 and again in ’16 and moved to 410 sprint cars in 2017.

That September, Campbell scored his first 410 sprint car victory at Williams Grove Speedway, culminating years of hard work and sacrifice. “That was such a huge accomplishment for us,” Campbell said.

For the longest time, Campbell’s deep embrace with his father in victory lane at Williams Grove served as the profile picture on his social platforms. As of this writing, it was one of Campbell’s two victories in four years of racing at the 410 level.

Twenty-three months separated the first victory and the next at Lincoln in August 2019. What stood between those jubilant moments was a certain level of anguish Campbell wouldn’t wish on anybody. Five months after that jubilant moment with his father on the Williams Grove frontstretch, Ron Campbell was dead.

“You want to talk about a defining change I went through,” Campbell said. “That was it.”

For two months, racing took a backseat for the first time since Campbell plopped in a go-kart at age 5. But Campbell quickly found being away from the very thing that bonded he and his father, only made him hurt more.

“Everybody handles their grief differently,” he said. “But my father, I felt like I was closer to him if I was at the race track. That’s where we always were. I felt like if I wasn’t there, I felt like that’s where I needed to be.

“I just didn’t want to walk away.”

Campbell went winless that season while fighting the larger battle of learning to live without his No. 1 supporter. That’s when, 23 months later on Aug.10, 2019, he raced to his ultimate healing moment at Lincoln Speedway.

“That just showed we weren’t done yet,” Campbell said. “After everything that happened, we showed we could still do it.”

Parrish has always believed in Campbell’s ability, even during his early years running 358s at Lincoln. A flashy number of victories are not Parrish’s measuring stick for a driver’s potential. What he looks at are the innerworkings: “Polite … poised … grateful,” said Parrish, summarizing what he looks for in a driver.

“You can tame a wild horse,” Parrish said. “But you’re not going to make a plow horse a race horse, you know what I mean? I see the potential in him, similar to when we got Brian to drive for us. He just needed an opportunity to continue his racing.”

“When Brian started, he was fresh, he was young and he was hungry,” Campbell added. “They built something together. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Campbell is not trying to be the second-coming of Montieth, but to be the best driver he can be.

“Brian was his own individual, like all the great drivers we’ve ever seen,” Campbell said. “I’m hoping I can become my own individual and become something in this sport.”

Campbell knows two wins during a four-span won’t cut it with the Premier Racing Team. “He knows this car shouldn’t be out of the top five,” Parrish said.

He also understands what he went through with the loss of his father prepared him for this opportunity.

“When you realize you race for something bigger, it changes everything,” Campbell said with a pause.

“But it took a long time,” Campbell continued. “I would not be where I’m at if it wasn’t for my father. I wouldn’t be. He gave me so much opportunity. Just like Jerry (Parrish) is doing here.”

Like his father, Campbell is determined and mechanically inclined. He travels across the Baltimore area and central Pennsylvania as a mechanical contractor, making a 9-to-5 living by servicing other people’s needs.

In return, the race shop satisfies Campbell’s desires.

“I’d like to think he’s proud that, even though he’s not here, I still gave it my all to keep doing what we were doing,” Campbell added. “That I didn’t let down all the hard work he did to get me to where I am.”

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