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Justin Grant, shown at Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway, won his second consecutive USAC sprint car championship this season. (Paul Arch photo)

Justin Grant: Lost & Found

There was a time when Justin Grant arrived at Indianapolis Int’l Airport with an easy to articulate dream but no discernible path to reach it. At this precise moment he had more immediate concerns. He wasn’t quite sure anyone was going to pick him up.

Grant was a bright-eyed kid who had already bagged a Bay Cities Racing Ass’n midget championship. That was nice, but he knew if he was going to make it as a professional racer there was one place for him to go. At the time of his arrival, he was not an ordinary teenager. His father had been very ill, and amid this turbulence he was juggling school, racing and a job.

He often had to rely on the generosity of others just to make it to the race track. His resourcefulness had been a pillar of strength, and now he had to call on every ounce of his resolve to find something to grab hold of in an unfamiliar environment.

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Two-time USAC sprint car champion Justin Grant. (Paul Arch photo)

It was perhaps a bit too dramatic to call former racer and longtime sprint car owner Jeff Walker a savior, but it is still too close to the truth to be dismissed. Walker was a racing lifer. His father, Don Walker, worked at Delco Electronics during the week, but away from the 40-hour grind he had plenty of success racing. Jeff followed suit. 

Reviewing his own career, Jeff Walker said, “I got my first car around 1980. I didn’t have any money, so I would race, then I would crash, and then I would sit out for a while.”

Self-deprecating assessment aside, he stuck with it until about 1993. Where he would really make his mark was as a car owner. He has three USAC titles as an entrant and his 44 wins stand fourth on the all-time USAC list. For many, Walker is forever linked with the late Tony Elliott. It would be hard to find two bigger personalities, and together the duo cut a wide swath on and off the race track.  

There was a lot more to Walker than met the eye. He developed a reputation for taking young drivers and crew members under his wing and showing them the ropes.

Suddenly, Walker was staring at a young kid with a box of clothes, some laundry detergent and a helmet looking for a home. While this may have been familiar turf for Walker, he realized this kid might be different than the rest.

Grant still had racing commitments in California during the 2008 season but spent considerable time working for Walker in Indiana. In 2009, he was back for good, a resident of Walker’s basement and doing everything he could do to secure a ride. He found work with sprint car owner Kenny Baldwin and performed well enough to be named the 2010 USAC rookie of the year.

However, by the end of the season that relationship soured and Walker offered Grant a lifeline. With Walker’s help, he got a chance with Ohio owner Mark Hery and by the time the leaves covered the ground he was a consistent winner.

Optimism was high leading into the 2012 campaign. Grant scored his first USAC national victory at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway in mid-July. However, Grant and Travis Hery were involved in an automobile accident after attending the World 100 at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. Grant faced a long recovery and returned to California to continue his rehabilitation.

Recovering from a significant injury is a scary time for a professional athlete. Every move you make is scrutinized by others, and your internal dialogue may be laced with self-doubt. In the end Walker was there again. He offered Grant a ride at a time when just getting back in the game was vitally important. If there were any lingering doubts, they were dispatched quickly.

Together they found victory lane, and while the friendship remained intact, by the end of 2013 both struck out in different directions.

Now rooted in the Hoosier State, Grant was recognized as a threat to win on any night, and he had the chance to routinely compete on the USAC trail. Grant won the USAC Silver Crown Championship in 2020 and added the sprint car title in 2022.

Few would argue Grant is one of USAC’s biggest stars. Yet, there are times when a focus on outcomes obscures the struggle it took to attain them. There were still dark times for Grant, and at his lowest point he nearly gave up sprint cars for good. A timely intervention by Casey Shuman provided a reminder that the sport could be fun again. It was the jolt he needed, and it was a lesson that sometimes when you grip too hard what you want is sure to slip away.