Past phosphate plants and citrus processing centers straight down Florida’s inland passage, the two and four-lane highways are dotted with locally-owned drive-in restaurants and roadside barbeque pits. There are a countless heavy equipment stores and auto dealership lots advertising more heavy duty pick-up trucks for sale than flashy sports cars.
Either side of the Peace River running through the landscape, livestock farms and watermelon fields extend as far as the eye can see. There are cattle, bulls, goats, horses – miniature and otherwise – filling the land with a steady line of homemade signs planted low along the county roads offering tickets for “swamp buggy rides” and “alligator farm visits.’’ There’s still some noticeable tree damage from Hurricane Idalia earlier this year.
And there is a lot of Florida watermelon for sale.
This inland farming oasis – sandwiched an hour or so from the beaches on either side of Florida’s coasts - is where Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain hails. His family’s eight-generation watermelon farm and processing center deep in Florida’s “heartland” takes up various massive acreage – from fields, to processing plants to the homesteads where Chastain’s extended family still lives – in three different counties.
The ”morning business meeting” happens just inside the gate to the 500-acre JDI Farms headquarters in Charlotte County, Fla. Typically it’s comprised of different generations of family members, who pull alongside one another in their pick-up trucks on the long dirt drive entrance to formalize the day’s plans. Often the timing of the meeting is just after everyone stopped for an early breakfast at Lawhon’s; a small but hugely-popular food counter in a nearby gas station in two-traffic light Alva, Florida about 15 minutes up the road.
“A lot of people know somebody that has moved to Florida, lives in Florida or maybe their parents retired there and they usually think of family living on the coast, on the water,’’ Ross Chastain says with a proud smile of his unique background. “But come inland a little bit and you’ll see that we live where people do their vacation, and it’s a much different Florida, inland.”
There’s an unmistakable solace on the Chastain’s land even with the busy hum of tractors and trucks working the farm all year – from preparing the acreage to tending the soil to planting seeds and ultimately collecting watermelons that the Chastain family sends to major retailers all over the Southeastern United States.
It’s almost like the family operates in two different worlds – two different dynamics - delicately balancing the routine and business of farming and the duties the two Chastain sons have as high-profile NASCAR drivers.
“You get out here on the farm field and there’s nobody around for 20 miles,’’ explained Ross’s younger brother Chad Chastain, an up-and-coming NASCAR driver and the family farm’s manager.
“You may see a semi go by every now and then but it’s mainly just you and the people helping you grow your crop.
“And then you go to the race track and it’s a hundred thousand people in a hundred feet - it seems like - sometimes just on pit road. There’s people everywhere and a lot going on.
“It’s pretty peaceful out here,’’ he adds with a smile driving a pick-up through the family’s land and the adjacent farm fields.
The way Ross and Chad have managed their careers on track and on the tractor means a lot to their parents Ralph and Susan. That work ethic and dedication to family was instilled early and often. Ralph raced on the Central Florida short tracks like his sons and has always supported their career dreams.
“We’re in a business that we’re proud to be in,’’ Ralph Chastain said. “There’s a heritage to it and we want to keep on going.
“But I helped push them into the car racing too. That was a hobby of ours and they both had some talent, so we thought let’s go to the next level and they kept going to the next level and the next level.”
For Ross Chastain, that has culminated with a job Trackhouse Racing, where he’s qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in both years since joining the team. Last year, the 30-year old Floridian advanced to the Championship 4 for the first time in his career, ultimately finishing runner-up in the title chase.
Along the way, Chastain introduced the greater NASCAR world to his family’s business beginning with his first major win – famously smashing a watermelon from his farm onto the Las Vegas Motor Speedway finish line to celebrate his maiden NASCAR Xfinity Series win five years ago.
Since then Chastain’s watermelon smash has become his victory trademark, a part of NASCAR modern lore. Fans expect it. And they love it.
His Trackhouse Racing team hauler carries a melon to every race in anticipation of a Chastain win. And he got the chance to smash a melon earlier this year driving his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet to victory at Nashville Superspeedway.
It’s a unique celebration that not only signals victory on track but brings attention to the family farm – and to American farmers, in general. That’s something Chastain is so passionate about he and the Trackhouse team are launching a program next year called “Ag to Asphalt” – an opportunity for Chastain to visit various farmsteads as the NASCAR Cup Series travels around the country.
“When someone shows me around their farm somewhere else in the country, I find out it is way more similar [to ours] than not,’’ Chastain said. “We could be in Michigan at a berry farm, or in where they’re Indiana growing corn. But we’re way more alike.’’
“Agriculture is a profession most people don’t see. I buy my groceries in a grocery store like everybody else – but it all comes from a farm. There’s a lot of family farms like us doing that 365 days a year.’’
And the very “JDI” name of the Chastain business is reflective of that. It represents the family mantra: “Just Do It.”
That’s something Chastain has adopted in all his pursuits. And seeing first-hand where his family created a large successful farming business explains so much of Chastain’s philosophy and his demeanor. He is honestly humble and nobly motivated.
“It is just my life, it’s not two different lives,’’ Chastain. “It’s just me.
“I go to same sub [sandwich] shop I’ve gone to for as long as I can remember, the same barbeque, same deli, same places to eat. But really, everything’s about meals at home and I look forward to that. I take that time and enjoy those moments, because out on the road you’re not living that life.
“As a kid, I dreamed about working at the farm, at the JDI headquarters and farming a field near there. I never thought I’d be traveling like this, getting on planes all the time,’’ he said with a huge smile looking around the paddock at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week.
Chad Chastain is hugely proud of his older brother. Working the farm and racing when he can is made better by the success Ross has had – and has so carefully attributed to this family business. The inside of their JDI offices is like a shrine to the sport – generations of trophies and photographs.
Literally, two passions united and success for both.
“As I’ve gotten older, I really realize how lucky we were to grow up in “this” world right here.’’