Real Racers – Introducing Patrick Staropoli
Walero’s ‘Real Racers’ campaign intends to shine a light on the personalities, stories and characters across all levels of junior motorsport. All members of the campaign compete up and down the land and have independently chosen Walero to keep them cool under pressure and help them fight it out at the front of the grid.
In this edition, we speak to Patrick Staropoli – a stock car racer, Harvard graduate & doctor who realised his dream of becoming a NASCAR driver.
Every racing driver has a unique background and a unique story. Patrick Staropoli is no different.
The 32-year-old holds a number of impressive achievements; an alumni of Harvard University with highest honours, a doctor at the revered Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami and the only doctor to ever win a NASCAR race.
A humble individual, Patrick recalls the story of his upbringing and the influence a close-knit family had on him.
“I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and my dad and my grandfather were both car mechanics. They had their own repair shop so I grew up around cars. They were both race car drivers at different points in time so I spent most weeks at the shop and weekends at the racetrack.
“My mom had a couple of different jobs in education and fashion growing up, but she sacrificed a lot to be a great mom and focus on raising my sister and I. She had her own business for a while – she’s the creative side of things and my dad is the mechanical side of things and I think I’m a combination of both of them.”
Patrick’s early years culminated in the achievement of a childhood dream for many: studying at the illustrious Harvard University. Originally set on becoming a race car engineer, it wasn’t all set in stone for Patrick and the allure of an entirely different field of life proved too attractive to resist.
“I went in thinking I was going to major in mechanical engineering and work for a race team but I ended up jumping ship and majored in neurobiology. A lot of the pre-med classes coincided or were similar with the pre-engineering ones. I just developed an interest in medicine and wanting to do something for a living that would help people, that was scientific and challenging to me and that’s why I ended up going that route.
“I came back home for medical school thanks to a scholarship to the University of Miami. I chose ophthalmology as my specialty and completed residency at Bascom Palmer which is the number one eye institute here in America. I’m now almost halfway through my vitreoretinal surgery fellowship and I’m excited to start looking for jobs soon.”
Harvard is globally recognised as one of the very best universities in the world – rivalled only by MIT & Stanford in the United States and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. Being offered a place there is a bucket-list moment for many.
“At first, I think anyone that applies to a school like that thinks it’s a long shot. You get in and you say ‘oh great, it’s amazing, it’s Harvard’, but I don’t think I truly realised how much of a privilege it was to study there until I was about to leave and in the years since I left.
“I think the cool thing about the classes is not necessarily the facts that you learn, but how they really teach you to learn, to approach problems, how to think critically, how to read scientific papers and criticise – not just take what is written or what is said for fact. I think being there taught me how to think about things in the world differently – whether it’s medicine or racing. They teach you to always question ‘is this right or could I be doing it better?’”
Patrick also places great emphasis on the time spent outside of the classroom, namely the experiences and people he shared his time at Harvard with.
“I had four amazing roommates – Jonatán was from Guatemala, Gordon is Korean but was from Canada, Tomo was from Japan, and Mike is Chinese, so we had an entire mix of people with drastically different backgrounds. They’re probably the four best friends I’ve made in life. It’s the experiences we had outside of the classroom and learning from each other that was the major thing I took away from my time there.”
Patrick’s racing career began in karting at the age of 13, where his first race was something of a baptism of fire.
“My first karting race was over in Naples, on the west coast of Florida,” Patrick recalled. “It had rained earlier that day and I started somewhere in the middle of the pack in the heat race. I was all over the place but I was going for it!
“The track announcer’s daughter was also in the race and there was one point, I’d cut down into turn one to block somebody and she ended up driving over my right rear tyre and catapulted out into the field, which was already like a swamp because it had been raining so much, and she got stuck out there spinning her tyres trying to get out. I somehow won the race, but then she confronted me in the pits afterward yelling at me, telling me I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean we were only 13 year old kids and I had no idea what I was doing but I knew it was fun!”
Fortunately, from then on it was relatively plain-sailing for Patrick. His ultimate dream was to compete in a NASCAR race, which initially seemed a million miles away.
“I karted for about a year then moved up into full-sized stock cars, which around here were called Pure Stocks or cyclone cars, the very basic entry-level division,” Patrick explained. “I did that for another year and then worked my way up through the ranks in Florida. I always kept the reasonable expectation that to make it big in racing, you either need to have a lot of money independently or have a lot of money supporting you. I was fortunate to have a couple small businesses that kept us racing in Florida but I never had anything that would get me to a national level or division.
“Fast forward to the end of my first year of med school and I ran into this contest called the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge. There was a TV commercial with Danica Patrick saying if you have a dream of racing in NASCAR, send in a YouTube video and we’re going to pick nine people. It was basically a reality TV driver search competition and I said why the heck not? I had a couple of weeks off for summer break so my sister and I made a video and sent it in to see what would happen. I didn’t get enough ‘fan’ votes to make it into the contest but they picked a couple of people based on their racing resume and interesting story so I got my foot in the door.”
One of nine finalists selected, Patrick embarked on a three-day competition. Run in partnership with the revered NASCAR Cup Series team, Michael Waltrip Racing, Patrick was merely happy to be involved. To his surprise, however, his life was about to change.
“They picked me as the winner and it was a dream come true,” Patrick said. “I got to be a development driver for Michael Waltrip Racing and the grand prize was one race in NASCAR, that’s it, and Peak Motor Oil was going to be the sponsor.”
At the age of just 23, Patrick could now say he was a fully-fledged NASCAR racer. But it also presented him with a wholly unique challenge – how to juggle everything at university whilst simultaneously competing in NASCAR.
“I was in the middle of my rotations in med school, I was on the respiratory module which is some of the hardest physiology to learn and I was like ‘alright, see you guys, I’m off to Washington for my first ever NASCAR race!’.
“I hopped on an aeroplane and flew all the way out there. It was a one weekend whirlwind. I started seventh and ended up finishing fifth in my first race. Everyone was mind blown – a lot of people thought we would be somewhere in the back and not competitive. I knew that if I was with the right team and the right equipment, and I had both driving for Bill McAnally, we would have an opportunity to perform well and we did.”
Patrick’s standout performance led to more races. No longer a one-off, he had proven his talent and was called back for more. However, it presented Patrick with a choice: he would have to take a year out of med school to do it.
“I ended up taking the year off from medical school because I knew that doing both would be too much of a crazy juggle. So I did a research year where I completed ophthalmology research on the side and then raced on the weekends. We only had seven races but in that time I ended up winning one of them, and had three top-fives and 6 top-tens.
“I took a small opportunity, made it into a bigger one and basically got to live out my childhood dream right there.”
Reflecting on his unique status within the world of motorsport, a down-to-earth Patrick is quick to downplay himself and cites all of the inspiration and support of those around him as the key reason for his career and success so far.
“It’s awesome,” Patrick exclaimed. “There’s lots of doctors who have driven race cars, people who have crossed both worlds and do it for fun on the club side but not necessarily professionally. I’m very passionate about being a doctor, I love that and it’s my job.
“But I always tell people I was a race car driver long before I was a doctor. To accomplish both of those things and to have had the opportunities to do them both at a high level, I do recognise how lucky I am and it wouldn’t be possible without the people who have kept me here. My dad got me started, and people like Bryan Emrich at PEAK and Marc Cannon at AutoNation both believed in me and gave me the opportunity to prove myself on a national level, and I’m proud to have done that. As busy as things have been the last couple of years with residency and fellowship I have still been able to race on a regional level in the Super Late Model division driving for Jim McCoy, who I’ve known since I was a kid back when he was racing against my dad.
“So there have been a whole lot of people who believed in me along the way and have given me the opportunity to keep racing. It’s a cool stat to have [being the only doctor in history to win a NASCAR race], and I’d like to add a few more to that going forward. We have been winning races in Florida but I’d love to one day get back into the national NASCAR divisions and rack up more wins.
“Joe Marko from HMS Motorsport has also been my buddy now for almost ten years. He was there for the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge – originally they were the guys supplying the helmets and kit to the competition so that’s when we first met.
“After winning the contest, he was helpful with coordinating all of the safety equipment that I needed to get approved to race in NASCAR. Since then, I go straight to Joe for all of my safety gear – including my new Walero kits! – and the guys at HMS are always super responsive in getting things out to me. It’s been cool to have someone who is so well integrated in the industry as a supporter of mine and Joe is just a really good guy. I’m very thankful to him for all his support over the years.”
It’s no secret that the world of motor racing is a stressful and high-pressure environment. Similarly, the medical world is just as high-pressure if not more so. Fast-paced, unpredictable and time-consuming – it’s not difficult to draw the similarities.
As a driver and a doctor, Patrick is uniquely placed to offer an insight into both and how you simultaneously manage the intense pressures that both deliver.
“I feed off of both of them even when I’m not in the other environment,” Patrick reveals. “When I was first learning surgery, obviously you’re super nervous and someone is there guiding you through everything but I always try to keep my cool like ‘if I can drive a car at Daytona three wide at 200mph, then I can do this!’
“As I became more comfortable as a doctor and a surgeon, whenever there was high pressure stuff at the race track I just had to think as clearly as possible and act like I’m in the operating room – take a deep breath, find my centre and figure out what the next three or four steps are going to be to succeed in whatever the situation is. I apply that to the race car as well.
“I think in terms of the mentality, in medicine you’re always coming up with a differential diagnosis for what’s wrong with someone and you’re trying to pick what surgery or treatment will maximise the benefit to them with the least amount of side effects, that’s the whole goal.
“In racing, you’re doing something similar. You’re identifying what part of the corner you’re struggling with in the car and what’s the best adjustment you can make with the least amount of detriment to the other parts of the corner. I’m pretty involved with the suspension set up and adjusting the car at the track – I geek out on all of that stuff and so I think, at least with the way my brain analyses problems, whether it’s an eyeball or a race car, I have become better at streamlining that process.”
The time-consuming nature of an intense career and a similarly intense hobby leaves Patrick with little time for anything else. However, he makes it work and details just a small insight into how he juggles both worlds and makes them work.
“I don’t sleep very much!” he joked. “Actually sleep is important and the only reason I get it is because of the people helping me out. Jim McCoy and his team maintain the car and everything nowadays. I come over and help with the finishing touches and setting it up but the bulk of the work is done by them.
“As an example, on my most recent race weekend I finished work around five o’clock, hopped into the car with my dad and we drove up to Citrus County Speedway which, with traffic, ended up being about five and half hours from where I live.
“So I missed practice on Friday night. Woke up, practised, qualified and raced on Saturday. We qualified on pole, started fourth and finished second. We almost won the race but the shifter handle broke off the transmission so I couldn’t shift on restarts! We then got back in the car around 11 o’clock, drove straight to Miami, got back around four in the morning and then I had a 24 hour shift on Sunday.
“The schedule is packed and it takes a lot of sacrifice but again, it goes back to how passionate you are. I love racing so as long as it doesn’t require me to be in two physically different places at the same time then I’m going to do both as much as possible.”
Looking ahead, Patrick has another busy year in store but is determined to get out on track as often as he can.
“Similar to the plan for the last couple of years, it’s going to be pick and choose. Whenever Jimmy and I are free from our work schedules, we choose the big races. We are probably going to stick to the Super Late Model series in Florida, but maybe travel to some of the bigger events in the southeast US if the time and sponsorship allows.”
With so many experiences under his belt – from operating theatres to the cockpit of a stock car at some of America’s greatest race tracks, Patrick offers one final piece of advice for those aiming high.
“Whenever you’re passionate about something in life and you want to do something, put all of yourself into it and commit to it,” Patrick says. “I feel like, at a lot of points in my life, people were making me choose between school and racing, being a doctor or a racer – saying you can’t do both.
“Obviously things would be a lot easier if you picked one track or the other but I’ve always been passionate about doing both things and I think my career so far has shown that you can do both at a high level if you manage your time right and have the right people around you. I love it and I know how lucky I am to get to do what I’m doing. I would encourage people who have diverse interests to not get pigeonholed into one or the other based on what people tell you. Just go after what you want and make it happen.”
You can follow Patrick’s incredible story on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
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