Days Of Thunder
This article appears in the April 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
It's no wonder Waterford Kettering senior track and cross country state champ Justin Switzer likes to go fast. After all, he grew up racing cars.
A dozen years later, Switzer (pronounced SWHY-tzer) is still driving himself around the track, still jockeying through the tight turns and still contending for national titles. Only now, he's doing it on his own two wheels.
It all started when Switzer was 7 years old. He spent five years racing throughout the eastern states with Quarter Midgets of America, the governing body for one-fourth-scale Midget race car championships.
Switzer wasn't racing Go-Karts, mind you. Quarter Midget cars (which are designed specifically for kids) feature four-wheel independent suspension, full roll cages and engines slightly smaller than a motorcycle engine. Switzer was good, too. In 1997, he won a national engine-class championship.
When he got bored with small cars, Switzer bumped up to the Allison Legacy Race Series, slipping behind the wheel of a 1,400-pound, three-quarter-sized replica of a NASCAR racer powered by a four-cylinder, 125-horsepower truck engine with a five-speed transmission. He raced the circuit in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin for two years.
Those were the days of thunder. Then, as abruptly as he picked up the sport, Switzer dropped it.
"I got to high school and it just took too much time," says Switzer, who will turn 19 on Nov. 21. "I got into high school sports and that was it."
Most of all, the 6-foot-1, 155-pound Switzer got into running. As a sophomore, he qualified for the Lower Peninsula Division 1 state track meet in the 1,600 meters, finishing fourth in 4:20.36. As a junior, he won the 1,600-meter state title in 4:09.11, which was the fourth-best high school time in the nation in 2004 and the top returning mark this year. He also finished sixth in the mile at the adidas Outdoor Championships in North Carolina last June, scorching his way to a 4:09.9.
Along the way, Switzer twice qualified for the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships, finishing seventh in the nation this past fall after winning the Division 1 cross country state title en route.
"From the standpoint of how hard he works and how self-directed he is, well, he's the hardest-working kid I've ever coached," says Waterford Kettering fourth-year track head coach Frank Puddy, 34. "He played a full varsity basketball schedule over the winter, and he'd still get out and run two or three miles before practice. He's got a lot of guts."
And then some. As a junior, Switzer, who will run for Michigan on a full scholarship next year, took a weekend off from basketball to run at the indoor state meet and came home with the 1,600-meter crown for his efforts. Clearly, there's a will beyond the work ethic.
"People are always asking me why I run and why I love it so much," says Switzer, who was a SchoolSports All-American in cross country this year. "Mostly they're asking why I put myself through that pain. Well, it's something I enjoy. It's a sport where your success is up to you depending upon how hard you work. You have to have that determination to be the first to cross the line. I don't want to let myself down and not be the first."
Even better, he doesn't want to let others down either. For more than a year now, he has organized training runs for interested prospects at nearby Mason Middle School and Pierce Middle School. He also pops over to their track meets and, as something of a minor celebrity, offers advice and inspiration from the infield.
"That's one thing that gets overlooked a lot in the shadow of all his accomplishments," says Puddy. "He took it upon himself to contact and reach out to those runners. He's done a fantastic job of meeting kids and putting a face on our program. He wants to leave a legacy here. He doesn't want the program to die once he's gone."
Switzer, who averaged 19 points per game as a senior swingman on the Waterford Kettering boys' hoop team this winter, knows how important it is to have something to aim for in the sport of running. And he knows it's just as important to learn lessons along the way. Like the lesson he learned as a sophomore in the 1,600-meter state final.
Locked in a front-running duel with Oxford's Donnie Richmond with 300 meters to go, Switzer kicked it into overdrive on the first turn of the last lap in an effort to put Richmond away. The pair remained shoulder-to-shoulder until the 150-meter mark, when the veterans in the field blew by them. Switzer finished fourth — one place out of All-State status.
"That's the day he realized you've gotta be smarter," says Puddy. "He upped his mileage that offseason, and he tailored his workouts to what he knew best suited him. He found out what kind of schedules the other elite runners were training. He just started focusing on, ‘OK, what do I need to do to be better?' He's really a self-made star."
Almost two years later, Switzer is still tweaking and fine-tuning. He's determined to squeeze every last ounce of horsepower from his own engine.
"It's a constant learning process," says Switzer. "For me, my success comes down to my natural speed. I can run with the lead pack and still rely on my kick at the end. But I want to be able to lead from the start. To take control of the race sooner. To not rely so much on my kick. Leading is exhausting, but it's something I'll have to get used to."
Just like with car racing, it's almost time to bump up to a tougher division. So the question is: Can he get used to leading in time to be a factor at the collegiate level?
"Honestly, I'd be surprised if he wasn't," says Puddy. "With his work ethic, ability and drive, I can't see how he couldn't be."
It'll be the days of thunder all over again.