Oxford teen graduates early, goes to England to be a racecar driver

Usually when kids watch the movie “Cars,” they’re impressed by the animation. They enjoy the funny jokes and circumstances infused into the plot.

However, 17-year-old Oxford native Jack Sullivan was impacted by the three words Lightneen McQueen muttered before every race, taking them literally.

“Speed. I am speed.”

At the age of five, he got into go-carting. It didn’t take very long — almost no time at all, actually — for him to get into his first accident, banging his head off the steering wheel in his first race.

“I had a big cherry on my forehead for a couple of weeks,” Sullivan said.

His unwillingness to quit leads Jack to where he is now. When most kids his age would be looking forward to Friday night football games or the Homecoming dance, Jack graduated from Talawanda High School early and finds himself in England living the life of a racer, chasing his dream of becoming one of the best drivers ever.

“Most little kids say when they are four or five years old that they want to be a racecar driver,” Sullivan said. “I had that moment, but then it slipped away from me for a few years.

“At 12 or 13 years old it dawned upon me that I could be a pro.”

Seven years after that first accident, he and his family decided a change was in order. That long time spent in vintage carting had taught him a lot, and wins came with a high frequency. They went from the rigid and stiff vintage carts to the smoother, sleeker modern carts, capable of higher performance.

Even the step up in competition couldn’t wrangle in Sullivan’s talent and ambition. His future of racing cars was imminent.

“I was a little overweight for the junior class, and we didn’t have the budget to get into the senior class,” Sullivan said.

So, instead of making an investment and advancing to the next level of carting, Sullivan decided to make the jump to cars. The transition was easier than some may have thought.

“After seven years of vintage carting, he learned cart control really well,” Jack’s father, Jeff, said.

In his first year in the Formula Race Promotions 1600 series, Jack won one race and placed third in another. It was a tune-up season, evidenced by his five wins and eight podium finishes the following year. Jack was the second racer in the last decade of the series to win a race while not belonging to a professional racing team.

“We broke the dam,” Jeff said. “We whipped ‘em. It was just a father-son operation against all these pro teams.”

Those results might surprise you until you find out that racing is in his blood. Jack calls himself a fourth-generation racer, taking up the sport after his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his great-uncle.

It was a different kind of racing for his great-grandfather. Instead of four wheels and a steering wheel, he took to the sky, flying P80 airplanes in the Cleveland air races. This was all after a career as a fighter pilot and test pilot in World War II.

He also did some cart racing, which he introduced to his son, Jack’s grandpa, and his other son Terry, Jack’s great-uncle. They’d both make the transition to cars as well, with his grandpa getting involved in the MGB circuit and his great uncle doing some Porsche Club racing.

Given the long bloodline of racers, it only made sense for Jack to apply for the Team USA Scholarship, given to only the most talented racers in the country, it aims to “provide opportunities for young American race car drivers at an early stage in their careers.”

When Jack got word he had received the scholarship, he was speechless.

“When I scrolled through the list of the past winners on Wikipedia for the first time, a lot of the guys I’ve looked up to,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been watching Josef Newgarden in Indy Car, I saw AJ Almendinger… I recognize Jimmy Vasser, and Bryan Herta… Seeing they were just a couple of steps ahead of me puts into perspective how close I am.

“I should look to see if Wikipedia has been updated, but when I see my name on that list it’s going to be pretty surreal.”

Driving on the left side of the road will be the least of Sullivan’s worries during his time overseas. In fact, adjusting to the grocery stores has taken more of an adjustment than Jack might have foreseen.

“One change is seeing groceries appear to be cheap, but then you have to remember there’s an exchange rate,” Sullivan laughed.

Jack may not be your typical baseball, football, soccer or basketball athlete who many people would rely on to make Hamilton proud. However, his talent on the race track is undeniable.

Don’t be surprised if one day you’re looking at this Hamiltonian at the top of the leaderboard.

This article first published in The Hamiltonian Magazine, a content partner for the Journal-News.