When Jadan Walbridge first began following NASCAR at age 5, he was instantly drawn to Kyle Busch.
After all, what kid wouldn’t like a race car with an M&M candy-themed paint job?
Today, Walbridge has his favorite racer in his sights for a different reason. This summer, the 14-year-old from Vancouver did something no race car driver has done since Busch.
Walbridge was both series champion and rookie of the year in the NASCAR Junior Late Model series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. No driver had accomplished that series double in Las Vegas since Busch in 2001.
In Busch, whose 55 NASCAR Cup Series wins ranks ninth all-time, Walbridge sees a vision of what he’d someday like to be.
That’s why instead of spending weekends like most teenagers, Walbridge often is in Las Vegas or Madera, Calif., competing in NASCAR Junior Late Model points series races.
That’s why instead of being a freshman at Columbia River High School, Walbridge is home-schooled. Many weeks, he flies out of Portland on Thursday, does practice runs at the track Friday, then competes on Saturday.
“It feels like everything’s a rush,” Walbridge said. “But I’ve kind of gotten used to it.”
Like fuel in a car, Walbridge has racing in his blood.
Two of his uncles work as crew chiefs on NASCAR circuits — Carl (Junior) Joiner on the NASCAR Trucks Series and Ty Joiner on the K & N Pro Series.
But the most important influence is his grandpa, Mark Walbridge.
A longtime Vancouver resident who now lives west of Portland, Mark Walbridge raced from 1979 to 1990 on various NASCAR regional circuits. It was he who got his grandson into driving go-karts at 4 years old.
“When I started out it was more of a hobby,” Jadan Walbridge said. “When I started to do it more, it became more serious. I’ve always liked the higher speed and adrenaline rush.”
At 8, Walbridge graduated to racing Outlaws, high-powered buggies that compete on dirt tracks. At 11, he got a waiver to race at the 500 cc level, though most drivers his age raced at 250 cc.
“My grandpa has always thrown me into the deep end,” Walbridge said. “I’ve always been the youngest one to do each class. But I guess I’m just a fast learner. I try to listen to everyone around me and soak in everything I can.”
Walbridge then became the youngest driver to win a race at 500 cc. In his biggest event, he competed at the Millbridge Speedway Speed51 Open Challenge in North Carolina.
Not only did Walbridge compete, he qualified eighth fastest in a field of 100, which included adult NASCAR drivers Ricky Stenhouse and Kyle Larson.
From there, he made the transition to racing stock cars on pavement. The horsepower was higher, as was the time commitment.
Jadan’s mother, Staci Walbridge, never worried that racing was leaving the rest of her son’s childhood in the dust. She saw a drive and passion in Jadan that wasn’t there in his older brother, Addison, who dabbled in racing.
“For him, he was always talking about it,” Staci Walbridge said. “He was always asking, when are we going racing? He would get home and watch entire races on YouTube.”
Staci Walbridge said her son has always been fascinated by how things work, especially machinery.
“That allows him to communicate with his crew chief in a way other drivers aren’t always able to,” she said.
Full speed ahead
In a series that finished Aug. 31, Walbridge won three of the six Junior Late Model races in Las Vegas, where drivers compete on a 3/8th of a mile paved oval called the Bullring. Races can be more than 100 laps and cars can reach up to 110 miles per hour.
At that speed and with rival drivers just inches away, even a split-second lapse in concentration can spell disaster.
“Long-term concentration as a kid is really difficult,” Walbridge said. “Now that I think I’ve got that down, it’s really helped me a lot. I’ve had people tell me I’m mature for my age, being able to focus for that long.”
And Walbridge is in it for the long haul. He hopes to keep advancing through the myriad racing series and, eventually, a possible shot at a top-tier NASCAR team.
All the while, Walbridge said he keeps in mind the main lesson his grandfather taught him — stay humble. Racing can be unforgiving, especially to the reckless.
But that isn’t keeping Walbridge from dreaming big and following that path Busch has taken all the way to NASCAR’s Cup Series.
“I think that’s everyone’s hope who races, to eventually get there,” Walbridge said. “That’s obviously my hope. But there’s only 40 cars that can do it.”
More information: Follow Jadan Walbridge at jadanwalbridgeracing.com, on Facebook or on Instagram at @Jadan_Walbridge_Racing.