Devon Rouse is facing the biggest moment of his budding racing career.
Rouse, a Burlington native and the first openly gay NASCAR driver, is set to race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Clean Harbors 150 Saturday at Knoxville Raceway.
Rouse, who moved to Huntersville, North Carolina, from Burlington last winter, will be racing in the Richard Petty-owned No. 43, which brings plenty of pressure in and of itself.
And with Spry Complete Oral Care and Kleer on board as sponsors, this could be a major turning point in Rouse’s career.
“This weekend is a trial run with this new sponsor. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of them, which is a really, really good thing,” Rouse said Thursday evening during a stop at Heartland Harley-Davidson in Burlington, where he signed autographs and greeted fans.
“This weekend is huge. I’m driving the infamous No. 43 owned by Richard Petty. This is a Petty GMS Truck ran through Reaume Brothers. There is a big history with the number on this truck. There are big shoes to fill, which is 100 percent OK. I’m ready for it. It’s also how this weekend goes is really going to determine my year and next year, especially with this sponsor.”
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Rouse was set to take part in two practice sessions on Friday night at Knoxville Raceway. Four qualifying races are scheduled from 6 to 6:45 pm Saturday, with the 150-lap Clean Harbors 150 presented by Premier Chevy Dealers set to begin at 8:15 pm
Rouse said he plans to have an autograph session Saturday afternoon at Knoxville Raceway
Rouse will be racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Clean Harbors 150 for the second straight year. He finished 18th in a crash-marred race a year ago.
Rouse is hoping the experience he gained at last year’s race on dirt will help vault him into the top 10.
“I’m going into it knowing more than I did last year,” Rouse said. “I went into it blind, not knowing how the truck was going to perform there. Not knowing how it was going to react. But also testing this truck only on pavement tracks. So having all that not to worry about — the unknown and unexpected — that is out of the way. I’m looking very forward to not having to worry about that at this race.”
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Rouse, who rose to prominence driving sprint cars at 34 Raceway in Middletown, said the adjustment to the power and speed of the trucks has not been difficult. It is the weight of the trucks that takes some time to adjust to, especially on dirt.
“It’s significantly different,” Rouse said. “The reason sprint cars are so fast and the way they are is the power-to-weight ratio. This is almost three sprint cars in weight. They don’t compare. These are running at Daytona at 190 mph. But you put a sprint car up on this track at Knoxville and they run 150 mph. We will hit maybe only 100 mph. It’s a big difference.”
Since relocating to North Carolina to be closer to the NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, Rouse has been busy networking, as well as working at his full-time job. He works for K1 Sports Gear, where he helps make racing suits, Nomex underwear, gloves and shoes.
“The connections and relationships I’ve built there are significantly helping my career,” Rouse said. “It’s great living down in North Carolina. I am where I want to be. I am in the racing world and the connections and relationships that I’m building are amazing. I would never have achieved that here. And so it completely changes it I have been working very, very, very hard on my career in getting these sponsor and making these connections.
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Rouse wanted to make a stop in Burlington prior to heading to Knoxville, so he and his team set up shop at Heartland Harley-Davidson on Thursday and rolled the truck out. Fans flocked to the parking lot to talk to Rouse, see the truck up close, get autographs and take pictures with the rising NASCAR star.
“Huge thanks to (Heartland Harley-Davidson general manager) Craig Knoll,” Rouse said. “I called him earlier in the week. I didn’t give him much notice that my team and I would like to do this. Can we do this? He was all for it. It’s been great. It’s been great launching a new sponsor. They sent all of their products out here with some sample options and all of their new gum. It’s been great brand exposure, great exposure for me. It’s huge. This builds a great amount of momentum going into this weekend.”
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Rouse is looking forward to Saturday’s race. But it comes with plenty of pressure. How Rouse handles that pressure, and the No. 43 truck, will go a long way to determine his future plans in the sport.
“I know (Petty’s) grandson, Thad Moffitt, who normally drives this truck,” Rouse said. “It’s big shoes to fill. That’s part of the package with the weekend. There is a lot of pressure this weekend with the sponsor with my performance and all the eyes watching. There ‘a lot,’
Rouse is tentatively scheduled to race in the Atlas 100 at Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on Aug. 21 and the Southern Illinois 100 at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds Sept. 4, both ARCA Menards Series events.
“This weekend is a trial run to see how this goes. There is going to be a lot of build off of this,” Rouse said. “It’s huge. There is just something about being in front of your home crowd and your home people. There’s something about it. It’s unmatchable It’s a whole different energy. I think you just feel comfortable because this is your roots. I’m very comfortable racing here. That’s a big thing.”
Matt Levins is a sports reporter for the USA TODAY Network in Burlington, Iowa, who has covered local sports for 31 years. Reach him at [email protected]