Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
All East County's Conner Morrell saw at the start of his United Sprint Car Series Racing Outlaw Thunder Tour race Nov. 9 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala was "Smoke."
That's "Smoke," as in the nickname of racing legend Tony Stewart, who started in the pole position. Morrell, who is 14, was in the front row next to him.
“I didn't think I’d be next to a famous NASCAR driver,” Morrell said. “I didn't think I would get the outside pole either, because I didn't have a great car that day. It was cool.”
Morrell, a freshman at Braden River High, said it was difficult to glean anything from Stewart’s racing habits while keeping his own eyes on the road at 120 mph, but Morrell said he did decide to follow Stewart’s racing line, because Stewart was clearly the fastest car on the track.
After the race, in which he finished eighth, Morrell got a chance to chat with Stewart, the race winner, for a few moments.
“He said I had a good race, that we ran together for a while before my car fell off a little,” Morrell said. “It was cool to shake his hand.”
Back when I played baseball, I would have given anything to take batting practice off Roy Halladay or Johan Santana. I can only imagine what it felt like for Morrell to be in his car and see Stewart just in front of him.
Of course, my baseball career quickly sputtered to a stop. Morrell actually has a chance to move up the auto racing ranks.
The USCS race was a cap to Morrell’s 2018 season, but he spent the majority of the year racing in the Great Lakes Super Sprints (GLSS) series, graduating from his 600 mini-sprint car to a full-size, winged 360 sprint car in the process. The GLSS holds races at renowned raceways in the midwest, including three in Indiana: Plymouth Speedway, Montpelier Motor Speedway and, Morrell’s favorite, Gas City Speedway.
Morrell and his father, Allen Morrell, would spend weeks at a time on the road, working out of National Hot Rod Association driver Terry McMillan’s shop in Elkhart, Ind. When school started in August, things got trickier. Morrell said he would catch the latest flight possible on Friday, race over the weekend, and catch the earliest flight possible back after his races.
Morrell did not have time to adjust to the full-size cars, either. The first time he raced one was May 4, in the qualifying for his first GLSS race at I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mich.
“It was insane, to be honest,” Morrell said. “They handle a lot different. (They have) more horsepower, and they are easier to spin. But I did pretty well, I won the ‘B Feature’ race that night.”
Morrell finished 17th in the ‘A Feature’ afterward. He got better as the season went along, taking one top-5 finish (at Hartford Speedway in Hartford, Mich., on Aug. 3) and two other top-10 finishes. He finished 17th in the GLSS points standings and was named the series’ Rookie of the Year.
Not bad for a 14 yard old, huh?
Morrell said his ultimate goal is still to race in NASCAR, and at this point it seems attainable if his trajectory stays constant.
After all, he hung with Smoke. Not many adults can say that.