Franklin’s Axsom navigating ups, downs as USAC sprint rookie


Everybody has some rough days at work where not everything goes according to plan.

Emerson Axsom had one of those at Circle City Raceway on Monday night. The good news for the 17-year-old Franklin native is twofold:

One, he came away still ranked sixth in the USAC AMSOIL national sprint car point standings — not too shabby for a teenage rookie. And two, he’s already establishing himself in a career that he actually wants to pursue, which means even the losses are wins in the grand scheme of things.

Axsom has been used to dominating for most of his still-young racing life. Even when he jumped onto the USAC national sprint circuit late last season for Clauson Marshall Racing (CMR), he performed well enough right out of the gate that the team gave him a full-time seat in the car for 2022 — and he followed up by winning two of the first three races this season down in Florida in February.

The track has been a bit more uneven since then. Axsom has had three top-three finishes in the last five weeks but has also had a couple of finishes outside the top 10 in that stretch, including Monday’s 16th-place showing at Circle City. That inconsistency might be frustrating at times for Axsom and his team, but they’re trying to keep things in perspective.

“Sometimes our expectation levels probably are higher than what our experience level are at times,” CMR president and co-owner Tim Clauson said. “When he ran for us last year, he rolled right out of the gate and was really competing for wins right away; that’s what kind of solidified us doing it this year. Then we go to Florida and win two out of three. … We just keep forgetting that there is going to be a learning curve, and we knew that when we signed him.”

“I feel like about once every three nights, we have a shot to win it, maybe twice every three nights, and it’s just getting that third or second night worked out to where we’re good every night,” Axsom added. “Sometimes it’s me; sometimes it’s team getting the feel I want. That just comes with being a rookie.”

Ideally, Axsom and Clauson agree, the team can get to a point where even the off nights mean finishing fifth or sixth and the good nights bring victories. But at the highest level of sprint car racing, getting to that point is going to require a little bit of patience from everyone involved.

“He’s only been in the car for, not even quite 12 months yet. He’s racing against guys that have been doing this sport now for 10 years,” crew chief Adam Wallis said. “That consistency will just come over time. If everyone could do it overnight, there’d be a lot of race car drivers out there.”

Axsom doesn’t need to do it overnight; he’s in this for the long haul.

Even with a year of high school still remaining, he’s all in on living life on the cushion — and spending this season around veteran sprint drivers and their crews has given him an even greater appreciation for how much dedication it’ll require to succeed in this game.

“When you race national sprint cars, every single guy is there to put food on his table,” Axsom said. “This is my shot to do what I want to do for a living. … This is the team that can take me to the highest level of dirt racing and do it the right way, so I feel like it’s just a little bit of pressure on myself to take it serious. Because all these guys are doing it for a living, right? This team does it for a living, so I feel like it’s on me to grow up quick and take it serious and treat it like it’s a job.”

Of course, most adults — even those fortunate enough to settle into their preferred field — don’t necessarily stay at the same job for their entire life.

Axsom’s long-term goal is to drive on the World of Outlaws circuit, and it’s quite possible that he takes another step in that direction next year. While nothing is off the table just yet regarding his USAC sprint future, Clauson says that it’s more likely Axsom will drive more of a hybrid schedule in 2023, with 50 or more races in a winged sprint car.

Not only does that line up with Axsom’s own long-range ambitions, but the team’s as well.

CMR already has one winged team going with a growing star in Tyler Courtney, and it would like to eventually add a second team — especially as winged racing increases in popularity and the purse sizes increase accordingly. It’s certainly possible that Axsom could end up being behind the wheel of that second CMR car, but Clauson cautions against rushing the process. Courtney, he notes, was 26 when he went to winged racing full-time.

But when the time does come, Clauson has little doubt that Axsom will excel. Courtney, he says, is perhaps the second most popular winged driver right now behind Kyle Larson, and “I think we can do that same thing with Emerson going forward as well.”

In the meantime, Axsom understands he’s still got some learning to do, and he’s immersing himself in the process. Stretches like this — Circle City was the second stop of seven during Indiana Sprint Week, the most hectic rapid-fire piece of the USAC schedule — will only give him more time to bond with his team and get valuable on-the-job training.

It speaks to Axsom’s focus that he doesn’t even consider being closer to home the biggest perk of the week.

“I think the biggest benefit is you get seven nights of racing in a row, and you get seven nights of spending all day, every day with your guys,” he said. “Maybe we’re not necessarily always talking about racing, but we’re all becoming closer every day … (and) I get seven nights of hard racing against the best guys.”

On some of those nights, Axsom will be right there at the front with a chance to take the checkered flag. On others — like Monday, for example — he’ll end up disappointed.

Overall, though, Axsom is already enjoying more than his fair share of success; just last week, he was able to put some of his winnings toward a shiny 1985 Chevy Silverado pickup truck.

Those most invested in him — parents Joe and Jenny, CMR, and chief sponsors like Driven 2 Save Lives, zMAX, CSI Shocks and Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts — are banking on Axsom’s tough nights at the office becoming more exception than rule.

“When we hit it, we’re as good as anyone,” Clauson said. “This is probably the first night all year where I’ve kind of went, ‘Man, come feature time, we just weren’t where we should have been.’

“You’re going to have one like this every now and again.”

Even while living the dream.