Following this past weekend’s race, Tona Slate heard her son Rafe yell out a phrase that made her happy.
“That was fun,” the 19-year-old Eatonton resident shouted after posting a top-five finish at Crisp Motorsports Park in Cordele.
Obviously, finishing in the No. 1 spot is the ultimate goal, but a fourth-place finish is a win in Tona’s book.
“I was just so happy to see him smiling after the race because it kind of sums up all of our hard work,” she said. “It was important to see that result because of the frustration and fighting that goes along with all of this. It reminded me that we as a family are all still human.”
Rafe said the family dynamic is what drives him to success.
“It’s really neat to see something that I am so passionate about spread throughout my family,” he said. “It spreads like wildfire. I caught the bug and then they saw that I was into it. Then, as soon as I started racing, they started helping and catching the bug. Now, we’re all very deep into it.”
Rafe said that each specific family member has their own duty to perform.
“My sister Skylar is the one who picks out the tires, which is really important and it’s an art form,” he said. “It’s really great to see her take on something that a lot of people three-times her age don’t even understand. She’s taken to it so easily, especially her being a girl is great to see. There’s only one other girl that I know that does it.”
Rafe explained that each tire size is different because of the way the rubber compound works. Each individual tire inflates to different sizes, which is important to how the car stays balanced. He noted that the left set of tires is significantly smaller in comparison to the right side, so getting the sizes correct is one of the keys to his success.
“Seeing her take on that job helps me out a lot,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t always get it right because the correct size of tires might not be at the track. Although, the last two weeks she’s been right on the money. She’s actually going to school to study stuff like this.”
Rafe added that his dad Shawn is behind all the mechanical work to the No. 8 car.
“My dad took over his father’s shop and it has become kind of his man cave,” he said. “...As soon as we really started racing and getting serious about it, we cleaned out all of the woodworking tools and turned in into a fabrication shop. He has the garage to work on cars and he likes to do stuff himself rather than take it to another shop.”
Rafe said that he and his dad can do anything they put their minds to.
“We’ve reorganized it about four different times and we’ve got it to where it’s a real race shop now,” he said. “We can pretty much do anything anyone else can. We learn as we go. If we need to do something, we learn how to do it. Dad has got good advice from experienced crew chiefs, but he has his own engineer logic as well for what he went to school for.”
Shawn attended Georgia Tech and majored in mechanical engineering, but also received a degree from the Southern College of Technology. He’s a former employee of Parker Aerospace but now works for Novelis. On top of all that, he’s the crew chief and car owner of the vehicle his son competes in. His versatility and skills are vital to the achievement of his family.
Both he and his wife call him a “jack of all trades.”
When it comes to the social media aspect of Rafe Slate Racing, Tona is the head of that department.
“...She picked up on it quickly,” Rafe said. “...She does a great job, especially with her energy.”
Tona would agree with her son’s sentiment.
“It’s hard to get a lot of recognition if you’re not a big-money team, but we’ve seen some success in being noticed...,” she said. “It’s still not what we like, but it keeps us humble because we know we’re working for what we got. A lot of teams hire marketing and social media people, so that’s made me stretch my background, which has always been sales and marketing...But I do it all from my phone.”
Tona’s high energy and creativity have built up an impressive following on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“We don’t have a zillion followers, and we’re not paying for it, but we have a good following of people who are interested in us,” she said. “It’s just hard, but I just want to have a good look and I want it to be natural.”
While each member of the Slate family has their own life, they each find time to contribute to their passion for racing.
“It really kind of stuck with Skylar and Rafe when they used to watch NASCAR races with their me-maw,” Tona said.
Rafe said he was around seven or eight years old when he would watch those races with his grandmother.
“My grandpa and my dad were into it, but not like she was,” he said. “I would sit down and watch races with her. So, that’s how I got into it.”
Rafe got into simulated racing online, which then transitioned into iRacing. With all those different components, expenses followed. For Christmas and birthdays, Rafe would receive additions to his hobby as he got better at the craft.
“It was always an upgrade until he reached the point to where he was today,” Tona said. “He was training in iRacing while learning the Legend car...Finally, in 2016, me-maw got a gift card to try the Legend car. He (Rafe) thought it was cool and he got in that thing and he was having a good time. He was hitting marks that we didn’t know he knew.”
To purchase Rafe’s Legend racing car, the family had to sell two Jeeps to help fund the expense.
“We prayed on it and some man bought both of them,” Tona said. “God really come through for us.”
Since racing that first No. 98 car, Rafe has moved on to his current vehicle. During his first year in semi-pro, he didn’t race a full season but had some impressive finishes.
“Luckily after that, we built up some friends in the community and developed some sponsorships,” Tona said. “We started learning how to ‘not do this anymore’ and not vacationing like we used to. We were using the money at the track. During that semi-pro year, we found more wins and more people getting mad at us because we were so successful. Print & Sign Solutions in Eatonton has helped us a lot the last two races.”
During Rafe’s third year of racing, he moved up to pro.
“I think that year it was 26 of 27 wins,” Tona said. “Fifth in the nation, we finished the season in Las Vegas. We were hooked up after that.”
Wins are important for the Slate family, but it’s not the No. 1 goal for them.
“I would say it’s all about just being together and doing something we like,” Rafe said. “Faith and family are the two most essential things to me. We all are here for each other in the end.”