By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

David Dalton Jr. has always wanted to go fast. 

As a baby, he rolled his bottle around the bottom of his crib, sweeping it side to side like a car switching lanes. At 6 years old, Dalton discovered racing-car video games, learning how to glide around turns and rev his virtual engine. 

“When I found out there was such a thing as racing cars, I was hooked,” Dalton, now 23, said. 

He orchestrated races with his toy cars, sending the red and blue miniatures zooming down hallways and flying down stairs. 

Eli Seibert, Dalton’s third grade teacher at Hillside School, said he remembers watching Dalton run around during recess, faster than many of the other kids: “He was always quick.”

Dalton drove his first kart — a small, four-wheel vehicle used in competitive racing — at 13 and began to set his sights higher. After graduating from Montclair High School in 2016, he moved to North Carolina to pursue his dream — to become the first Black racing driver to come out of Montclair. 

“In New Jersey, there isn’t much racing,” Dalton said. “I was in the wrong spot for where my heart wanted to go.” 

He arrived in North Carolina eager to make a name for himself. 

In November 2018, Dalton spent three days at the Lucas Oil Race School, a program designed to train young drivers. He learned the fundamentals of driving a race car and competed in the program’s kart race, winning fifth place. His podium finish won him four days of training sessions on racing tracks of his choice, an opportunity to get a leg up on competition.

With the race school completed, Dalton entered the 2019 Lucas Oil formula car season, competing in his first-ever car race in April at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Drivers pay to compete in these races, and Lucas Oil provides each racer with a car and access to a crew team. 

Dalton competed in four three-race series during the 2019 Lucas Oil season, for a total of 12 races. Despite a rough start with a 10th-place finish, he claimed multiple podium appearances. After finishing first in an August race, he found himself ranked second overall for the season.

But due to funding issues, Dalton was forced to drop out of the 2019 season with two three-race series remaining. His father, who was helping to manage his finances, was unable to reach a deal with the Lucas Oil school. The current cost for a full season of racing with Lucas Oil is around $54,000, according to the Lucas Oil website. 

“I was basically forced to shift my focus,” Dalton said. “I probably would have won that season.”

He pivoted and began to compete in Formula Four races, an entry-level category of racing for young drivers that is meant to bridge the gap between kart racing and Formula Three, the third-tier class of professional racing. 

Despite a sponsorship from Gas Monkey Energy Drink during the 2020 Formula Four season, David Dalton Jr., in the No. 33 green car, only received funding to compete in two series. (COURTESY DAVID DALTON JR.)
Despite a sponsorship from Gas Monkey Energy Drink during the 2020 Formula Four season, David Dalton Jr., in the No. 33 green car, only received funding to compete in two series. (COURTESY DAVID DALTON JR.)
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But he still had to fight against a limited budget, even when a sponsor agreed to work with him. A 2020 deal with Gas Monkey Energy Drink only provided enough funding to compete in two of seven season races. Dalton said he ended the season disappointed — his highest finish was eighth place.  

While he struggled to make deals and get time on the track, he said, he watched as his competitors, mostly white and wealthy, won race after race. Deals struck between drivers and sponsors occur behind closed doors, and there are no clear standards set for them, he said. Dalton said he has seen drivers younger than him rise quickly in ranks because they had the funding to compete in every season race or accrue practice time on the track. He said it seemed like it cost more for him and other racers of color to get into the sport. 

He said he has only raced with three other drivers who come from minority backgrounds, and that he has “always been one of the few minorities on the grid.” 

“I cherish each time I’m in a car like it’s my last,” Dalton said. “I ultimately don’t know if there will be another one.”

But the challenge of seeking funding motivates him, he said. He wants to inspire future drivers in the same way he has been inspired by current and past professional drivers. One of Dalton’s biggest inspirations is British driver Lewis Hamilton, who drives for the Mercedes team as part of the Formula One division, the highest class of international car racing for single-seat cars. Hamilton became the first Black F1 driver in 2007, in the sport that first held a championship race in 1950.

“He came from nothing,” Dalton said. “He has the characteristics of a leader, of a champion, of a legend.”

He said he sees Hamilton as a driver to emulate, an example “to follow and mold in my own way.” 

Dalton’s 12th grade English teacher, Tara Crisafulli, said she never thought Dalton was setting his sights too high by wanting to be a professional race car driver.

“It was a realistic goal for him that he had kind of mapped out a course for how he could achieve it,” Crisafulli said. “He was very driven and very knowledgeable about it. It didn’t just seem like a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.”

Crisafulli, whose husband is an F1 fan, was able to talk with Dalton about the sport. On the last day of class, she made Dalton promise to reach out to let her know when he became an F1 driver. Early last year Dalton sent her a message on Facebook and said he was still pursuing his dream and had begun to race professionally. 

“As a teacher, that was just such an amazing moment to read those words from him,” Crisafulli said. “I’m so incredibly proud of him.”

Despite not yet being an F1 driver, Crisafulli said, Dalton is already an inspiration to young people in Montclair. She said he is achieving in a way that often goes unrecognized by schools. 

“It’s so great for other students to see that just because you’re not getting the highest grades or you’re not valedictorian, doesn’t mean that your achievements aren’t worth celebrating,” she said. 

Dalton’s new goal is to pivot again, and to begin competing in The Road to Indy, a race car development program similar to Lucas Oil’s. The Road to Indy provides a scholarship-funded path to reach the IndyCar Series, the top level for American Championship car racing. Dalton is seeking funding opportunities and is hopeful he will be able to compete again soon.