Each year at the conclusion of the 10-race Summer Shootout Series, Charlotte Motor Speedway officials present The Spirit of the Legend award, recognizing the driver who best exemplifies the series' founding principles of competitiveness, determination and, above all, sportsmanship.

While the prestigious award is presented annually, few drivers have symbolized what it represents more than Concord, N.C., resident John Ellenburg.

Known in the pit area for his humility and sense of professionalism, "Big John" was the overwhelming choice to receive the 2005 Spirit award, an achievement he considers the crowning accomplishment of his young racing career.

"Winning that award meant so much to me," said the 16-year-old Ellenburg, who is in his fourth season as a regular in the Tuesday night racing series. "A lot of people told me that, in many ways, winning The Spirit of the Legend award was a bigger achievement than winning a championship because of what it says about a driver's character."

While those who've followed Ellenburg's racing career believe his accomplishments, both on and off the track, are the result of ambition and a strong work ethic, Ellenburg says they're merely a reflection of his upbringing.

"I couldn't have done any of this without my parents," he said. "I'm fortunate to have been brought up in a really strong family, by people who've stood by me over the years and I'm really thankful for that."

In addition to his racing activities, Ellenburg's parents, Garland and Charlotte, are very involved in his education.

"I'm home-schooled, which really works well because it allows me a lot of flexibility with my racing schedule," Ellenburg explained. "Usually, they like for me to get my school work done in the morning but, if I don't, I can do it at night. Just as long as it gets done, I'm OK."

But don't think for a minute it is all work and no play around the Ellenburg household.

"My dad and I try to make it out to the golf course at least once a month, but I tend to have more fun on the driving range," Ellenburg said with a big smile. "On a good day, I can drive one just over 300 yards."

The 2006 Summer Shootout marks a new beginning of sorts for Ellenburg. After three years racing Bandoleros, his family-operated team has made the transition to the larger and faster Legends Cars.

"Everything's so different between the Bandolero and the Legends Car," Ellenburg explained. "From the increase in horsepower, to the chassis, to the way they handle in the corners-they're just two very different race cars.

"Right now, all we're trying to do is build seat time, continue to run consistently and end the day with good, solid finishes," he concluded.

Another obstacle in the team's transition from the Bandolero to the Legends Car is the increasing parity among the Summer Shootout competitors.

"This series has gotten so much more competitive, from top to bottom, since I started racing here four years ago," Ellenburg noted. "The setups on the cars have improved tremendously, plus the drivers have gotten a lot better across the board. If you finish in the top 10 these days, that's really something to be proud of."

It's important to note however, that while Ellenburg's on-track expectations are tempered by the realism of his transitional circumstances, simply being competitive isn't his ultimate goal.

"Next year will be the year," said Ellenburg, who hopes to one day compete in the upper echelons of NASCAR. "After I've gained the seat time I need and I'm a little more comfortable in the Legends Car, that's when we'll drop the hammer and run for wins and championships."

The 13th annual Summer Shootout, which runs each Tuesday night through Aug. 8, features three classes of Bandolero racing, three divisions of Legends Cars and the Thunder Roadsters.

Adult tickets are just $5 for adults with children 6-12 admitted for $3 and kids under 6 are free. Tickets are available in advance at the speedway ticket office and at Gates 4 and 5 the night of the event. Parking is free.

Spectator gates open at 5 p.m. with preliminary action at 5:30 p.m. Feature racing begins at 7:30 p.m. and is scheduled to conclude by 10:30. For more information, call the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS.