On a beautiful late spring evening in Delmar, DE, some of the biggest names in east coast dirt modified racing descended on the Delaware International Speedway for the annual running of the Diamond State 50. Conducted under the promotion of Brett Deyo’s Short Track Super Series, premier races up and down the Mid-Atlantic bring a diverse and talented crop of “Big Block” style modifieds representing dozens of home tracks and scores of unique backgrounds. TehBen.com was lucky enough to speak with two drivers during the running of the 2021 Diamond State 50 who, while both talented racers, come from vastly different places in the racing community. What started as two separate ideas has unintentionally come together to illustrate the level of the playing field in this brand of racing, no matter what path it took to get there. Please enjoy part 2, and catch part 1 here.
To meet Brandon Hightower of Natchitoches, Louisiana is to meet a man that carries himself a bit different than most in the pits of dirt tracks in my neck of the woods. Even before considering the Cajun accent, his demeanor is notably more gregarious than typical big block modified drivers on the circuit. Whether by choice or by circumstance, the majority of people in the pits on race day tend to look miserable. Despite being at this track for the first time, living 20 hours away from family, driving double duty at the last minute, and having what looks like a pro-style operation run entirely through his purview, the 23 year old Hightower looks remarkably relaxed. Maybe it’s the fire suit laden with NASCAR patches showing this isn’t his first rodeo. Maybe it’s the bright blue eyes, or the boyish grin he’s seemingly slathered on his face every time I’ve walked by the B52 liftgate trailer, but this dude looks pretty chill for someone about to race 75 combined laps against all-timer dirt track talent at an STSS show. Most likely though, it’s because this is merely the beginning of a packed 2021 race season.
“About 90 more races” states Hightower on his 2021 plans. “We’ve been through a lot of hardships this year already, but we’re not giving up.” Truly, Hightower came into this season with goals on maximizing seat time racing in the densely packed Northeast Modified schedule. Planning to compete in both the North and South regions of the Short Track Super Series, the B52 has also seen time at Bridgeport and Fonda on Saturday night events before this late April Delaware International meeting. “Every half mile track is different than what I’m used to. We’re still in the learning process. It’s a transition, a BIG transition, but our program is starting to head in the right direction.”
Hightower sits on a mounted tire quickly flicking through his phone between interview questions, though always making sure to provide eye contact once he starts to give an answer. There’s a charm to his inflections that shows a natural disposition to media relations. Whether he realizes it or not he walks a line vacillating between confident, self-critical and never quite cocky in a manner that even the most highly trained of PR managers would kill for.
As far as directions go, the move from Louisiana to Sussex County, Delaware twenty hours away is a sharp one to take. Hightower isn’t a “hired gun” flying to town on race days for some wealthy team owner, this operation is a full lifestyle commitment. After developing a friendship with Delaware Sportsman modified racer Scott Hitchens and his family, a plan came together to form a working relationship. “It was an off the wall decision to come up here and race, but I wanted to RACE. Up here [modified] racing is what’s thriving. They put on some of the best racing, the drivers are some of the most helpful, everyone’s just been great to me. I don’t plan on going back. You’re only as good as the competition you race…you’re not gonna be no better by racing against squirrels.” While daunting, this Northeast commitment isn’t his first move away from family and home. Hightower’s drive to keep his competition squirrel free yielded another important part of his career some years ago.
Hightower makes mention of a nephew he deeply misses having with him on race days. As we talk the Sportsman modified begins mysteriously leaking fluid behind me. Directing needs to his crew they work to fix the issue on a car that would normally have been driven by Scott Hitchens, who was unable to make the race due to illness. The B52 big block sits silent as the minutes tick closer to feature time. I’m getting anxiety and I’ve got no stake in the game. For a 23 year old a long way from home and at the helm, Hightower remains cool and on point. Hardship is nothing new.
NASCAR was once Hightower’s game. Competing in just over 20 races, mostly in the xFinity series between 2016-2018, Brandon drove against household names for smaller team owners like Carl Long and Johnny Davis. There are some in the sport that Hightower speaks highly of that helped him along the way. “Carl Long is the most upfront and honest guy in all of NASCAR. He’s my favorite car owner. If I ever go back I’d drive for Carl, I don’t want to drive for a big team, I love Carl.” Long’s team no doubt coincides with Hightower’s longest mentor, David Starr. After a chance meeting at a truck stop years ago, which sounds like more of a country song than a racing origin story, Hightower explains: “my dad sponsored Starr some in the truck series and we just hooked up, we’ve talked ever since. Guys like him, Mike Wallace….David and Mike are two that have been behind me with everything I’ve ever done. I’ve pretty much got a room at Wallace’s house, these guys are the best.”
While Hightower is candid about the good, he’s equally straight forward about the bad. The finances of racing are tough, but in NASCAR they can seem hopeless even for winning teams. Hightower learned tough lessons about the business aspect driving for now defunct race teams. “In NASCAR there’s a lot of people out only for themselves, not worried about anybody else. I wasn’t raised like that. I’ve been blessed to have what I have, but it’s hard up there, it was all pretty much a blur.” While the business side can be bad, so are the accidents at the highest levels of stock car racing. Unfortunately, Hightower had some hard hits during his stint, and as he explains, it’s a whole different animal than crashing a dirt car. “It’s that instant jar, 175 mph into the wall. When you hit that wall…I mean God Bless. I’ve had concussion after concussion after concussion. It’s a bad feeling to think about, you feel it for 5-6 days afterwards, you feel it in the back of your head.” Despite this, Hightower seems hungry to get back into NASCAR if the opportunity arises.
I make a mental note that Hightower is careful to pause before speaking his sentences, all except for one. I ask if he’d ever consider the Stewart Friesen lifestyle of NASCAR and dirt mixed together and before I could even finish the word “Friesen” he gives an emphatic, “I’d do it. I’m working on it actually. Nothing set in stone, but I’m up for it, so we’ll see.”
Big Block Modified drivers are cultivated at a young age around here, and at 23 Hightower enters this world armed with a lot of experience and know-how, not to mention the good people he’s surrounded himself with. As the influence of dirt racing’s finest style of car continues its expansion, there may be more like Brandon Hightower to follow this lead and descend on our turf with goals of wins and championships. It’s always been exciting, but after meeting the laid back dude from Natchitoches, I’ve never been more intrigued about the future. Let’s keep digging!
Brandon Hightower finished 18th in the Diamond State 50, completing all 50 laps in his first appearance at Delaware International Speedway.
Merchandise (Hightower thong perhaps coming soon)
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