Two girls, one five years old and the other a year-and-a-half, sat with their mother on the frontstretch grandstands of Florida's New Smyrna Speedway Saturday night. For the first time in their young lives, they got to watch their dad compete in a Super Late Model race at the Florida half-mile track.
Every time the No. 9 car went by them in the Red-Eye 100 event, the girls waved at their daddy.
Inside that car sat a 29-year-old Jay Middleton. A former regular in Super Late Model competition throughout Florida and beyond had not been in a Super Late Model since 2008, before either of his daughters, Miley and Mia, were even born.
Earlier in the day Saturday, Middleton squeezed into a fire suit he wore during his 2008 ASA Southeast Asphalt Tour championship season and climbed back into a car for the first time since clinching the title. He picked right back up where he had left off in the five-plus years since he last ran a Super Late Model race, competing with the Southeast's top drivers and racing near the front of the field.
On the track, it was a return to the way things used to be for Middleton. The late-race crash and a 13th-place finish in the Red-Eye 100 weren't what the former racer who spent time in the ASA National Tour and ARCA Racing Series was used to back in his prime racing years. Still, everything felt just like it used to behind the wheel.
When Middleton climbed from the Pat Jett-owned No. 9 car at the end of the Red-Eye and got to see his wife, Joni, and his two little girls, a realization set in. While things inside the car may have stayed pretty much the same over the past five years, everything outside the car has put Middleton in a far better place than he was when he was a full-time racer.
Middleton had come full-circle from an admitted battle with alcoholism that plagued his prime racing years. The alcohol problem put a strain on his family and his racing career When he was at the track, not many people would've known he had an issue. Away from the track, Middleton was battling a problem far greater than any on-track tussle he had ever seen from behind a windshield.
For those reasons, being able to be a part of a loving family and five years sober, made Saturday night's race at New Smyrna one of the best of Middleton's life.
A CHAMP'S ISSUES
2008 was a banner year for Jay Middleton. In the first season of the ASA Southeast Asphalt Tour, Middleton scored three wins and finished in the top 10 in nine of the series' 12 races en route to the championship. In years past, Middleton had done some impressive things, including winning a pole at Kentucky Speedway and finishing on the podium at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the ASA National Tour back in 2004 and winning a championship in the now-defunct Florida Pro Series in 2003. He had competed in the Snowball Derby, the Florida Governor's Cup and other major short track events around the Southeast, but his ASA SAT title year was by far his most successful.
It seemed that, still in his early 20's and armed with impressive statistics, Middleton was headed towards great things in his racing career. Instead, the issues with alcohol that Middleton struggled with at the same time kept him from accomplishing the goals he had in the sport.
Middleton quit racing on a full-time basis after his 2008 championship, but the battles he faced outside of the car continued.
"I was kind of in the transition between a kid and an adult," said Middleton. "I had many personal struggles, especially with alcohol. It really got out of hand. Alcoholism has run in my family for several generations. It kind of took over me, but just in subtle ways. Whenever I'd go to the racetrack, it was just about drinking and having fun.
"Then when I quit racing, I didn't have any purpose. I didn't really know what to do. I didn't know what was going to happen. Racing was it for me. Almost like an NFL player that quit playing. Football had been their whole life, but when that's not there anymore, what's going to fill it? I just was involved in all the wrong things. It was all about me. I didn't have God in my life or any of that spiritual aspect. Alcoholism got a lot worse. It got a lot worse really fast."
Middleton had the success on the track, but most of the success came while alcohol played a big part of his life outside of the car. Now, Middleton looks back and knows alcohol likely kept him from even more success.
"It was really difficult for me growing up and being in racing. I just had no core values. Racing was there and I had those old school racing mentalities and things like that. But at the end of the day, what I truly believed in could flip-flop all the time and it wouldn't matter.
"At the time, I would've told you it didn't affect my racing, but there were plenty of times I was lazy and not putting in work around the shop. I wasn't there. By the time race time came along, most of the time I was there. I was good to go and drinking wasn't on my mind. But once the race was over, it was on. On practice night or the weekend before the race, alcohol was on my mind. Would I have been better off without alcohol? Without a doubt. I would've had improved performance and intangibles that racing requires."
Middleton hit a low point shortly after leaving the Super Late Model scene in 2008. Just a few months after celebrating a championship, Middleton's alcohol addiction took over most aspects of his life until he took control with the help of his family and a treatment facility.
"There was definitely a day where I was just out of my mind. I wasn't myself. My family knew that. They were like, 'Where are you at?' I told them I was somewhere else. It took me like three hours to get there. I was always really good at hiding things. I just came clean to them and they were shocked. I said, 'I need help. I can't do this by myself.'
"At that point, I just said I needed help and I gave up. That's what changed it for me. I didn't try to take control of it. I just completely surrendered and asked the people around me for help. They couldn't provide it, so they put me in a place that could. It was April of 2009 and I entered treatment for alcoholism. I stayed in a treatment center in Gainesville for 90 days. I got back out of there and tried to get my life back together. We had our first baby around that time. It was time to refocus on stuff and get my life back together and get that spiritual aspect back in my life."
Racing was once Jay Middleton's passion. Hand-in-hand with that passion was Middleton's alcoholism. When Jay and Joni Middleton's first daughter, Miley, was born after Jay left the treatment facility, both racing and alcohol were put in the rear-view mirror as Jay sobered up and transitioned his life for its next stage.
"I got it done on the racetrack, but I never got it done at home," said Middleton. "I was never really able to get that sponsorship or make the deals. I would've put my talent up against a lot of the guys that race on Sundays. I'm not trying to be cocky. That's what's kind of sad about it. I regret making a lot of the bad decisions and especially not investing myself fully in what I needed to do. But that was God's plan for me. Racing didn't work out, but now I've got a beautiful family, I've got a good job and I've got the opportunity to go racing every once and a while. That's good enough for me. I don't need to have it all."
In April of this year, Middleton will celebrate five years sober. Over those five years, Middleton has dabbled a bit in Street Stock racing in Florida, but he has focused his life away from the track and broken through the clouds of his past.
"I'm not ashamed of my past. There's a difference between shame and regret. I regret a lot of the decisions I made. If I could do it over again knowing what I know now, obviously I would've made the right decisions. But it's a crazy cycle. At some point, there had to be a point where it got so bad that I said I needed to go in the other way and ask for the help I needed.
"My wife had the opportunity to walk away and nobody would've said a thing about her. A lot of people in similar circumstances wouldn't have stuck around like she did. She made a decision and she prayed about it. She stayed with me and it has worked out well for us. We have a great relationship and two wonderful kids. My dad has gotten sober and all of the relationships within our family are really strong. I couldn't have said that five years ago."
Since Middleton became sober in 2009, his family has grown with the additions of Miley and Mia. He earned a Computer Information Systems degree from Saint Leo University in Florida in 2012. He now works for Henry Schein Dental in Jacksonville, Florida, building computer systems for private practice dental offices. While racing was no longer his priority, the urge to get behind the wheel never fully left.
Without the dangers of alcohol in his life and at a more mature 29 years old, Middleton returned to the Super Late Model ranks at New Smyrna Saturday.
"Now I know what's important to me. It's God, it's my family, it's work and things like that that actually mean something and have value. At this point in my life, I've got a good foundation again. I can bring racing back into my life because it's not dangerous for me anymore. I don't get triggered or anything like that at the racetrack. It was just a lot of fun seeing old people and getting some of those relationships back in the right way.
The return to the track was initiated by Chris Cater, Middleton's former crew member who has worked with the Jett team and driver Kurt Jett for the past several seasons. Middleton said he messaged Cater during last month's Snowball Derby and indicated he would've been up for the task to compete there again.
"After that, (Cater) got the bug in his ear that I was ready to go racing again," said Middleton. "He called me and was like, 'Hey what are you doing on the 3rd and 4th (of January)?' I said, 'Nothing.' He said, 'Do you want to race?' 'Yeah, what do you need from me?' He goes, 'How much do you weigh?' I told him 200 pounds and that's all he needed - just come race it.
"It felt really good. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. I've driven a Street Stock some since 2008 when I last raced competitively. We whooped them pretty bad in those Street Stocks. I never felt uncomfortable. When I got in Kurt's car for Pat, the seat could've been made for me. It fit me perfect. The seat belts were perfect. The steering wheel was right where I like it. I've always driven Port City cars too and that was a Port City car. It was kind of like coming home."
Getting back into the car may have felt like coming home, but actually going to a home with his family there and his life back in order is what made Saturday's race far better than races of yesterday. While Middleton does not currently have any solid plans to compete in more Super Late Model events this season, he's open to the opportunity given his new life outlook.
"For me, racing at this point in my life, is not the number-one priority by any means. If it's not fun to go to the racetrack then I don't want to go. But I will tell you, Saturday night was a lot of fun. I don't think I can say enough about Pat and Kurt Jett and the ride they gave me. Pat was just one of the nicest people. I've met him a ton of times, but I've never been a part of what he had going on. To see the real side of him, he's one of the coolest guys I've ever met."
Looking back on the past five years, Middleton sees a lot of growth personally, professionally and spiritually. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm involved in a local church, I'm a deacon, I'm on the stewardship committee, a college graduate. Pretty much everything that I value in my life has happened in the last five years. I have championships, race wins and stuff like that in the past, but the things that I've been given a second chance for today are what mean more to me. I never thought I'd get to the point where I'd be happy doing a job, going to church. I would've said, 'That's not me.' But things have come full circle. Maybe it's growing up, I don't know.
"I'm just really happy with life right now."