From Drag Racing to Street Outlaws

From Drag Racing to Street Outlaws

Justin “Li’l Country” Swanstrom was a rising star in the drag racing community, but his switch to “Street Outlaws” gave him global recognition considering how big the television franchise had become over the years. He developed a cult following due to his colorful and interesting character, not to mention his exceptional skills at the tracks. Many wondered how a full-time drag racer got into the Pilgrim Studios-produced reality show that delved into the world of possibly illegal street racing.

Get to know Justin Swanstrom

Justin Swanstrom was born and raised in the small town of Zephyrhills in Florida. His nickname was “Li’l Country” as his father, Corey Swanstrom, was “Big Country.” His family has several businesses including S&S Vac-Video since 2014, which provides CCTV Sanitary with depth measure, CCTV Lateral services, and CCTV Storm lines for joint measure & cracks. To put it simply, they have huge trucks equipped to operate as a vacuum cleaner but on steroids, and then they looked through all those pipes to check for damage or problems. Justin once said that work came first before racing, and when he later left the company to focus on racing, he did say that he would go back whenever his dad needed a hand.

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He has been around drag racing his whole life, because of his dad. Corey loved muscle cars, and he used to street race with his gold Chevy before he got into drag racing – Justin often accompanied his father, and helped out at the race track. The first time he got into a race car was when he was 14; his dad bought a small-tire, single-turbo car and he messed around with it for about six or seven months before telling his dad that he wanted to race. Since he was quite young, they didn’t want him to go fast, so bought a naturally aspirated 520 big block Ford Mustang in California, and forged his birth certificate to get his National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) license so he could run at the tracks. Justin did a couple of burnouts, made his first pass on the track, and went 5.87 seconds – everything went well.

For Justin, racing was like a drug, but just to make it clear, he said that he didn’t do drugs and only drank every now and then. Unlike other race car drivers, however, he never formed any attachment to the cars that he drove during races. Over the years, he had a lot of cars that he sold and was okay with that. Justin usually keeps cars for radial vs world, grudge, and no prep racing.

He was a self-taught mechanic. When he was just starting out in racing, he didn’t know anything about a car, such as how to fix it and make it work. He wasn’t that interested, so he didn’t take the time to learn all that, but eventually realized the value of such knowledge. Justin wasn’t even in his 20s when he could do mostly everything on his car, such as taking apart the motor and putting it back together, or changing converters and transmissions.

Who does Justin look up to the most?

Justin respected and admired his dad, who taught him to give 110% in everything he did. It was instilled in him that if he couldn’t give his best, then he shouldn’t do it all. He also idolized Stevie “Fast” Jackson because of how competitive he was. He knew he may never be on Stevie’s level, running in NHRA, but Justin would always put himself in this guy’s shoes when he was at the track and it seemed that nothing was going right, asking himself, ‘What would Stevie do?’

His journey in drag racing

Justin started with junior dragsters, but outclassed the other competitors when he reached a speed of 88mph at age 12. He moved on to grudge racing, which was a type of drag racing in which two drivers would go head to head in a race without any predetermined rules. He did that until the end of 2018, because he was unable to get into other races. Justin figured that if he wanted to continue with this expensive hobby, he had better acquire sponsorship to afford it, and the best way to do that was to join the radial versus the world (RVW) class. This is a highly competitive class in drag racing in which vehicles have radial tires providing better grip on the road instead of slick tires. He did pick up a lot of sponsors that were of tremendous help to him, soon getting them on board with his grudge racing as well.

Truth be told, he preferred grudge over class racing because there was a lot of trash-talking and hustling involved in it, and he enjoyed all that. His main reason, however, was that he liked gambling. He felt that once he was off the line on a drag strip, he had a 50/50 chance of winning that race – those odds were a lot better than going to a casino. He went to a casino once and lost $800 in 20 minutes, vowing never to go back, but he would continue gambling at the racetrack.

At the age of 17, he was already a force to reckon with at the X275 doorslammer-class in 2013. He set the record for the best elapsed time at 4.86 seconds on the eighth-mile track and won Wild Tomato Nationals at Immokalee Regional Raceway, then scored a back-to-back win at the US Street Nationals held at Bradenton Motorsports Park. He might have lost in the Heads Up Madness event at the Florida drag strip, but set a record with his elapsed time of 4.710 seconds at 149.52 mph during the second round of eliminations.

His experience at the tracks wasn’t all good. There was a time when he had to overcome his fear of racing following a mishap at the Lakeland drag strip. He made the rookie mistake of watching his opponent instead of his lane, so didn’t notice that he was close to the wall – the car shifted into high gear and spun around before hitting the wall. He said that the accident was not that bad, but it was something he had never experienced before, and it shook him. His father fixed the car, and they took it back to the drag strip where it happened because his father wanted Justin to conquer his issues over it, and he did.

Background on “Street Outlaws”

The nature of street racing might be illegal, but it gave people an added thrill, so the fascination for it was never-ending. “Street Outlaws” made its TV debut on Discovery Channel in 2013, and its ratings soon rose to the top, and resulted in the launching of several spin-off series such as “Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings” (NPK) in which Justin Swanstrom would be heavily involved.

An NPK race simulates the condition of a street, which meant that the track isn’t prepared ahead of time. It would factor in on the outcome of a race, because the driver would be dealing with a lot of unknowns and would try to compensate for them. Viewers found this to be much more exciting than most forms of drag racing, in which the track was prepped. Many believe that NPK has since become the biggest platform in drag racing.

How did Justin Swanstrom become part of “Street Outlaws”

In a 2019 Dragzine interview with Wes Buck, Justin described himself as a full-time drag racer. He admitted to not having street raced before, and shared how he got into “Street Outlaws.” The previous year he chanced upon a video of an NPK race at  Bristol, in which the drivers ran for $200,000, and found himself interested in it. Justin wasn’t familiar with NPK, but the race that he watched turned everything around for him on the path he wanted to take, as far as his racing career was concerned. However, he had to talk his dad into it, because having a radial background, the latter didn’t want anything to do with big tires and wheelie bars. Justin did a lot of begging to get everything going, because he felt that it would be huge, so wanted to give it a shot.

Several months later, he finally convinced his father, and they got started on putting together a car, a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro Fifth Generation, for the 2019 NPK race. He was somewhat familiar with Daddy Dave and Kye Kelley from the show, because the two ran some radials as well, and he talked them into putting in some good words for him. They were instrumental in getting him there – not that everything was handed out to him; he worked hard for it and his crew put in the time on what was needed for him to qualify. He participated in the Future Street Outlaws Class, in which big tires battled it out for a chance to take part in the main NPK event.

Justin said that he wasn’t better than the rest of the drivers, but he was brought in to be part of the hit series, mainly because he and his crew were great for TV. They had lots of ‘exciting’ moments befitting a reality show.

Justin was introduced to NPK fans

“NPK” was in its third season when Justin made his first appearance, participating in several grudge matches. He won against NPK veteran Kye Kelley twice at the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ohio, and took home $10,000. However, he lost to Lizzy Musi at the New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire, but then beat Larry Larson at the race track in Morrison, Colorado, and this should have been his ticket to the main event with $40,000 as the prize money. Unfortunately, his car had issues that his team was unable to fix in time. He was quite frustrated by this development, as he wanted to make a name for himself along with his team, the Swan Gang, and show everybody what he could do.

Crashed his $200,000 No Prep car in 2019

His foray into the NPK world was a tough one. Justin said, ‘I don’t know if it was paint color, motor combination, we just could not make it work. It was probably the worst luck I’ve ever had in racing.’ Everything culminated in a crash, but he said that it helped build his story for the show. He was up against Bobby Ducote from team New Orleans in a grudge race that took place in Norwalk, Ohio. After crossing the finish line, he was headed towards the center line and pulled a hard right, smashing onto the guard rail with such force that the impact propelled him toward the other lane and caused him to hit the concrete barrier there as well. The car went back to his lane before finally stopping. He was knocked out and only came to when the paramedics were there, telling them that he couldn’t feel his shoulder. Justin was banged up so badly that he was lifted onto a stretcher and taken to hospital.

His first full season in the NPK series

Despite the major setback that cut his racing season short, it didn’t deter Justin from coming back to the tracks for season four of the series. Fortunately, he accomplished the goals he set for himself with his ProCharger-boosted Lexus, which he referred to as “Prenup.” He won a couple of races on the 15-race tour and got enough points to finish third behind Kye Kelley and Ryan Martin. All in all, he considered it as a good season; it certainly put him on people’s radar as a serious contender for the top spot.

Maple Grove crash in season five

During the “Great 8” event for NPK at the Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania, Justin competed against Dave Adkins. As they neared the finish line, Justin’s car caught fire and then his quarter panel on the passenger side was hit by Dave when the latter lost control of his car, and the two got tangled up with the parachute deployed. With the car still on fire, he got out and tumbled over the concrete wall. It was said that an intake manifold blew and caused a fire to ignite under the hood. After the fire was extinguished, there seemed to be a heated argument going on at the track, which led to various speculations.

Later on, Justin clarified things via his Facebook page. First, he shared that his face got hot, but other than that, he was fine. Next, his dad got ‘excited’ when a cop grabbed Justin for some reason, but it didn’t escalate. Lastly, Justin didn’t body slam a cop, but he did get angry at someone from the track who made a comment about getting tired of fixing the walls. His father addressed some issues as well through his social media account, admitting that the fire was their fault, as they’d overlooked something in the pits. The important thing was that his son and Dave walked away from the crash. He apologized to his wife, Melissa, for putting up with all the craziness of what they loved to do, but saying that racing had been his ‘crutch’, and that he let their son enjoy it as well.

Is he getting paid to race in the show?

Many were curious to know if Justin got paid to race in NPK events; he could only speak for himself, because he didn’t know what the arrangements were between the other cast members and the producers. In 2019, he said that he didn’t get paid to show up at the race – since he enjoyed racing, he just went there on his own. It cost him $3,000-$5,000 to run a race each weekend, saying that he spent around $800 every time he fired up his car. Whenever there was an opportunity for him to participate in a grudge race or shootout, he went for it, and tried to break even or get a little money before going back home.

Justin as an influencer

He put up his own YouTube Channel in May 2019, all about racing, with some comedy skits in it. He already had a big fan base on his Instagram account, and many suggested to him that he upload content onto the popular video-sharing website. He wasn’t too keen on the idea at first because he wasn’t computer savvy, but he later got into it. Justin thought to inspire others to get into racing, and shared a little information on how to go about that. He didn’t want to reveal everything he and his dad learned over the years unless he would be compensated for it, but he was willing to give some details that would be of help to an average person. His content was quite informative as well as interesting, so his subscribers grew to more than 80,000 and his videos garnered over 19 million views.

Justin’s life revolved around working, racing, and vlogging. He said that he was so busy that he didn’t have time for anything else; not that he had other hobbies. He didn’t have much of a social life either, because of the schedule he keeps. It didn’t mean that he isn’t having fun, because what he does for a living is excitement enough for him.

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