By Mark Binetti, Senior Director of Communications & Team Services, Broadcaster
Out of the 36 races on the NASCAR Cup Series (NCS) schedule each year, there are four that are considered more prestigious than the rest of the field. Referred to as “crown jewel races”, they are the DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Southern 500 at Darlington Speedway just up the highway from Greenville, and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
While ECHL hockey might not have a “crown jewel game” over the course of 72 in a given season, that doesn’t mean teams can’t have fun adding more prestige to certain nights through special themes for their own “crown jewel” events. Some teams add to the excitement by trying to set or break Guinness World Records, wearing unique jerseys, highlighting local culture, or supporting various social causes.
For all intents and purposes, you could consider this Saturday, January 20th, against the Jacksonville Icemen as a “crown jewel game” of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
“NASCAR Night”, presented by Alloy Employer Services.
What started off as “Racing Night” in 2022 has evolved into this weekend’s “NASCAR Night”, where NASCAR and hockey collide like a perfectly timed open-ice hit that energizes the home crowd. It features racing motifs, immersive fan experiences, and the chance to meet and get autographs from drivers that come from all levels of motorsports, including the NCS.
Corey LaJoie, the driver of the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro in the NCS, has been a mainstay in the Swamp Rabbits event, and looks forward to coming around for another lap, if you will, of meeting and greeting fans at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in this “crown jewel” affair.
“This is the third year I’ve come to Greenville for this particular game. It’s really cool to see how much its grown since the first one I came to,” LaJoie said of the fan-favorite evening. “It’s cool to see the fans come in droves, whether it’s from Charlotte, Greenville, and everywhere in the region to meet us drivers, talk shop, and take in a fun night of hockey. It’s great to get to meet a new sports community too. The hockey crowd is much different than the NASCAR crowd, so it’s cool to get a feel for what they’re into as well.”
Fourteen drivers are confirmed to attend the event, headlined by LaJoie, and his Spire Motorsports teammate, Carson Hocevar, driver of the No. 77 Chevrolet Camaro. Additionally, four motorsports executives and crew chiefs will also be in attendance for a question and answer session of their own, featuring seven-time NCS champion executive and current President of Spire Motorsports, Doug Duchardt.
“It’s exciting that so many drivers and executives are attending, and I think the main reason for that is because Spire is so hospitable,” LaJoie expanded. “Word travels fast in our line of work, and when drivers hear of the fun we have being recognized on ice, doing meet and greets, and watching the game from a suite, it entices others to be a part of the celebration.
“Lordo even let me be a part of practice last year!” he reminisced of Swamp Rabbits Head Coach Andrew Lord allowing him to trade his steering wheel for hockey “wheels” in the 2023 edition’s pregame skate. “I’d love to get on the ice again with those guys this year. He put me against a player that stuffed me up against the boards, so I’ve got a bone to pick with that fella if given the chance.”
His brief “tryout” with the Swamp Rabbits aside, LaJoie is no stranger to hockey. He grew up with fellow NCS driver, Joey Logano, and skated with the No. 22’s wheelman at the Xtreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N. C., owned by Logano’s father. Although he may not have watched it or played it religiously growing up, despite self-admitting he has good edge control and a strong slap shot, he’s always had an appreciation for hockey.
“I’ve had the chance to watch the game in person a few times, whether it’s the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL or the Swamp Rabbits, and I’ve explained to NASCAR fans: if you’ve watched hockey, you know how different the game is on television versus in person,” LaJoie explained. “NASCAR is the same way. While the fan bases may be different, the sports share a common theme that if you go to an event and see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, you gain a much different appreciation for it seeing it with your own two eyes.
“Because of ‘NASCAR Night’ and Spire’s relationship with the Swamp Rabbits, I’ve gotten into hockey more over the last few years,” he continued. “We even formed a pretty good friendship with Adam Henrique, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL. He sent me a jersey and came out to the race in Fontana last year, so that’s added a special layer to the enjoyment as well.”
LaJoie’s entire life and family name have revolved around motorsports. His father, Randy LaJoie, was a two-time champion of what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series and was named to NASCAR’s list of its top 75 drivers this last season in celebration of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary. Corey’s grandfather, Don LaJoie, is a New England Motorsports Hall of Famer as well, inducted in 2000.
Yet, despite no affiliation with hockey in a professional sense, people simply assumed Corey was associated with the sport in some way…ironically because of his name.
“I do get a lot of people ribbing me about my last name, asking if my name is pronounced ‘lah-JWAH’, thinking I’m French-Canadian”, he said with a chuckle. “Of course, ‘lah-JOY’ is the Americanized version of my name, so that’s what I’ve stuck with. That said, having a name like mine, you ultimately have to become a hockey fan, right?”
LaJoie’s participation in “NASCAR Night” this season comes after a career year in the 2023 NCS season. Led by Ryan Sparks, his Crew Chief, he and the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro earned two top-five and three top-ten finishes, highlighted by a career-best fourth-place finish at both Atlanta and Talladega. The team also scored an average finish of 20.8, and a career-best points finish of 25th. Even more impressive, LaJoie became the 15th driver in the entire history of NASCAR to not once record a DNF (“Did Not Finish”), finishing all 36 races successfully.
“In the offseason leading into 2023, the goal was to complete all of or most of the laps,” LaJoie stated. “The previous season, we only finished 83% of our laps and had a lot of DNFs, so we set out with the intention of completing as many laps as we could. We as a team took immense pride in being one of the only cars in the sport’s history to not record a single DNF in a season. It paid dividends on the back-end with points too.
“I think the next step for this season is capitalizing on when we have pace. There were plenty of races last season where I thought we had top-10 pace, but either I made a mistake, or we didn’t capitalize on pit strategy. We’re going to clean that up this year and finish where I know we’re capable of running as a team. I’m confident we can get there: Spire has a new shop and headquarters all under the same roof. Combining the competitive side and the business side has already improved us greatly, especially with more resources and engineers coming in.
“I’ve been saying it for a while, but we’re going to win a race next year and we’re going to make the playoffs. I’m very confident in that,” he emphatically finished his thought.
With another season and his high expectations looming in the next month, LaJoie is excited to take a moment in recognizing NASCAR, his fellow competitors, and Spire Motorsports at this Saturday’s game. Most importantly, it’s his family’s participation that means the most.
“Bringing my kids down is going to be really fun this year. Levi is 4 in a few weeks, my little guy, Jenson, will be 2 in a few weeks as well, so the older they get, the more they appreciate events like this,” LaJoie said. “Being on the ice with Levi last year was a blast. The players gave him a chopped-up stick and it made his day.
“Enjoying this moment with them will be great, but so will be seeing fans too, like I mentioned earlier, from all over,” he concluded. “It’s awesome to see people bring their diecasts, sheet metal, and other items to get signed that they can’t bring us over the course of the season. Family, friends, fans, and combining NASCAR and the Swamp Rabbits for one night has made for one heck of an experience. I just can’t wait for Saturday, and encourage all fans reading this to come out Saturday for all the event has to offer. I can’t wait to see you all there!”
Fans can meet LaJoie and other drivers prior to the game when doors open at 6 p.m. Additionally, there is a VIP Meet & Greet beginning at 5 p.m., giving fans another chance to meet LaJoie and our special guests from all walks of motorsports. For more information, visit swamprabbits.com/tickets/nascar-night.