Tucked between Towson's York and Joppa roads, among four-square and hopscotch courts, Immaculate Conception School's parking lots teem with parents in station wagons and minivans awaiting their clamoring children Fridays after dismissal.
In the late 1990s, a hulking motor home, with a 20-foot trailer holding four dirt bikes in tow, indiscreetly joined those ranks. And an adolescent Justin Boston, focused on the weekend ahead, would climb in and get to work.
“We would stick out like a sore thumb,” Boston said. “We'd travel eight, 10 hours, 14 hours, whatever it had to be when I was little. And I would do all of my homework on the way to the racetrack in the motor home.”
Boston, now one of the few professional racers to hail from Maryland, is regularly getting top-10 finishes in the Automobile Racing Club of America, or ARCA, series. And he credits his past with preparing him.
“Everybody has a different path to the Sprint Cup Series, or wherever they're going to go,” said Boston, who will compete today in the Barbera's Autoland 150 in Millville, N.J. “My path just so happened that I started on motocross. … Everybody has their own way to get where they're going.”
At 23, Boston is one of the older riders in the series, despite being a rookie, but his teammates rarely notice.
“We don't look at it that way,” said Brennan Poole, Boston's current teammate-turned-roommate, golf partner and video game buddy. “As a rookie, you just have to go out every week and … learn as much as you can and ask as many questions of the guys around you. And Justin's the kind of guy who does those things.”
From 6 to 13, Boston and his parents, Bob and Caron, spent their Fridays trekking from Towson to tracks such as Loretta Lynn's Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn., and Steel City Raceway outside Pittsburgh.
The hobby began with a fifth-birthday present: a dirt bike, the first of several — ranging from less than 50cc engines to past 100 — he would receive in his career.
Boston spent his weeks practicing on the asphalt and dirt at places like the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium while peers were catching fly balls or perfecting their lacrosse cradle. And the work paid off.
“It was really a wonderful experience being able to spend time with your son and your family doing something that everyone enjoys,” Bob Boston said. “I really think it ended up bringing everyone in the family closer together.”
Success soon followed, as Justin Boston raced in several national championships at Loretta Lynn's, including a 22nd-place finish in 1998 as well as a state championship win at Mechanicsville's Budds Creek. By the time he was 13, he was knocking on the nation's top spot and had collected more than 300 wins around the country.
But a few tough tumbles led the family to take stock. He broke his arm and elbow, got bitten by a snake on the course and even ran a race with a fever of 102.
“You get so caught up in your child's success that it's almost like a drug,” Boston's father said. “Your mind doesn't allow you to realize that you're putting your son in harm's risk.”
When he saw his son's bike hit him in the head and “demolish his helmet” while a tire pin caught his lip and severely cut his face, Bob Boston made one of his most difficult decisions.
“When I looked at him, just because it was his face and his smile, it upset me so much that I said, ‘That's it, we can't do this anymore.'”
Not quite ready
Boston wasn't long for staying off the track. Before he finished his high school career at Boys' Latin, he was back at it, albeit with a couple of more wheels.
“He wants to ride anything that has a motor except a lawn mower,” Bob Boston said.
Justin Boston tried his hand at tennis, lacrosse, soccer and even a little ice hockey in his time after getting off his bike. None of it stuck. Then, during a trip to Dover International Speedway, Boston realized it was time to race again.
Visiting a friend of his father's who was working on a truck-racing team, Boston had an epiphany.
“There's no reason why I can't do this,” he told his father. And after research and some relief to see roll cages and strict safety guidelines, his parents agreed.
Boston enrolled in the Buck Baker Racing School at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. While his peers were diligently and slowly learning, Boston was blazing through the courses, so much so that the instructors would make him get out of the car because he had nothing left to learn.
“He wasn't on the radar at all at the beginning,” said Billy Venturini, general manager of Boston's current team, Venturini Motorsports. “He started having success with no experience.”
But where his success was quick, adversity soon followed. Boston started racing Legend Cars after driving school. Driving stumpy, Prohibition-looking jalopies with motorcycle engines on a one-fifth mile track, Boston didn't last long in the series.
“I tore up a lot of stuff; I wrecked a lot. I didn't do very good,” Boston said. “We kind of got frustrated with the Legend Cars. We tried to find something else to race, and that's when we got into the big cars.”
Boston moved into the Rev Oil Pro Cup, now the X-1R Pro Cup series, and soon after jumped into UARA-STARS short-track late-model series, which competes around the Southeast, all under sponsor Turner Motorsports.
“I don't think I was quite ready to move up, but we did it so we were racing against more experienced people,” Boston said.
Still a high school student, Boston found himself faced with difficult decisions. Making the eight-hour trek from Sparks, where he and his family lived, to Charlotte every weekend was not sustainable.
Boston did his best to balance the two lives, but it wasn't always possible. He missed his senior prom, and his parents realized after he started his freshman year at Washington College that something had to budge.
The three agreed that Boston would move to Charlotte full time to pursue racing. Soon after Boston relocated, his sponsor unexpectedly dropped him, and he spent 2010 and 2011 watching from the sideline.
“It was the whole reason I moved there, and I couldn't even do it,” Boston said. “There were definitely moments when I thought I would never get back in a racecar, and that was probably one of my darker days. And I never thought I would get that opportunity again.”
“That's the one thing about this sport. Even if you're a great talent, you've got to have some sponsorship behind you,” Venturini said.
“Once he did that, he started performing very well.”
A bright future
In July 2012, Boston secured a new sponsor and got a spot on the Venturini team — which has racers represented as high up as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — competing in ARCA, beginning his first full season in February.
And the hiccups began to subside.
Sure, there was the 31st-place finish in his inaugural race at Daytona after an almost dozen-car wreck in February, and the 18th-place mark in Winchester, Ind., after two separate ignition system failures left him “dead in the water” on June 30, but the 23-year-old is taking his first full season on the track in stride.
“You're going to have bad races,” Boston said of the Daytona wreck. “And my thought process was, ‘Well, this was our bad race.'”
And among the few duds, Boston has raced to three top-five finishes and seven top-10 finishes this season, including a seventh-place finish at the Chicagoland 150 in Joliet, Ill., last weekend. The wins put him fourth in the ARCA standings, 95 points out of third.
“He's in a good place. He just has to keep doing what he's doing,” Poole said. “Once he gets enough seat time and experience, he'll just gradually move up.”
Venturini suspects that with a little more time in ARCA, Boston soon could be in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series.
“He's experiencing success with the least amount of experience of anyone I've ever worked with,” Venturini said. “But it's definitely obtainable [to] be on those levels for a couple of years before possibly being a [Sprint] Cup driver.”
Poole thinks Boston is on the verge of his first ARCA win, which might come when he races today.
And for Bob Boston, who always goes back to “bright” to describe Justin's future, it is all about seeing that smile that he once thought could be taken away.
“Just seeing him and my wife at the track: the joy, the smiles,” he said. “It's all worth the pain and sacrifice that you have to go through.”
Barbera's Autoland 150
Sunday, 1 p.m.
New Jersey Motorsports Park
Meet Justin Boston
Birthdate: Sept. 12, 1989
Education: Boys' Latin, one year at Washington College
Racing series: Motocross, Charlotte Legends Car racing, Rev-Oil Pro Cup Series, UARA-STARS Late Model Stock Tour, Automobile Racing Club of America
Best ARCA finishes: Fourth place at Toledo 200, Elko 200 and Michigan 200
Hobby: Wakeboarding, Boston's "second passion" in Lake Norman or Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte