D.J. Peeples Jr. is top rookie at East Bay Raceway
By Steve Lee
WESLEY CHAPEL — D.J. Peeples Jr. is not old enough to be a licensed driver, but the Wesley Chapel High freshman already is a whiz on a racetrack.
Having come up through the go-kart ranks, Peeples Jr. was one of two teens to receive track exemptions from East Bay Raceway officials to drive a Sprint Car this season.
Peeples Jr., who turned 16 on Dec. 27, cracked the top 10 in that division and was named Rookie of the Year. The other underage driver, 16-year-old Alexis Beagle of Apollo Beach who also does not have a license, ran five races to place 23rd last season.
“It felt very good,” Peeples Jr. said of earning the award. “Finishing races and being consistent were the keys to getting it.”
The young racing phenom was steady with several top 10 finishes, but went without a single victory last season. He made the most of his last race on Dec. 19 by edging out his stepfather, Nick Byerly, for 10th place in the standings. Byerly placed 11th.
“That right there is like dominance at my house,” Peeples Jr. said with a chuckle. “That was very special.”
Most of his classmates do not know Peeples Jr. races, which he said does not bother him much. He is doing something he loves to do and though he played football briefly at Weightman Middle there is not another sport he would consider.
Peeples Jr. maintains a great deal of respect for his 550-horespowered car that races round-and-round in a virtually constant left turn. Going around the 3/8 of a mile oval at speeds that sometimes reach 100 miles per hour puts pressure on his 165-pound frame.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” he said of competing on the track. “You’ve got the centrifugal force pushing on you. Just feeling that is like being flung around in a paper bag.”
Peeples Jr. has raced for nine years, estimating he has more than 60 wins at the go-kart level. In one season racing Bombers, 4-cylinder compact cars, Peeples Jr. went without a win. Competing at that level, however, gave him enough experience to move up to the Sprint Car class.
“D.J. has a lot of experience for his age,” Byerly said. “He was literally born into racing.”
As for his drivers’ license for the road, Peeples Jr., who has a learner’s permit, plans to take the test in May.
For Peeples Jr., racing is a family affair. Aside from his stepfather racing in the same class, he drives a car with the same No. 30 made famous by his 81-year-old grandfather, East Bay Raceway legend Bob Long.
Grandmother Marge Long and his mother, Angelia Loggins, are fixtures in the stands at races. Unlike some grandparents who might worry about their grandson driving a race car, Marge Long has only one piece of advice: “Go like hell.”
His mother’s outlook is a bit more tempered. She and her husband made sure Peeples Jr. started in the back of the pack as a rookie, convincing him that the experience would be more valuable than taking daring chances to win races.
“It’s all about the seat time,” Loggins said.
The second year of racing, coupled with being named the top rookie, will lead to greater expectations. The brash teen plans to challenge for the Sprint Car title once the 2010 season begins in March.
“Next year I’ll start where they put me, but I want to finish out front,” Peeples Jr. said.