HOPE VALLEY — When Garrett Denton takes the road test for his driver’s license in September, the 16-year-old Hope Valley resident said he may give the instructor a warning.
The thought of Denton going to driving school is amusing when you consider his background behind the steering wheel. The Chariho High junior-to-be is third in the point standings in Mini Stocks. The division includes Ken Cassidy Jr., the all-time winningest driver during NASCAR Whelen All-American racing season Saturdays at Waterford Speedbowl.
Denton boasts three years of experience operating an 1980s Mustang at 70-plus miles an hour around a third of a mile oval in raging traffic. He should not have any trouble parallel parking or making a three-point turn on his driving test.
“I’ve always been interested in cars and trucks when I was little,” Denton said. “One day, my father asked if I’d like to try quarter midget racing and I loved it. I’ve been racing Mini Stocks for three years, and actually, I want to go faster. This isn’t fast enough.”
Denton started racing quarter-midget cars at age 6 at Thompson International Speedway’s Little L track and dominated the division with 80 wins and the 2009-2010 Quarter Midget division title by age 13. With the support of his parents, Steven and Melissa, and grandfather Norman Moore, who was president of the Thompson go-kart track, Denton took advantage of NASCAR lowering the age limit for racing from 16 to 14 in 2011 and secured a NASCAR learner’s permit.
He’s accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in a hurry. In 2011, Garrett was named the Mini Stock division Rookie of the Year after producing one win, two top-five finishes and 13 top-10 finishes in 22 starts. His win on Aug. 20 that year made him the youngest winner in the 31-year history of the NASCAR Whelen Series.
Last season, he was named Mini Stock Most Improved Driver after one win, two top-five finishes and 13 top-10s.
His ascension continues now to where he is a legitimate contender to win a track title… all before getting his photo on his state driver’s license. The Mini Stock season is beginning its homestretch for its early October finale.
“We all say that Garrett has been racing longer than he’s been reading and writing,” Melissa said.
It’s been an education on the track. Denton has experienced the highs and lows of auto racing from standing on the winners podium to picking up car panels off the track after in-race collisions. He’s had three accidents that were not his fault. One accident totaled his top No. 99 red Mustang that took him to the top of the point standings in late June. Two accidents damaged his backup car, dropping him to third place behind Cassidy and Bill Leonard of Charlestown, R.I.
“Garrett’s season has gone from fabulous and remarkable to not so fabulous and remarkable,” Melissa said. “We all thought the last accident would do his back-up car in.”
But in a show of sportsmanship, Cassidy offered to loan his car to Denton to keep him active ... and possibly allowing the young phenom driver to regain the point standings from the 56-year-old Cassidy.
Imagine the Red Sox loaning players to the Yankees to replace injured starters. But Cassidy didn’t see it that way.
“Garrett has been an awesome competitor while battling for the points lead and always races me clean,” he said. “It would have been a shame to see him have his season end because of crashes that were not his fault. I don’t want to win the points title like that. I want all the best racers on the track and let’s settle it that way.”
When Cassidy heard the Dentons did not have a Plan C to replace their replacement car, he offered his backup car.
“I’ve been a hard-core racer and have won championships,” Cassidy said. “But I also want to promote the sport of racing. I don’t want to see a promising young racer like Garrett get discouraged by mishaps that were out of his control.”
Denton is fast, but not furious on the track. He is respected as a patient, responsible driver who makes calculated decisions to make passes rather than take impulsive risks. Standing about 5-foot-9, Denton looks like your typical driver until he pulls his helmet off exposing the paucity of whiskers on his face.
“He is 16 years in physical age,” said his father, Steven, who raced one year in Mini Stocks, “but he drives with the poise and maturity of someone beyond his years.’
That isn’t simply an opinion of someone drinking the family Kool-Aid. Nick Pappacoda, a 59-year-old veteran driver from North Branford, Conn. agrees.
“He drives with the head of someone 30, not a 16-year-old who is hell bent to make a disaster out there,” Pappacoda said. “He has respect for the other drivers, and even if he always doesn’t get respect from everyone, he is respectful on the track. The majority of teen drivers don’t have the maturity Garrett has to be racing .”
The Denton’s family tree resembles a motor diagram. Dad and grandpa are fixtures in the pits on Saturdays. Uncle Tony, a mechanic and former Mini Stock racer, tweaks the motor, and Mom and Grandma are in the stands. Melissa raced karts as a youth at her father’s track in Thompson. Three of his older sisters, Dawn, Andrea and Kelsey, also raced there.
Garrett has developed into the jewel of this racing family.
“What makes this easier to do is the fact that my wife loves racing,” Steven said. “She can’t wait to see Garrett on the track. She’s not a track widow who is left at home while we all have fun at the track.”
Garrett hopes to make a career in auto racing, if not as a driver then in some aspect of the industry. He already has his sights set on attending the College of Applied Technology at the University of Northwestern Ohio, which offers a field of study in high performance motor sports.
“The family is fully aware that racing is driving at your own risk,” Garrett said. “Some weeks are good and everyone races clean. Other weeks, not the same thing happens. You can’t really predict what will happen.” Fear never enters his mind on the track.
“If you are afraid, you are more likely to get into an accident,” Denton said. “You can’t be timid. If you are not in full control of the car and control of your emotions, that’s when problems occur. When I’m on the track, I’m paying attention to the cars around me and not thinking that I’m 16 driving against someone 30, 40 or 60.”
Steven Denton believes his son is no more likely to get hurt in his sporting activity than a football player is to sustain a concussion or a soccer player is to suffer a torn ACL.
“We take risks every day when we step into the shower,” he said. “Ordinarily that risk is not at 75 miles an hour. Honestly, it’s very safe inside the car.”
At the Speedbowl, cars take more beatings than drivers. That happened on June 22 early in the Mini Stock race when Denton tried to pass a car but was cut off and hit the wall. His No. 99 Mustang suffered extensive front and back end damage.
The did not finish performance knocked Denton out of the points lead and although he was not hurt he was upset about the temporary setback and interruption of his positive momentum.
“The substitute car wasn’t bad, but it didn’t handle quite as well as the one I’m used to,” Garrett said. “The regular No. 99 should be ready next week, but it’s important that I entered this week and got some points. You can’t come up with no points in two weeks, because you can’t make up the ground in the standings by sitting out and missing races.”
Wrecks not only cost points, they impact the Denton’s racing budget.
“Financially, maintaining a car is not too bad on the budget as long as you’re not putting the car back together every week,” Steven said. “Will it pay for itself? No. But with the help of some really great sponsors, they help take some of the cost away from us.”
An honor roll student who also plays soccer, Denton has learned as much about the strategy of raising funds as he has about racing strategy. He and his family have secured major sponsor Morrone’s Auto Service of Hope Valley as well as Larry’s Auto Machine of Groton, the Gentleman Barber of Hope Valley, the Extreme Complex of Wakefield, Metcalf Paving and PMW Marine of Stonington, Barrett’s Service Center of Hope Valley, and the Kim Kelley Insurance Agency of Hope Valley
“This is a sport you can’t do alone,” Garrett said. “I have great support from my family, sponsors and top mechanics Dave Trudeau and Joe Rocket. They got the car set up well to get me three wins and put me in position to challenge for the championship.”
Denton is also using his racing notoriety to raise funds for others. Last season, he raised $1,200 for the Make a Wish Foundation, selling stars and messages that are painted on the top of the Mustang’s roof. This season, he has raised $600.
His love of racing is paying off with immediate thrills and perhaps laying groundwork for a career in the industry. He is an honor roll student at Chariho, enrolled in the Automotive Program and is an apprentice at Morrone’s.
For now, thrills are enough according to his father.
“Ultimately I hope he has as much fun as possible and savors every minute of it because for every thousand Garrett Dentons out there, there is only one Jeff Gordon,” Steven said. “The odds of making it to that kind of level are so, so small. So I really want him to enjoy this while he can. That’s good enough.”