Matt Perry (5) races to the inside of Austin Stewart (3) at Irwindale Speedway in the K&N Filters 60 presented by Traffic Management Inc. on July 18, 2020.

The Comeback Kid: Why Matt Perry’s Eighth Place at Irwindale Holds a Bigger Picture

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Photo by Diego Alvarado / By.diego Multimedia

As the only current full-time active duty United States military service member racing in NASCAR, getting a chance behind the wheel is a rare chance to get away from the day to day grind. But the San Diego stationed Matt Perry holds a unique story in his racing career.

Since 2010, Perry’s experience extends across karting, drifting, autocross, road courses and drag strips until he made his oval debut in 2017 in a Super Late Model.

A year later, a near-fatal accident would delay his racing career.

“There were a lot of nights where I knew I would get back to where I was,” Perry recalled. “But the pain of being out of the seat — to have all that very quickly change from a very serious incident — I never would have thought happened. Luckily I had great friends, great parents, great family who stuck by me throughout the whole process while I relearned how to walk, got through the surgery and rebuilding the muscles that were crushed.

“It was a long recovery but it came through a lot better than I was expecting, and it gave me a completely different perspective on life.”

Perry had a custom brace for his leg, physical therapy appointments and an upcoming deployment during the recovery process. Over time, doctors realized the physical therapy was not enough and put Perry under surgery to replace his PCL ligament, preventing his second deployment from happening. He remained confident and determined to return to racing, and in July 2019, Perry was able to check one of those boxes and start to see more of what lies ahead for him.

“I finally got the approval to return to the racecar,” shared Perry. “That was a huge relief knowing that I finally am past all of this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t returning to the ship after that, and I wasn’t returning to sea duty at all, as I am still on my LIMDU (limited duty) today. Here in September, I’m moving to North Carolina to go recruiting, and help pair the Navy with my career in NASCAR to help show people there’s more to life in the military.”

As Perry finished out the 2019 season strong, he set high goals for the 2020 season — approximately 30 to 40 races scheduled this year, including some ARCA races and the dirt race at Eldora Speedway with the NASCAR Gander & RV Outdoors Trucks Series. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped everything in March, and Perry’s business model kicked in. He began working with his sponsors more flexibly to assist them with keeping their businesses afloat during the first few months while racing took a seat and the military was placed on a travel ban.

But he knew he had to find unique solutions in order to stay on pace with his goals. Moving up the ladder required him to stick in the seat with every opportunity he had, so two weeks prior to the July 18 weekend, Perry found an opportunity to race in the SPEARS Manufacturing Modified Series with Arce Racing, an award-winning and championship-winning engine shop from El Cajon, California. Perry spoke with shop owner Dave Arce to begin hashing out the details to get him in a ride for the upcoming race

With the travel ban beginning to lift yet still somewhat in effect, Irwindale Speedway fell just inside that range to allow Perry to race, so he knew this was his opportunity to seize.

“If I’m going to keep charging for this goal, I need to do this race.”

For the next week and a half, Perry was at the shop regularly helping on the car, getting to know the team and preparing strategies approaching the race weekend. As the team finished preparations, they packed up the trailer and headed to Irwindale Speedway for the K&N Filters 60 presented by Traffic Management Inc. For the first time in over two years, Perry found himself competing on asphalt once again, but this time with the unique coronavirus pandemic of empty grandstands.

“It felt honestly incredible,” stated a confident Perry. “Didn’t think I would perform as well as I did. I didn’t want to overdrive it (on Friday), so I got comfortable with the car and learned the car. The first session we had three practice sessions, and eventually we cranked out a 19.4 (second lap time). Out of the 14 cars that day, we were sixth on the board. Wasn’t bad, considering all the circumstances, and we felt confident going into race day.”

Saturday, the team didn’t back down at all and put themselves up to second on the board in final practice, one-thousandth of a second behind. When crew chief, Jimmy Dickerson, came on the radio to call in a 19.1 second lap time, Perry had a double-take on what he heard.

“That didn’t feel like a 19.1. I’m pretty sure I misheard what you’re saying and that number is not right.”

But it was spot-on accurate. And it caught the eyes of his competitors and other racers in other divisions that day.

“Congratulations, that’s incredible what you did,” said driver coach Jeff Eshleman, who has worked with some of the biggest names in NASCAR including Ryan Partridge and David Gilliland. 

The confidence boost was all that Perry needed to head into the race that evening. After qualifying eighth, the pill draw would move them up to the third position on the starting grid. Perry understood the task at hand, and took it head on with full confidence knowing they had the speed to show what they had.

Perry struggled with the restarts and shuffled back a few positions, but mostly was able to pick drivers back off to regain those positions. After dodging a few spins throughout the 60-lap main event, Perry brought the car home in the eighth position on the lead lap and in one piece, 8.7 seconds off the leader.

“It felt like I was at home with that team,” Perry shared about racing with Arce Racing. “I felt like I could have finished a little better if I could have gotten around (Austin Stewart), but I realized that I had done something incredible in its own. To go two years out of the seat straight to the top series in the southwest in a car I’ve never raced before at a track where I’ve only turned practice laps prior, it’s pretty incredible to finish where I did and hang with the seasoned competitors.”

To top everything else, Perry once again caught the eyes of his team and competitors.

“Great race, I enjoy good hard racing,” Stewart texted Perry after the race. “What a pleasure. Hopefully one day we can race like that for first.”

With Arce Racing, they are already hoping to work together in the future.

“You never know with people driving your car, but Matt was a great experience,” said Arce recalling the race weekend. “He being in the military was a fantastic fit, having the discipline needed to do the right things. He managed it all well.”

“I thought he did a really good job,” Dickerson shared, “Got up to speed really well. We aren’t always looking for speed but balance, and (Matt) found that balance nicely. Second on the board (in final practice) was really awesome, considering his first time in a modified. He took the coaching well, took it all in, applied it on the track and really did well. I’d like to see him back in a car again soon.

“We fell back as far as third from last, so overall I think he did very well climbing back up. He fixed those things quickly, and picked them up. Restarts were a little hard on us, but he picked them off one by one. Especially for never being in a modified, he did really good.”

Perry’s confidence didn’t seem like it could be any higher, and is looking forward to the rest of 2020 with each opportunity he can pick up.

“Knowing the road that I just went through was no easy feat. The recovery, going through the pandemic and getting back to the race track was an incredible sight for everyone to see and for the fans watching from home. Despite the blows trying to hold me back, this was the light at the end of the tunnel to showcase what I had — even that which I didn’t know I had.”

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