Making Memories & Keeping Old Ones Alive

By Rebecca Maglischo

January 9th, 7:16 am. Chad Chastain knows this is what time the sun will rise. He also knows the temperature highs and lows promised by four different websites, and he knows that the microclimate of any given piece of land can skew that prediction significantly. Chad knows if

there will be any rain in the near future, the average rain for January in South Florida, the humidity, and any possible fronts that just might impact the next 30 days. Chad Chastain is a watermelon farmer. He comes from generations of watermelon farmers, in fact. And today, Chad will begin planting the 400 acres that will sustain his family this year.

Over 600 miles away, in North Carolina, Ross Chastain notes that the sunrise is 16 minutes later than his childhood home in Alva, Florida. He has already checked the weather back home and texted both his father and his brother. Ross won’t be there this year to plant. The meetings and training he will do over the next 30 days will sow the seeds for his season to come. Ross Chastain drives the #1 Chevy Camaro for Trackhouse Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.

In southwest Florida, not far from Fort Myers, lies the town of Alva. The Caloosahatchee River flows from East to West through the

center of the community. If you hop on State Road 80 and cruise just 12 miles east of this small town, the landscape changes to farmland. It is flat here, like God himself ran out of creativity and simply drew a straight line. This used to be the Everglades, but now it is a mind-boggling mix of muck and sugar sand. The farmers who make their living off this land manage the water with canals, seepage irrigation, and man-made ditches. Acres and acres of nothingness… unless you have an affinity for sugarcane, vegetable crops, cows, and watermelons. This is where toddlers ride on tractors with their dads, young boys learn to drive pickup trucks, and teenagers race 4-wheelers on self-made tracks for hours on end.

As a little boy, I can remember riding with my dad. I had my pack of doughnuts and chocolate milk,” Ross Chastain remembers. “I would walk behind him and literally put my feet in the footprints he left in the sand. I wanted to be like him, to do everything he did.”

Ross Chastain began racing young, following in his father’s footsteps as a hobby racer around the age of twelve. Quickly, he turned his eyes toward racing as a career, as a business rather than a hobby. Ross got his first break in 2011, taking over the No.66 Turn One Racing car in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Connections in agriculture and the watermelon industry helped fuel Ross’s early rides. In 2019, Ross broke the record for most consecutive races run across all three NASCAR series to start a season. Despite setbacks and disappointments, he found ways to stay racing and won his first career NASCAR Truck Series Race at Kansas in May 2019, after eight years of attempts.

Ross and Chad Chastain come from a long line of farmers. Their farm (JDI Farms) sits just north of Labelle, FL. This land has seen success, and this land has seen failure. Farming watermelons, like racing, is not for the faint of heart. Watermelon is a 100-day crop. Planted mid-January, the harvest comes at full speed from April to Memorial Day. The people who farm watermelons spend months preparing for this push. Every day matters, and decisions are made on the fly. The investment is high; mistakes can be catastrophic. And every farmer knows loss and disappointment.

Chad Chastain focuses on the farm in season, but is also putting in his time on the track working through the ranks. “Farming and racing, it’s what we know.” He chuckles. “Watermelons are 100 or so days, every day is 1%. The season can shift in a day! Racing is a bit over 100 minutes, every minute is 1%. Man, a race can change in a minute. You gotta be ready for anything, either way!”

Every farmer also knows resilience. Ross vowed to take any opportunity to keep racing. He received a truck series opportunity with Niece Motorsports and knew he had to take it.

The races he won with that team were ultimately a deciding factor in his invitation to drive the No. 42 car in the NASCAR Cup Series left vacant by Kyle Larson’s exit to Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. In August, it was revealed that Ross would drive the No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for Trackhouse Racing’s upcoming second Cup team, in a multi-year deal beginning in 2022.

The 2022 season began without any notable finishes and a number of frustrations. But like any good farmer, Ross kept showing up, and success was just around the next turn—Turns 3 and 4 to be exact. In October, he qualified for the Championship 4 by a thin margin at Martinsville. In tenth place on the last lap of the race, Ross Chastain drove his car up onto the outside wall of the track in Turns 3 and 4 to pick up the unprecedented speed of up to 130 miles per hour, overtaking five drivers to finish in fifth place. Ross set a record for the fastest lap during a NASCAR Cup Series race for the track and was retroactively credited with a fourth-place finish after another driver was disqualified.

Alva, Labelle, Punta Gorda… The Chastain Brothers describe it as a “triangle of nothingness.” To an outsider, these places are sleepy and unnoticed. But, on this farmland, the character of young men is tested. The lessons come hard and fast, and the family ties stay strong. Despite his current success, Ross’ mind always drifts back home. The second the harvest is settled, Chad is back behind the wheel or on the team supporting his older brother. Watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris) is a vining, annual plant with branching tendrils, roots and vines that spread up to an amazing 18 feet. The analogy to life is not lost on these men. No matter how far they go or how life branches, Ross and Chad know they can get back to their roots. Just follow the vine.

Race photos by Barr Visuals, Port Orange, FL