Back with Grill and GARC, South Ready to Tame Five Flags in Allen Turner PLM Season Opener
By Chuck Corder
Forty minutes across the center of the State of Alabama.
That’s all that separates Justin South from his family-owned, Richard Petty-inspired No. 43 Pro Late Model. But under the careful, watchful eyes of late model legend Augie Grill the stock car might as well be in South’s own backyard in Leeds, Ala.
Grill, who in addition to his driving duties also manufacturers Grand American Race Cars (GARC) in Dolomite, Ala., is a perfectionist stuck in a sport that is often defined by its unfortunate mishaps.
Thanks to Grill’s Midas touch, South has started his 2017 late model season with a bang.
Fresh off a victory in the Baby Rattler 125 at South Alabama Speedway with Grill acting once again as his crew chief, South comes south to Five Flags Speedway in anticipation for the 100-lap Allen Turner Pro Late Model season opener Friday.
“Augie is instrumental in our success this season, and my success personally in making me a better racecar driver,” the 28-year-old South said. “He doesn’t really wanna be a driver/coach or a mentor, but in his own way he makes me a good bit better. He helps me get all I can outta the racecar.”
The PLMs will be joined at the famed half-mile asphalt oval Friday by the Beef “O” Brady’s Pro Trucks (30-lap feature), The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen (25) and the Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks (20).
Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday with PLM qualifying getting underway at approximately 6:45 p.m. and pre-race festivities starting at 8 p.m. Admission is as follows: $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; and free for kids 5 and under.
After a year apart, South has welcomed a reunion with one of Grill’s GARC cars and with the man himself this year. Grill has been one of late model’s kings during the last decade, capturing back-to-back Snowball Derby titles (2007-08) and winning three Snowflake 100s, the latest of which came just this past December.
His accomplishments notwithstanding, Grill in recent years has put extra emphasis on his customers always being right.
In 2015, that meant Grill agreed to serve as South’s crew chief. It quickly proved a match made in short-track heaven. With Grill atop his hauler for the first time that May, South won a PLM race at Five Flags for the first time in his career.
“It was a super special moment,” said South, who turns 29 in a week on April 5. “In fact, we still talk about that day. I knew that having Augie there was a huge difference. Everything ran smoother. Anytime he’s there, I’m trying to learn something from him.”
South has been a sponge for the first few months of 2017, absorbing any knowledge Grill cares to impart.
The results already have been striking. At Speedfest earlier this year in Cordele, Ga., South was running second with 30 laps to go before being spun out on a restart by the third-place car. He, then, finished fourth in a Show Me the Money Series PLM race at Montgomery (Ala.) Motor Speedway before his big win at Opp.
“(This year) has started off really well compared to recent years,” said South, who sat on the Snowflake 100 pole in 2015. “I contribute that to a couple of factors, but Augie is a large reason. It’s a car I know, a car I’ve had success with. And being in Augie’s shop is irreplaceable. You can’t substitute that for anything. He’s methodical in his work and preparation.
“(Drivers) all say races are won at shop. That’s the truth. You can’t put these cars together half-cocked. Everything on the car has to be touched.”
It was that kind of scrupulous attention to detail that South believes he was missing during 2016 when he drove for another car owner and struggled to find success with unfamiliar chassis.
Now, back under the Grill and GARC family tree, South feels like the pieces are falling into place to be considered a contender for short-track’s biggest late model races.
Because Grill’s hotshoe skills still strike fear in many of his rivals, South knows that there will be events this year where he and the boss go head-to-head.
“We have an understanding among each other,” South said. “Half of my schedule, I race against Augie. We both raced at Montgomery four weeks ago and my car didn’t get any less attention. Augie juggled them perfectly.”
While Grill’s full attention will be on his customer Friday, South still has reservations about returning to Pensacola.
“It’s been a minute since I’ve had success there,” South said, sounding cautiously optimistic. “If you’re not moving forward you’re literally going backward in racing. Honestly, in the five or six races I’ve run since that win (in 2015), we haven’t run well.”
That’s why he’ll lean on Grill this week for not only getting the No. 43 set up properly, but also for the icon’s vast expertise in deftly navigating Five Flags’ abrasive pavement.
“When you go to the racetrack, everybody wants to be fast,” South said. “But there’s a difference in being fast and winning races.
“I have been fast for most of my career everywhere I went. Augie is obviously a guy who knows how to win races. I feel like having him as my crew chief really does give me a leg up on everybody.”