JOHN O’CONNOR For The Press & CHARLES SCHROEDER Staff Writer
When you think of Manahawkin, you probably don’t think of race cars.
But for Justin Clapper, it only took one race for him to get hooked on the sport, and this year he played a crucial role for a NASCAR championship team.
Clapper, a 2012 graduate of Southern Regional High School, worked on the pit crew for the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports truck Zane Smith drove to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title on Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
Clapper, 28, has worked in the industry for more than a decade, but this was the first time he’s been part of a championship team.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Clapper said a week later. “It probably won’t sink in until we get to that (Truck Series) banquet in Nashville.”
And nobody, especially his mother, Janine Seeley, saw it coming when Clapper was a teenager obsessed with sea turtles.
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But Clapper’s journey to this year’s championship began at Daytona International Speedway in February. Clapper had worked for several teams, including Richard Childress Racing and Roush. But going into this season, things were a little uncertain, and Clapper wasn’t sure where he was going to end up before landing at Front Row just weeks before the season opener.
Clapper had previously worked with Smith. In 2018, he served as the jackman on Smith’s crew when he drove the No.41 MDM Motorsports car in the ARCA Menards Series. With a relationship already built, Clapper looked forward to working with Smith again.
“It was kind of a late announcement to our team that we would be on that truck this year,” Clapper said. “I pitted for Zane in the past, so it was cool to kind of have that reunion. I knew it was going to be a fun season regardless of how we performed, but I didn’t think it was going to be as good as it was.”
A fast start
It didn’t take long for the Front Row team to find success as Smith won the season-opening race at Daytona on Feb. 18. Smith clicked off two more wins, at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and at Kansas Speedway, and was the regular-season champion heading into the four-race playoffs.
In the season finale at Phoenix, the championship race, Smith started on the pole and had a fast truck all night. The team looked to be well on its way to the championship until a yellow caution flag with 16 laps changed the race.
Crew chief Chris Lawson elected to bring Smith down pit road to change four tires. Smith came out of the pits in the 10th spot but made his way back up to third before the final yellow of the race.
On the final restart, with two laps to go, Smith dove under the two other championship contenders, defending champion Ben Rhodes and Chandler Smith, to make it a three-wide situation going into turn one. Not knowing what would happen next, Clapper held his breath the whole time.
“Throughout the night, I was probably the most relaxed guy in the pit box,” Clapper said. “I’ve never had more faith in a driver to get the job done than I did in this race. When Chris (Lawson) made the call to take four tires, I didn’t expect as many (other drivers) to stay out or take two tires. So that’s when the nerves kicked in, and during those last two laps, I was just standing with my hands over my head and probably not breathing.”
Smith, Rhodes and Chandler Smith finished the race 1-2-3.
Last year at Indianapolis, AJ Allmendinger drove the Kaulig Racing No. 16 to a NASCAR Cup victory. Clapper was on that crew, so prior to Nov. 4, that was the biggest achievement of his career.
“I was fortunate to win the Brickyard race with AJ,” Clapper said. “I would say winning this championship is equivalent to that feeling. A lot of people have asked me if one is more special than the other, and I have to say it’s probably a tie.”
Clapper played an important role in helping Front Row achieve its championship. On the pit crew, he serves as the tire carrier, the only person on the team with that responsibility.
During a pit stop, he carries both right-side tires. He drops the right front tire off for Jackman to put on. He then moves to the right rear, and when the changer pulls the old tire off, Clapper puts the new one on for the changer.
Over on the left side, he puts the new left front on for the changer and then makes any necessary adjustments to the truck. Clapper says a lot is at stake with his job.
“You got to be quick, and you can’t slip up because if you do, you could lose a lot of positions on the racetrack,” Clapper said.
Clapper also worked in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year as a jackman for driver Myatt Snider. He said the pomp and circumstance of the championship was short-lived since he had to get up the next morning for the Xfinity race.
“It’s kind of funny after all the celebration, I still had a job to do the next day,” Clapper said. “I was kind of dragging my feet a little bit, but I was still able to show up and perform.”
It’s not the career path his mother expected him to take. Seeley, who lives in the West Creek section of Eagleswood Township, said Clapper was laser-focused on sea turtles and planned to study marine biology after high school. She and her ex-husband, Clapper’s father, Greg Clapper, even took him to the Cayman Turtle Center in the Grand Cayman Islands one summer when he was 15 or 16, and he was offered the opportunity to work there the following summer.
“He was pretty much hell-bent on doing something with turtles,” she recalled Thursday. “That was his infatuation for quite some time.”
But another young man from Stafford Township had been pursuing and succeeding in another career. Martin Truex Jr., from the Mayetta section of Stafford, won championships in NASCAR’s second-tier level, then known as the Busch Series, in 2004 and ’05. Clapper took notice, and his interest in the sport grew.
Clapper got a job working with ARCA Menards Series driver James Hylton at a Pocono race in 2012. That got him hooked.
“I got to go over the wall during the race and do a pit stop and, honestly, it was probably like a 20 second right-side stop,” Clapper said with a laugh. “But it was a lot of fun, and I said to myself, ‘You can get paid to do this?’”
Still, his announcement one day that he wanted to pursue a NASCAR career came as a shocker.
“I more or less had a panic attack,” Seeley said.
But she supported her son in his new dream. She told him he had two years to make a go of it in North Carolina. “Otherwise, you’re coming back to Jersey. … Now he FaceTimes me from victory lane. I couldn’t be more proud of him for following his dreams.”
Clapper packed his bags and headed down South. He attended the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina. Upon graduation, he went to PIT Instruction and Training for eight weeks of pit crew training before landing his first job with Richard Childress Racing.
Clapper’s goal is to one day work full-time with a Cup team on Sundays.
“But for right now, I’m just going with the best possible situation,” he said. “So if it’s working full time in the Xfinity and Truck Series and battling for championships, that’s good enough to put a smile on my face.”