By Cole Cusumano
RICHMOND, Virg. — September 11 hits close to home for Joe Graf Jr. Although only three years old when the tragedy took place in 2001, he grew up 34 miles away from Manhattan in Mahwah, New Jersey, and his father would often attend work meetings at the World Trade Center.
“My dad wasn’t working in the World Trade Center at the time, but he did years prior to that,” Graf told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “He actually saw the planes hit the towers from another building.”
Luckily, Graf didn’t have any direct relatives affected by the attacks, but his father suffered many losses, as did some of his childhood friends. While the driver of the No. 07 was too young to recall what happened on that day in 2001, he remembers the aftermath in the years following very well.
Since the attack, Graf was reminded all throughout his life in Mahwah of those who lost their lives on that day when driving past his local fire station, which still has a charred, steel beam on display from the disaster — similarly to the one transported to Richmond Raceway for spectators to observe.
Suited up on the grid, he was at a loss for words, but ready to race with a heavy heart.
“It’s always an emotional time, right?” Graf said. “It means a lot just to be able to honor the people that we lost and the people that lost a lot on that day. To be able to race on 9/11, 20 years after, is kind of surreal.”
There was an added weight to competing at Richmond for Graf, as the NASCAR community mourned the loss of 35-year-old, Bray Pemberton. Not only did he play a huge role in the business-side of the sport, but he was also the lawyer for the Graf family’s racing operations.
The No. 07 team honored Pemberton by displaying his name where the driver’s would normally be. With everything taken into consideration this trying week, Graf sought to use it as motivation to turn what he called a “rough season” around.
Graf suddenly lost his crew chief from 2020, Patrick Donohue, in January, after he got the opportunity to work with Jade Buford at Big Machine Racing. The team fired off well with their new leader, Mike Tyska, to start the season, but things took a turn for the worst beginning with a wreck at Martinsville Speedway in the seventh race of the year.
The 38th-place finish sent the team in a downward spiral, as the No. 07 suffered a mechanical failure in eight consecutive races. This caused friction in the shop and left Graf having to acclimate to his third crew chief in under a year.
Enter: Joe Williams. Since he took charge atop the pit box, there’s been a noticeable uptick in speed and performance. This was evident after the team started turning 30th-place runs into near-top-25 days. The pairing hit its peak when Graf earned one of his best results of the year (19th) at one of the most notoriously difficult tracks on the circuit, Darlington Raceway.
“[Williams] really helped us get it turned around,” Graf said. “We haven’t had a mechanical failure, we’ve been getting the performance back on track and I feel really optimistic going into this last little stretch here.”
As is the case with most small budget teams with young drivers, Graf is seeking growth, while minimizing the bad days to close out the 2021 season. He was adamant in refraining to place the blame on Donahue and Tyska for his difficult year, stating they were great at their jobs and he learned invaluable lessons under them.
In the end, it’s a team effort and that requires everyone from the top-down to execute.
“I don’t believe in luck: I believe that if we follow the process and do what we’re supposed to be doing, the results will come, and that’s what we’re building towards,” Graf concluded.
Graf ran a relatively clean race at Richmond, but walked away with placing 31st. While nothing flashy, the No. 07 was loaded up on the hauler in one piece and, in the grand scheme of things, finishing the Go Bowling 250 only down by two laps had to have been a moral victory.
SS Green Light Racing and Graf will have eight more attempts to better themselves before going into the offseason, but the hope is to go out on a high-note in honor of their lost friend, Pemberton.