Isabella Robusto knows how to take a late model stock car apart and put it back together again.
She’s not quite at that point with super late models yet, but throughout her racing career, her dad has made sure Robusto understands the inner workings of the cars she’s driven — ranging from go-karts and Bandoleros in her youth to Legend cars and now late models.
Ironically, that process of breaking down and building was essentially the trajectory of her race season this past year.
At the beginning of the season, Robusto had an ambitious schedule planned, which included Toyota GR Cup road course races, late model events with Lee Faulk Racing, ARCA Menards Series starts and other sports car endeavors.
But it all came to a screeching halt in April during the CARS Tour pro late model feature at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway when Robusto’s No. 28 Lee Faulk entry was sent into the retaining wall after making contact with the No. 15h of Mike Hopkins.
Up to that point, she had led 48 laps of the race and was only two laps away from clinching her first CARS Tour win.
Though she climbed from the car under her own power, Robusto was later diagnosed with a concussion and also experienced lingering neck issues that kept her out of the car for the remainder of the season.
“It basically flipped my life upside down, to say the least,” Robusto admitted.
The recovery process has taken about eight months — which felt more like a lifetime to Robusto — but the South Carolina native recently returned to the seat for testing.
“I’ve kind of spent a year doing basically everything you could possibly do except for driving a car,” Robusto said. “I don’t feel like I’m too far behind.”
To help ease the pain of the season she lost to injury, Robusto recently signed with Lee Pulliam Performance to compete in the late model stock car portion of the CARS Tour next year. Though she’s known for about a month, the announcement was made on Tuesday.
“I ran really well in the weekly series with Lee Faulk, and (Toyota) liked how that program went. Then they needed a full-time CARS Tour program, and since Butterbean (Brenden Queen) was running really well, Toyota felt that it was the right decision,” Robusto explained.
The Lee Pulliam operation, which will field the No. 03 late model stock for Queen and the No. 55 entry for Robusto in 2024, is now a Toyota Racing Development affiliate.
It will be the first time Robusto has had a teammate on the late model level.
“Knowing that I’ll have Butterbean as a teammate and be able to lean on him, and then having Pulliam as well — he’s basically won everything there is to win for late models — having both of them is very comforting for me,” Robusto said.
Not that she needs much comfort, of course.
The 19-year-old has quickly become the type of hands-on racer that a casual observer would struggle to describe in a single sentence. Robusto simply has too much going on.
Take her daily schedule, for instance.
Her wake-up call is set for the crack of dawn — about 5:30 a.m. — and from there, she heads straight to the gym at the Toyota Performance Center. As a Toyota Racing Development driver, the South Carolina native spends a few hours of her morning working out, having meetings with trainers, nutritionists and whatever else Toyota officials might have in store for her.
By 10 a.m., she’s on her way to one of the race shops she’s involved with — it could be Venturini Motorsports (ARCA), Smooge Racing (GT4 America, GR Cup), Donnie Wilson Motorsports (pro late model) or her new late model stock car team, Lee Pulliam Performance.
“I’m normally there from like 10 to two or three o’clock in the afternoon,” Robusto said. “Sometimes I’ll come back and do another workout in the afternoon, but that’s only like two to three days a week. Then I head home and start working on my other life.”
Her other life is school — specifically, being a full-time college student majoring in Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University.
“I think I picked the hardest major I think there is,” Robusto joked.
Until about 9 p.m. in the evening, Robusto has her nose buried in the books. And then it’s time to call it a night, all to wake up at 5:30 a.m. the next day and do it all over again. If there’s one benefit to the hectic schedule, it’s that she’s gotten “really good at time management.”
Part of the reason for her diverse schedule — racing everything from stock cars to late models to sports cars — ties into her greater ambition of racing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But rather than daydream about her future, Robusto has rolled up her sleeves and is putting in the work to prepare herself for what’s to come.
“You can see how much Cup is starting to go into the road course side of things with street circuits and all the different tracks they go to,” Robusto said. “The thought process that I have, and Toyota has, is getting in some road course experience.”
In 2022, she was one of two drivers to take part in developing Toyota’s GR86 car, which is now used in GR Cup competition.
“We found out that I’m pretty good at the road course stuff,” Robusto said chuckling.
Her 2024 schedule will be a mixture of road course and oval racing — essentially, a do-over of this past season that ended prematurely.
“This coming year is basically just a repeat of 2023, but just added some more ARCA stuff in,” Robusto said. “Kind of doing that wide variety of cars right now just to learn as much as I can before I put all my focus into just one car.
“That way, in the future when I get to Xfinity, get to Trucks, get to Cup and we have road courses, we have street courses, we have ovals or whatever it might be, I’ll be ready for each of those.”