Everything we did as I was growing up revolved around racing. Even before I started racing we would go to 70-80 races up and down the west coast to watch. A lot of my early memories are of either being in the car on the way to races, or at the race track itself.
My parents didn’t force racing on me at all. I played a little bit of little league baseball and had fun with it from what I can remember, but I always knew that racing was the path I wanted to take, and they were supportive of that.
Mom and Dad did a ton for me in my kart career. Everybody races for their parents in karts, but my dad took care of all of our stuff, engine rebuilds, all of the maintenance work and the setups. He would write press releases after every race, which no one did back then in the karts. We had a website that my mom took care of, so my dad would write press releases and she’d post them on there every Monday.
My parents weren’t retired back then like they are now, so they were working nine to five jobs and doing anything they could to help grow my career, which was great. Even now my mom still video tapes every open wheel or kart race that I run. My dad handles a lot of my finances and makes sure I’m not making any bad decisions.
My parents were always great for me and they taught me to always be respectful of people. I may not act like I respect my parents all of the time, but who doesn’t? I feel like they’ve made me a good person and that’s the main thing in life, and in racing. I’m extremely thankful for everything they’ve done. I know I don’t tell them that enough, but I don’t think there are too many drivers out there who have had parents work as hard for their kid as mine have.
A young fan
I remember as a kid I had a checkered flag pillow that I would cruise around the pit areas at races with and get all of the drivers to sign. I slept on that pillow, honestly, probably until I moved out.
It’s cool to see those pictures that my mom took back in the day of me getting autographs; Kasey Kahne, Brent or Bud Kaeding, Paul McMahan, or even pictures from the Chili Bowl with guys that I’m really good friends with now. I look like I’m six and they still kind of look the same age. Pictures of me with like Brady Bacon or Bryan Clauson are funny to me now.
I think seeing how veteran racers interacted with me as I grew up as a fan affected how I treat fans today. Those racers had no idea who I was but they treated me well, and you notice and recognize that when you’re that young. When you grow up in their shoes and become a race car driver yourself you try to respect your fans like they respected me. Fans are honestly what make this sport go so you have to take care of them, be nice and respectful, sign all of the autographs, take all of the pictures, and present yourself well.
Who I cheered for
Roger Crockett and his family were good friends with my family growing up. My mom has videos from when I was one or two years old of me going to his race shop. Roger’s dad and my dad are good friends through building and racing fun karts and slot cars. The Crockett family was very good to my family and to me at a young age, so I was always a big Roger Crockett fan growing up.
When it came to the Outlaw guys Jac Haudenschild was my favorite. I mean everybody loves him. Joey Saldana was also someone I always cheered for. I loved his elbows up driving style and I’ve always been a big Joey Saldana fan. As much as Sammy Swindell and I have gotten into it over the last few years I’m still a huge Sammy Swindell fan. What he can still do in a race car is amazing and what he does, as both a hero and a villain, is big for our sport.
I always liked Jeff Gordon in NASCAR. He grew up in Vallejo, which was only like an hour and a half from me. My background is obviously very similar to his in terms of running midgets and sprint cars. I was also a huge Tony Stewart fan as well. I really just rooted for any dirt guy in NASCAR.
All of those racers turned out to be great, great people as I found out from growing up and competing against them.
It’s funny how you have run-ins as you get older. I’ve watched so many of the California guys since the time I was in diapers. When I finally got to race against them I found out that some of them race you pretty dirty, and it surprises you because they were so nice when you were a fan.
I’m pretty thankful that my parents got me started in Outlaw Karts. The karts are such a handful to drive and that’s why I think you see so many people transitioning successfully from the karts to full-size sprint cars.
You have a 500cc two-stroke in a 300 pound kart with a 150 pound driver in it, and the power to weight ratio is very similar to a 360 sprint car. You can pull your front wheels off the ground and you can spin the rear tires very easily.
The competition in the karts had been so tough for a long time and it’s getting really tough again. You get to race some awesome tracks like Cycleland Speedway near Chico, California, which is dead slick in the middle, with a little bit of moisture on the bottom and a cushion that allows you to throw slide jobs. You learn to be really patient on the bottom, or you can learn to rip the fence like Rico Abreu.
It’s really cool, now that I’m living in North Carolina, because we have Millbridge Speedway there. When I first moved to North Carolina I’d go to Millbridge and there would be maybe four or five Open 500cc karts, and now they’re getting 20-30 on a regular night and they get close to 100 karts for their big races.
To see how fast it’s all grown throughout the East Coast and throughout the Midwest in such a short time is really cool, because when I started outlaw karts in 1999 it was strictly West Coast.
I don’t race online nearly as much anymore but I feel like it helped me a ton in my development as a driver. I think it’s one of the main reasons you see younger racers being a lot better than usual at a younger age.
A lot of the kids who plan on racing for a living are homeschooled now so they have a lot more time to sit on their computer and race, which is kind of how I was. I started homeschooling when I was 15.
The school gave me a desktop computer so I just used that for my rFactor racing. Kevin Swindell and I would race, along with some other online friends that we made. Kevin and I would probably get on the computer at like 4 pm (he was on Eastern time, I was on Pacific) and we’d play for 12 hours or more.
Even though the cars don’t drive the same, you’re still putting yourself in racing situations. It helps with hand-eye coordination and it improves your footwork. A lot of the race tracks aren’t exactly similar to their real-life counterparts but you get a sense for the track’s shape and banking.
I used to race online all of the time. Now I don’t have the time for it really. I’ve been trying to get back into iRacing stuff. I’ll get on for an hour or two, a couple of times a week.
The technology has developed so much that online racing is becoming very close to real life racing. They are coming out with dirt for iRacing, which should be awesome. But every track that is on iRacing is laser scanned so you feel every bump in the track. It is insane how close the tracks are to real life.
They’ve developed virtual reality headsets that look like goggles. You can put those on now and it looks 100% like you’re sitting in the race car. You can move around and it’s just like you’re sitting in the race car.
All of this stuff I’m talking about really helps young racers. I think on iRacing now, you see a lot of K&N kids on there all of the time, even Camping World Truck racers and Xfinity racers are on there. Myself, I’m getting back into it. Denny Hamlin is on there all of the time and he’s got a really expensive simulator at his house.
As I said earlier, technology has developed a lot over the last three or four years, and it’s a benefit that has allowed anyone to get a better racing experience.
In a sprint car at a young age
I started racing outlaw karts when I was seven, and worked my way through the classes over the next seven years. I was able to meet David Robinson Jr. (Ryan Robinson’s father and a former sprint car champion) and I guess he could see that I had some talent. He started talking to sprint car owners about me, and luckily Dave and Debbie Vertullo gave me a shot in a sprint car when I was 14.
We went to Marysville Speedway in February and did a little test so I could get the hang of it, and for the Vertullos to see if I was capable. It went really well and they asked my parents if it would be OK for me to race some with them. At that time 14 year-olds were not legally allowed to race sprint cars in California. But some of the promoters had heard about me and were aware of what I was doing in outlaw karts. Also, at 15 Shane Golobic had been allowed to race the year before at Petaluma Speedway, so that helped open the door. I had to get partially emancipated so that I could sign release forms, and get letters of recommendation by some veterans including Jimmy Sills, and then I was able to go sprint car racing.
I guess when you’re as young as I was, and you’re winning in karts like I was, you get kind of confident. You think you can move up and hang with those guys. When I got to sprint cars, my first race was awful.
We went to Placerville Speedway for a Civil War show. I think I beat a couple of cars in qualifying and then wrecked in the heat race. I transferred out of the C, and then I was lapped traffic in the B. I got run over by somebody and hit by another car. It destroyed the car.
I was pretty upset with myself after the first race, fighting back tears and whatever. I had Larry Shelton (Holly Shelton’s dad) as my crew chief that night. He is a well-respected veteran crew chief in California, and was known to be hard on drivers. Larry wasn’t the best guy for a young kid so he didn’t last very long as my crew chief; one night to be exact. Larry and I are still good friends, but we look back on that and have a good chuckle every now and then.
Following that first night I second guessed myself. I think I was kind of over sprint car racing for a few days. The Vertullos believed in me and didn’t want to let it end there, so a couple weeks later we went back to Placerville. I think we ran sixth or something like that. Later in the season I won my first race there four days after I turned 15. I haven’t looked back since.
Getting some support
I was super lucky to meet Rich Stadelhofer, and Rico, at Rico’s family’s outlaw kart track. Rico has a super nice track at his ranch and they invited me to come out and race outlaw karts there. I was 15 and in my second year of running sprint cars.
So, I went to Rico’s and raced there, had some fun, and I met Rich Stadelhofer. He came out to Calistoga, where we were racing the next night and he watched me run a sprint car. Rich slowly started helping us out with the Vertullos, and it materialized into a really big sponsorship for someone racing on the West Coast.
Near the end of the following year the Vertullo’s and I parted ways and I really didn’t know what I was going to do. Rich put a deal together with the Kaeding’s, where he owned the engines and basically paid the operating expenses, and we went racing.
We would run 360’s at Watsonville on Friday nights and Golden State Challenge Series 410’s on Saturday’s. We won maybe 10 races that year, finished second in points at Watsonville to Tommy Tarlton, and won the Golden State Challenge Series championship, beating Brent by just a few points.
Meeting Rich, and him getting me involved with the Kaeding’s, really got my name out there to another level. I think when you’re racing for a guy like Brent Kaeding, who’s done so much for the sport and is a Hall of Famer, and you do well, people notice. Meeting Rich, and racing with the Kaeding’s, really opened the door for me getting to race with Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby.
Looking back, meeting Rich Stadelhofer was probably the single most important moment in my career in terms of me becoming a successful race car driver. It was THE turning point.
A match made in heaven
I was told after the fact that I had caught the attention of Keith Kunz at the 2010 Oval Nationals, and he and Pete Willougby had their eye on me when I drove for Glenn Crossno at Chili Bowl in 2011. During the heat race I was checked out. I probably had a half lap lead in the heat and, because I was young and dumb, I just kept going faster and faster and faster. I finally biked it up and flipped all by myself. I bent the rear of the chassis pretty badly in the crash. We probably could have kept running the car, but it wouldn’t have been very safe.
Once we were back to the trailer Pete came over and was trying to figure out a way to get me into one of their backup cars that they had. Unfortunately, though, Chili Bowl rules state that the car you enter is the car you have to race, so my Chili Bowl was done. Here it was Tuesday of the Chili Bowl, and it was the lowest moment of my career. It is funny how things in life work out, because on that same day Keith and Pete had made up their mind that I was the guy they wanted to help turn their program around for the full 2011 season.
I kind of thought that Keith and Pete would see the wreck and not want to put me in their car, but at the end of the Chili Bowl they asked me if I might want to run for them at a USAC Western States Midget race in Tucson that was coming up. About a week after Chili Bowl Pete gave me a call and asked me to race for them full time. I told him I’d let them know. I came to find out later no one had ever told them that before. Usually, it was just an immediate yes from anyone they asked.
At the time I wanted to race sprint cars pretty badly, and I had a possible deal for me to run throughout the Midwest with a good sprint car team. So, I was waiting to see how that would materialize. It went nowhere though, and about a week later I got hooked up with Keith and Pete. And the rest is history.
Keith and Pete are two of the greatest car owners that I’ve ever raced for, and I’m fortunate enough that I can call them up whenever I want. Even when they have a roster full of drivers they’ll figure out a way to put me in a sixth, seventh, or an eighth midget. It doesn’t get any better than Keith Kunz when it comes to turning wrenches on midgets, so I’m very thankful to race for them whenever I can.
Sweeping the 4-Crown
The 2011 4-Crown experience was awesome, and another turning point in my career. I’d been to Eldora Speedway once before to watch but I had never raced there. I watched the World of Outlaw race the night before and I was just really looking forward to getting my first chance to run Eldora. I remember thinking it was cool that my debut there was coming at such a big race.
4-Crown was my second chance to get to race with the Hoffman team. I’d won the Ultimate Challenge at Oskaloosa my first time ever racing for them a few weeks before. I was hoping to do well in that car because that team had such a great history at Eldora. I thought I would have a really good shot at winning the midget race, but I was a little unsure about the Silver Crown race. In hot laps, though, we were fast in each car, so I was encouraged.
I was able to get to the lead quickly in the midget portion for Keith and Pete and lead every lap of the event. Bryan Clauson was chasing me pretty hard so I knew I had to limit my mistakes because he was so smooth, never made mistakes, and pounced on you when you did. Surprisingly, Bryan ended up making a couple of mistakes that race.
After the race, Bryan told me he’d gotten into the backstretch wall and bent his Jacobs ladder, and he had a hard time getting to me after that. So, we won the midget race, which was the one I felt like we had the best shot at winning. You can’t win all three races unless you win the first one, but after that I was confident going into the sprint car race.
I can’t remember where I started, probably somewhere around ninth or 11th, but I know I started on the inside of a mid-pack row. I honestly wasn’t moving forward quickly enough in the early laps. I picked off a couple of cars, but soon tire wear became an issue. People kept blistering their tires and blowing out their right rears. For some reason, my right rear stayed together even though it was blistered kind of badly too. Guys started dropping like flies and that happened at about the point when I’d found a good line. I found I could enter higher into turn one and carry a lot more speed off of turn two and down the backstretch. I was able to start passing cars, and I was getting cautions at the right time.
We got a late caution and restarted right behind Dave Darland. I had my line figured out in one and two, where he was still running a little bit lower. I got a big run off of two and I almost actually drove around him but I kind of crossed over, clipped his rear bumper, and got him out of shape. It wasn’t planned but it worked. I was able to slide him into three and cruise the next lap to get the win. It was a race I really shouldn’t have won, but I did. It ended up being the key to sweeping the 4-Crown.
It was a big, big win because I felt like after I won that sprint car race that I had the Silver Crown race kind of locked up. My confidence was high at that point, and I knew that Keith had our car really, really good. Early on in the night, we qualified quick time and I’d felt really good in hot laps.
I started on the front row with Levi Jones, and he got the jump and I fell in line. I was a lot faster than him from the start and I was able to get by him early. I always tell everybody that race was the most perfect race I’ve ever run. I never made any mistakes that whole race. Most races you kind of think to yourself that you made a small mistake here or there, but nothing costly. Or you think about big mistakes that cost you lap times or wins. But in that race I didn’t make one mistake. I was able to just cruise the whole time.
In the Silver Crown cars you have spotters. Pete was my spotter and I just remember that he was really calm on the radio, and it kept me calm. It really helped me hit my marks every lap. I’m sure Pete smoked two packs of cigarettes in that feature though.
It was cool. It was a huge feat to win all three races my first time racing there. To do something like that at a place like Eldora was something special, so yeah, I’ll always love that race and I love that race track. I haven’t honestly raced there much since then, other than the NASCAR Truck race, but wish I could do more.
Eldora bites back
In 2011 I had a great year, and winning the 4-Crown really helped take my career to the next step. I was beginning to race stock cars in 2012 and I wasn’t racing USAC midgets full-time. I ran the K&N East Series race at Loudon, New Hampshire and won it. The people at NASCAR were great and they hurried victory lane up for me. Smoke then hustled me to a helicopter to go race at Eldora. We went straight from Loudon to the airport in the helicopter, and then I hopped on Tony’s jet and went straight to Eldora.
I got there in time to qualify the Silver Crown car I was going to run for Tony. I earned quick time in Silver Crown qualifying with no practice, which was an awesome feeling.
We won that night in the midget after blowing up coming to the finish line. Would another sweep be possible?
In the sprint car race, I was once again starting around mid-pack. Up top in turn one and two can get a little choppy at Eldora and I just caught a hole wrong in the early going. I bounced a couple of times and rode the wall. I felt like everything was going to be fine. But then something caught wrong and turned me sideways and I started flipping about as softly as you can possibly flip at Eldora (although there are no soft ones there). Another driver was left with nowhere to go and he hit me right on the downtubes, and probably just inches from getting me in the cockpit. It was pretty scary. It was also the first race, including heats and mains, that I didn’t win in the Hoffman car.
That one hurt really bad. The initial hit hurt, but then I started flipping. I landed on the nose one time really hard and got some major whiplash. I hit my head on the steering wheel, I think. I used to run a little nose piece on my helmet and it shattered that.
I was checked and cleared by the track medical staff, and I still had the Silver Crown race to run. It was the first time I was going to get to race for Tony, and I wanted to be out there. I was going to start on the pole and was definitely fast enough to win the Silver Crown race. I was sitting in the trailer just trying to convince myself to race. And then my neck started swelling and looked like I had a baseball in it, so I decided not to race. It probably wouldn’t have been smart to run it. I didn’t know if I had a serious injury or what, so I just decided to try to make an intelligent decision. It probably wouldn’t have been smart to run it, especially if I was involved in another incident.
I went to the hospital with my parents, got some x-rays and got checked out. It turned out everything was alright but I was sore for a few days. The biggest thing, though, was the disappointment of not getting to race for Tony, as I haven’t had an opportunity to race for him since.
Taking down the Outlaws
My first World of Outlaws win came in 2011 in the Gold Cup at Chico. 2011 was a really fun year for me. It was the first year I got to venture out into the Midwest. I got to race at a lot of different race tracks and I learned a lot. I developed a lot as a driver that year and I was fortunate to win a lot of big races throughout the Midwest.
I had built a lot of momentum throughout the summer. When I wasn’t running for Keith and Pete I would fly back to California and race with the Kaeding team, which I had run for full-time the year before. I would run King of the West shows for them, or whatever was racing out there.
Gold Cup is a race that every local driver wants to win, but it had been something like 30 years since a true local had won the race.
I don’t remember much about the beginning of the night but we did everything right to put ourselves in a position to win. We won the heat and won the dash, and started on the pole of the feature.
Chico was a tough track to pass on that night. It was pretty hooked up around the bottom, and the middle to the top was a little slick, so you kind of had to fight for the bottom.
I had to hold off Jason Sides on some double-file restarts, and that was difficult because in California we didn’t do double-file restarts. The only time we did them was when the Outlaws would come to town, and those guys were all so good at them. I was nervous on every restart I had because Jason would try to control the pace and would try to pinch me down.
Fortunately, I was able to get clear of Sides on every restart, pass a couple of lapped cars and eventually get the win. It was definitely one of the most special wins to me.
I went to a lot of Outlaw races when I was growing up and I always wanted to win one so bad. To get the first one out of the way was really cool. I remember I was tearing up in my helmet after getting the checkered. My dad was crying, but my dad cries all of the time when I win big races. The California fans were loving it too. Seeing the emotion of everyone on the team was pretty special, and something I’ll never forget.
Taking advantage of opportunities
When I first moved to Indiana I wasn’t there full time, but I was there a lot of the time. I was living in Columbus, Indiana and really all I was doing was racing USAC midgets and Silver Crown cars for Keith and Pete.
There were a lot of weekends where I didn’t have much going on, and I was extremely bored in Columbus. As a result, I would try to get whatever non-wing sprint car ride I could get in my spare time. I got to run for Jeff Walker a little bit the first year I was out there, and wrecked a lot of stuff. I think I raced maybe three races for him. I finished second at a Bloomington USAC race, but I flipped at Gas City and then destroyed a car at Kokomo. Not surprisingly, my career with Jeff Walker didn’t last very long.
Following that I don’t think I ran much non-wing sprint car stuff for a while. Then I went with Keith and Pete to the Belleville Midget Nationals and we swept both nights. I went to Knoxville the next night just to watch the USAC sprint cars, and had no plans to race until the next weekend in California.
I’d heard that the Hoffman’s were struggling with their driver heading into Knoxville. The driver flipped that night and the next morning Kirk Spridgeon got me in touch with the Hoffman’s. One night later we won $15,000 at Oskaloosa. It was huge, as that was definitely the most money I’d won up to that point. Oskaloosa started that relationship off really well and about a month later we won 4-Crown together.
Hitting the road
Up until 2011, I’d spend most of my career in California. 80% of the time the tracks out there are really hooked up or rough quarter miles. By then, I was racing a lot more out in the Midwest where they didn’t use the water truck as much, so I got to experience racing on slick tracks against some pretty tough competition.
I got to see a lot of new places, race for different people, and I really learned a lot. I feel like that year I took myself from being a good local racer to being a good racer nationally. But it took some time. It’s not like I got to Indiana and started winning right away. I think it took me until June to win my first race.
Once I got that first win I got some confidence in myself that I could go out there and beat the Bryan Clauson’s and Dave Darland’s in a non-wing sprint car or midget. Confidence was everything for me back then. I came back to California with a lot more experience and confidence, and I knew that I was one of the best drivers in the Nor-Cal area.
When I ran a sprint car from the ages of 14 to 16 I never really made a lot of money. I was paid 30% for a top five finish. I didn’t get paid often, but I was still making some money. I got my driver’s license, and I could pay for gas in my parents car, and at least get around.
As I turned 17 and 18 I started winning more. At that point, I was making real money, probably $30,000. I’ve never really thought about how much I made then, but in 2011 I won some big races and I made over $100,000, which is insane for an 18 or 19 year-old. My dad just always kind of took care of all of that, and would just sort of oversee everything, and put it away for me.
I didn’t really think about money a whole lot then. Even though I was making good money I didn’t really think about what to do with it. Now, I definitely spend a lot, but back then I feel like I was really good at saving my money. My father always kind of tried to teach me to save money.
Back in those days, when you’re a race car driver and you’re going through the season and you’re winning races every now and then, you’ll get like $1500. You decide you want to go spend a few hundred bucks and get yourself something. The problem is that when you get to the offseason you’re not making any money for about three months.
My father would always try to remind me of that reality anytime I wanted to spend money. He would scare me a little bit by saying things like “are you sure you have enough money to pay your taxes?”
Even now, my dad watches out for me to make sure the money I’m owed is coming in, and the money going out is accountable. I’m sure my dad doesn’t have fun doing it, but at the same time I kind of think he likes being able to watch out for me, and I appreciate it.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first went to Trophy Cup, but before I started racing sprint cars, it was always one of my favorite races. The race has such a unique format. The feature on Saturday night is totally inverted based on points earned in qualifying and heats over the preliminary nights, so the fastest drivers are always starting at the back of the field in a 50 lap race.
Tulare is my favorite track. It’s a really exciting track and the perfect race track for the Trophy Cup format, because there is always lots of passing. You don’t necessarily have to win the race to win the main event, because the big money (which is $20,000 to win) goes to the driver who earned the most total points. It’s always fun to follow along as the drivers come from the back of the field. It is a race within a race because of the points gained as you move forward. Each position is so important, and I always felt like the excitement builds throughout the race.
Some guys that start in the back try to get to the front quickly and they’ll look like the sure winner of the whole deal. And then you’ll have someone methodically pick their way through the field and sometimes they steal the win in the last lap or two. Each year it seems like it comes down to the very end, and I think that’s why I’ve always liked that race.
Tulare had always been my best race track and I was always really, really fast there. I spent my first couple of years racing there tearing up equipment. The place even sent me to the hospital in my early days. It was still my favorite track, but I could just never put together the perfect weekend at Trophy Cup. I’d always qualify too badly on my preliminary night and lose my shot at winning the event.
Finally, in 2013 I was able to get a lot of points heading into Saturday night’s main event. I qualified well and got through my heat on Friday. I think we maybe finished third in Friday’s feature and that set me up in a good spot for Saturday night. Tim Kaeding and I were tied for the points lead heading into the finale.
I started in the last row and I was able to get to the front pretty quickly. I knew all I really had to do was beat Tim and I would win the points deal. Or, at the least, another guy or two would have to beat me by a few spots. I got to second with 8 laps to go.
I date Brad Sweet’s sister, Katelyn. Brad was leading the race in the late stages. I didn’t have to beat Brad to win Trophy Cup, but I wanted to win pretty badly. I knew what was on the line if I wrecked, or whatever.
I threw a big slider on Brad in turn one after we got the white flag, and then he crossed me over and we drag raced down the backstretch. He actually had me cleared by the end of the backstretch and I just assumed he would short slide himself to the center of the corner and not leave me a lane. Fortunately for me, he pulled off to the bottom of turn three and slid across the corner really slowly. I was grinning in my helmet because I knew I had a shot to squeeze around him on the outside.
The door closed at the very last second and we made contact. I was able to claw my way to the finish line and win with the car destroyed. The rear end was knocked out, I had a flat tire and I ripped the wing pretty much off the car. I tore up a lot of stuff, just to get the race win. I was honestly lucky that the red flag didn’t come out, or I would have lost the whole point deal and the $20,000. I think it was such a crazy finish that the flag man probably didn’t know what to do and luckily he just threw the checkered flag.
It took Brad and his parents probably a couple of days to get over that one, and Katelyn as well. But it’s funny. We still joke about that race a lot. Brad and Katelyn’s mom are so competitive, and she still gets fired up when that race gets brought up.
The dream becomes reality
When you’re a young kid you think that you can do anything in the world, and that’s great, but it’s not necessarily how things turn out. I always had the confidence you need to make it to NASCAR someday. I knew early on that I could at least make a living racing sprint cars in California. You can look to people like Kyle Hirst, and he’s made a good living just racing locally in California.
I would say that when I was around 15 or 16 years old that I knew that racing was what I had to do to make a living. I’ve never had a real job and there’s no way I could work a nine to five job. I knew I’d need to make it in racing.
As far as really knowing I had a shot to race in NASCAR though, I would say the reality of that possibility didn’t hit until 2011. Whenever you get to go race for Keith Kunz you know that if you can just do a good job that you will meet the right people. NASCAR teams pay attention to what goes on in USAC midget racing. I think once I started racing for Keith I knew I had a really good shot to go far in racing.
Racing with and against talented teammates
When I joined Kunz in 2011 I had teammates, but they weren’t the caliber that they have there now, so I wasn’t too concerned. I was always kind of out running my teammates then, and even in 2012 when Rico was brought in. Rico was new to midgets so he didn’t run up front a lot right away, and at that point Christopher Bell wasn’t there yet.
Now, I only get to run five or so midget races a year. So, if I get outrun by my teammates it doesn’t hurt my feelings because I can accept that I don’t do this all of the time. I should get beat by Tanner Thorson or Rico, although I still hold my own when I do get to race a midget.
You look at someone like Tanner, who I don’t think won until his third year on the team, or maybe the end of his second year. If Rico hadn’t been there, and Bell hadn’t been there, he probably would have been racking up 10 wins a year.
Teammates are good because they drive you to be better, but it’s also bad in a way too as it can get your confidence down in a hurry. Carson Macedo did a really great job last year, but now he is probably not going to race for the team this year. It’s tough. Tanner’s the best on the team now, but when you’re just as fast as he is and he’s finding ways to beat you, it can get frustrating.
Jamie McMurray and I, in NASCAR, work great together. We always help each other out, and you have to in NASCAR. I still want to beat him every time I’m on the track. I want to beat him in practice, qualifying and the race. One of my goals going into every race is to make sure I outrun my teammate.
I think Bell went through those difficulties in having to be teammates with William Byron. I know he was frustrated. You believe you’re getting the same stuff as everyone else on the team, so if you get outrun you ask yourself “Is it me? Or am I not getting the same equipment as him?”. It gets really frustrating when you’re watching your teammate win a lot.
The next Jeff Gordon?
If I could give families any advice for their young kids in racing I’d say not to rush them too quickly. But if you look at my career it probably looks like I got rushed along. It’s hard to say. But the one thing you find, with whatever young kid it may be, they either have it or they don’t.
It’s different these days. It’s hard to just get rides, so you just have to take advantage of every opportunity that you get. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re being rushed along or if you’re towards the end of your road to making it to NASCAR, a driver has to take opportunities when they are presented.
I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way to go about bringing up a young racer. For me, having fun was emphasized by my parents. Every kid and every parent handle situations differently, and either things are going to fall your way in terms of luck or breaks, or they won’t. Being in the right place at the right time, and winning races, are the most important keys, however.
I’m always aggressive in the race car. Especially on restarts. Restarts are the only opportunity you get in a race where everybody is close together. You can make the biggest gains possible in the shortest amount of time. I’ve always known that and have tried to be aggressive on starts. If you look at myself and Kyle Busch in NASCAR, our restart stats are well beyond most other drivers in terms of positions gained.
Thankfully, I race for great race teams on dirt. Every time I’m in a sprint car I feel like I have a shot to win, or at least have a car capable of winning. I do everything I can to try and win. As I’ve grown up and gotten a little bit more mature I’ve gotten better at accepting a sixth place finish. But still, since I just don’t get to run dirt stuff a whole lot anymore, I just really try to win every time I’m out there.
Lately, it’s gotten me into some trouble. If you look at my preliminary night this year at the Chili Bowl I should have just taken a second place finish in the feature. I got to racing, though, and as a result I was in the D Main on Saturday night. My driving style can definitely bite me sometimes, but it helps me more often than not.
Every part of driving a race car is technical, especially a sprint car. I feel like when you play it safe in a sprint car it’s easier to make bigger mistakes than when you’re running a curb on a wall or something like that. When you are going faster you have more downforce and you’ve got more grip. I don’t want to say it’s more difficult to make a mistake in that situation, but I think it makes it easier to get into a rhythm. For me, it’s also good motivation knowing that if I don’t rip a curb hard that Paul Silva will rip my ass.
Obviously, I don’t race sprint cars a lot anymore, so I watch a lot of races on DirtVision or on The Cushion and it can sometimes be frustrating to watch. You’ll be watching your friends and thinking “Run it in a little bit harder”, or “Run it in a little bit higher”. You know the little things they can do to be that little bit faster.
The Larson-Marks #2
I’ll probably be a little more involved in the Larson-Marks World of Outlaws team this coming year. I’m hoping to help the team out a bit more financially. I really enjoy that aspect of racing, being involved with the team. I love sprint car racing, but I don’t get to go to a lot of races. So, it’s nice to feel like you are a part of every race.
I feel like we’ve got the best, or at the very least, the second best driver in Shane Stewart. The first year with the Outlaws we ran second in points, won a lot of races, and were consistently up front. Last year we had a lot of speed but the consistency wasn’t really there. The team still won eight races, so it was a decent year. But hopefully we can get back to how we were the first year we did the tour.
We have Bob Curtis back on our team for this year, which I think is going to be great. Absolutely everybody who works on the World of Outlaws tour is an exceptionally hard worker, but there’s nobody that works as hard as Bob. He doesn’t have much of a background in terms of being a crew chief, but he’s been around so long and has been with so many top teams. I’m hoping between his and our notebooks he can take that next step and make our race cars even faster.
An Outlaw season is tough, long and grueling. Every driver relies on confidence quite a bit, but I feel like Shane does especially. He needs to know that his car is going to be bad ass every time it hits the track, and if he truly believes it he’s almost impossible to beat. As long as we can keep his confidence up I think we’ll have a great year, and that we can definitely challenge Donny Schatz for a championship.
Racing the best in Nascar
There’s a lot of racers in Cup that have made it there either through their parents helping them a lot, or hooking up with a sponsor when they were young. And, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that.
People give the Dillon brothers crap all of the time, but they’re both really good drivers. Austin’s won a Truck and an Xfinity championship. He can and will win Cup races, and maybe even a championship someday.
Fans talk about spoiled rich kids in racing all the time. What I hope they realize is that it doesn’t matter how much money they spend, they’re not going to stay in the sport long if they aren’t producing and running up front. I feel like we have at least 30 incredible drivers in the Cup Series, and you can’t take that away from the ones that had good financial backing behind them early in their careers.
There’s no hiding that there are rich families or supporters in NASCAR. You can take someone like Daniel Suarez, whose sponsor is Arris. The guy behind Arris is like the second richest guy in the world. But Daniel still had to race well enough to become an Xfinity champion, and he deserves to be a Cup racer based on his talent.
I am proud of myself for making it without having to spend a dime. There’s not many of us these days in Cup. I think the last guy to make it this way before myself would probably be Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He definitely got there by taking advantage of great opportunities, along with his talent.
The process of making my dirt schedule
In 2012, when I started running the K&N East Series, Chip Ganassi Racing was cool with everything that I wanted to race. Even in 2013, when I was a rookie in the Xfinity Series, CGR still let me run a lot of dirt races. Whenever I wanted, I could get done with a NASCAR practice or race and get to a dirt race track and just stay busy racing, which was awesome.
Once I moved to Cup in 2014 they had me back my dirt schedule down quite a bit. Even I wanted to back it down because I wanted to take it seriously and focus 100% on NASCAR. I think I only ran one sprint car race (Kokomo) in my first year of Cup. In the offseason, I raced Turkey Night, Chili Bowl and Yuma.
I didn’t really debate much with CGR at that time to run a bunch of dirt races. I also knew that I had to stay safe and make sure that I could be a NASCAR driver for a long time. But it means a lot to me to be able to race often, and I was kind of bored after not racing sprint cars or midgets that year.
The following year I asked more often and I was able to race a couple more races, but not too many. During the middle of that year we started putting together something like an insurance policy that would allow me to run 25 dirt races a year. That way, if I got hurt, Chip would be covered.
The team has been super accommodating. Chip doesn’t necessarily like that I race all of this stuff, but he understands that I love it. I think he understands that I truly feel like it makes me a better driver on the NASCAR side. I have always felt the more you race the better you become. There is no other Cup owner out there that lets their driver go race the way I get to, so I’m very thankful for that. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve stayed with Chip – he’s a racer too.
Why NASCAR stars come back to their sprint car roots
We don’t have the horsepower in Cup that we do in a sprint car, and a sprint car weighs half as much. They are just wild race cars. There’s nothing on the planet that’s as fun to drive as an open wheel, dirt car. I’ve never driven a dirt late model or a modified, but I can imagine they are a blast to drive as well.
When it comes to competition, I think friendships are closer in dirt track racing than they are in pavement racing. There’s not so much intense setup work that goes into dirt racing like there is in pavement racing. In pavement stuff, everyone is so secretive and on edge. If you get into somebody they want to fight you, while in sprint car racing you just kind of get over it really quick and move on to the next race. As a result, I think you build bigger and better friendships in dirt racing. In the end, it all comes back to the racing. You just can’t beat sprint car racing.
The advantages/disadvantages of a sprint car background in NASCAR
I don’t know how much being a sprint car driver really matters when it comes time to drive in NASCAR. We’re all really good drivers in Cup and it really doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, I don’t think. Talent is talent.
If I had to say the kind of things a sprint car driver may struggle at I would say it’s racing at a place like Martinsville or Richmond. I’ve gotten better at these places, but in general, any track where you have to use a lot of brakes, stop and make a u-turn, and take off again, are where my weaknesses lie.
I struggle with those kinds of places because in sprint cars and midgets it’s all about how fast you can enter the corner. At those kind of tracks it’s about how consistent can you be each lap, how consistently can you hit your marks, and how little you spin your tires on exit.
For whatever reason, even when I feel like I’m not spinning my tires, they always look worse than others when we go to short tracks. I can be really fast on a short run, but I can also get murdered on a long run.
I also think there are a lot of places and circumstances where being a sprint car driver really helps me excel. Fans might be shocked, but road course racing is one area where I really think being a dirt track guy helps. When we race on ovals we don’t have any ride height rules so our cars are just stuck to the track. You don’t really feel the car roll side to side or the suspension moving as much.
On road courses you can feel the car flexing up, and when it gets grip it will pick the front end up. So you can “feel” your traction a lot better. In oval racing, you’re kind of relying on aerodynamics and stuff like that, so road course racing is one aspect of NASCAR where I think dirt track racing helps a lot.
When we go to “drivers” tracks, where you have to be really aggressive, it helps a lot to have a sprint car racing background. Tracks like Bristol, or anywhere that you can run the wall, like at Homestead, it feels a lot like running a cushion on a big half-mile in a sprint car.
When it comes to being strict with your mind, hands and feet, or tracks that you have to hit the bottom every lap, those are the places that I feel like I personally struggle at. I can visually see other sprint car guys struggle at those places too.
The Indianapolis 500
I hope one day I’ll be able to compete in the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500, to me, is the biggest race in the world. It trumps the Daytona 500, or any other race in the world for that matter. I think because my dad is such a big Indycar fan that it makes me want to run it even more. I guess just the way I was raised, I always understood the importance of that race.
I haven’t bugged Chip about it as much anymore. It was more of like a joke between us before, but I think he kind of got annoyed by it, so I stopped asking about it. He did always tell me to worry about winning a Cup race first, so I’m glad I’ve gotten that out of the way.
Now that I’ve won a Cup race I’d like to do it. It’s just tough. By the time May rolls around, if you don’t have a win in Cup, then running the 500 would be really sketchy. If you had a win early in the season, and knew you were locked into the Chase, you could go to the Indy 500 and race hard, and not be scared of wrecking or getting injured. I feel like for some reason every year our Cup team hasn’t started off really well, and May is kind of the time when our team really starts to get going. It would be terrible to break your wrist or something in the 500, be out for a couple of weeks, and lose a shot at making the Chase based on points.
I think if our team could get to the point where we are truly racing with a shot at the win each and every week, and feel like we have a legitimate shot at winning at least half of the races, at some point I feel like Chip would probably let me run the 500. But until our team gets to that point, probably not.
Just to start the Indy 500 would be really special. I wouldn’t necessarily be going there to win, because that would be a lot to expect, but I think to be a part of it would be really cool.
I’m not a big celebration guy, but I feel like fans like it so I’m kind of obligated to do it now. When I was growing up and racing karts, my sister’s ex-boyfriend, Pete Johnston, had crazy victory celebrations. He would do donuts so fast it looked like a helicopter was about to take off. He’d have the steering wheel out the left side and his other arm out the other side. He just did bad ass celebrations. When you’re racing karts you don’t want to copy somebody, and I would just rarely ever celebrate.
Once you get to sprint cars, other than a wing dance there’s not really a whole lot of celebrations you can do. I think when I started doing the wheel out the side was when I was racing midgets in New Zealand a few years ago. Even though people thought it was original, it wasn’t, because I stole it from Pete. But now, it’s kind of stuck as my signature celebration.
I do it most times on dirt if I feel like it’s a prestigious race to win. Nobody had done it in NASCAR, so I did it there. I caught a lot of flack for it with NASCAR. Mike Helton told me I should never do it again after I won my first Xfinity race. They felt it was dangerous, which I get, I guess. So now I rarely celebrate anymore in NASCAR.
However, when I won my first Cup race, I was like “Screw it!”. It was my first Cup win, and if I got in trouble, I got in trouble. I actually think NASCAR kind of liked it though, and felt like I did a pretty good burnout and a good celebration.
I’m not sure if I’ll keep doing it or not. Everybody keeps doing burnouts when they win now, and to me it’s played out. I like the idea of just pulling straight to victory lane. My dad always said celebrations are like rubbing your competition’s nose in it. It’s always funny to get tweets from people complaining that I didn’t celebrate, and that’s what they came for. You came to see a good race, I hope you didn’t just come for a burnout.
A return to Knoxville
Getting a chance to return and compete in the Knoxville Nationals last year was huge. I love racing at Knoxville and now I don’t get to do it at all, really. Last year my schedule worked out perfect. The NASCAR off weekends just fell at the best times of the year for sprint car racing.
The second off weekend fell right before Ohio Speedweek, so I was able to run six of the eight nights. We finished on the podium I think five out of the six nights, and winning two races was great.
The next off weekend landed right during the Knoxville Nationals week, which fell just perfect for me. I got to run Oskaloosa and then the Knoxville Nationals.
Knoxville is a tough place, but it’s especially tough during the Nationals. Every team has all of their best stuff ready and there’s no other place like Knoxville. It’s just so hard to go and race a sprint car there when you don’t do it on a weekly basis.
I was happy just to make the feature. I won the B-Main and we started deep in the field, and ran all of the way up to 5th. I think the second half of the race went non-stop. I needed some cautions. I was extremely fast but I needed some help to get the field bunched back up. It didn’t work out the way I needed it to, but it was just awesome to run the Knoxville Nationals and run in the top 5. Any time you go to the toughest sprint car race in the world, and do that, it is pretty cool.
Unfortunately, this year the schedule frickin’ sucks in terms of sprint car racing. I can’t run Knoxville or Ohio Speedweek, so it’s a bummer.
I don’t think becoming a father has affected my racing at all. If anything, I think I have more fun now at the races. It’s fun to get to take Owen to pretty much every one of my races. He’s two years old now and he LOVES racing. It’s just so much fun to watch him have a good time. I feel like I’m somewhat in my parent’s shoes, watching myself grow up, which is a neat experience.
Owen knows what a track looks like from the outside before we even get to it. If he sees a set of grandstands he starts making engine revving noises and saying “Race! Race! Race!”. He goes crazy.
He loves going to NASCAR races. There’s a lot of time to kill, and he LOVES going through the tech area with the team. This year the team is making him his own crew shirt, so the whole experience is awesome and he really loves it. I feel like I’m watching myself grow up through him.
My first NASCAR win at Michigan had been a long time coming. We finished second in my fifth race during my rookie year of racing Cup in 2014. At that point, I realized that maybe I could actually win a Cup race in my first year. We had some really good finishes throughout the season. Unfortunately, we also had a lot of DNF’s and didn’t make the Chase, but we ended the year extremely fast. I felt like I legitimately had a shot at winning three or four of those races so I wasn’t too concerned going into that offseason.
As 2015 began, I felt we would get a win just because we had been really fast to close out the year before. But we didn’t start the year off very good at all in 2015. It was disappointing to start that year and struggle to run in the top 15. We went to a couple of tracks where I’m really good and I thought we had the speed to win, but we just didn’t get it done. 2015 ended up just being really frustrating because I had really high hopes of winning.
In 2016, we had a new crew chief come in; Chad Johnston. We struggled again during the first couple of months, but once he got what he wanted from the organization we picked up a lot of speed really quickly. At the first Kansas race, I ran top three all race long, and then I got crashed at the end. The next race was at Dover and we probably should have won that one if I was more aggressive. We went to the All-Star Race at Charlotte the next week and made it in by like an inch in the Showdown, which is like the B-Main. I almost won the All Star Race and a million bucks later that night, but we got beat by Joey Logano.
It was really cool to feel like we could win races and be competitive again. We stayed pretty good but kind of tapered off just a little bit as the season progressed. We got back to hitting it hard right before the Chase. Really, our main focus was to make the Chase, and we had a good shot at “pointing” our way in. At Watkins Glen, I was going to finish fourth or fifth, but AJ Allmendinger got into me in the last corner and spun me out. I lost something like 26 points in that race, which really killed our shot at making the Chase through the points standings.
We went to Bristol the next week, which is my favorite race track on the NASCAR schedule. I felt like we were the fastest car there, with our best chance to win a Cup race and make the Chase. But then we ran into bad luck like I usually do there.
For the race at Michigan, we ran the 2017 rules package. We had been really good with that package, and that’s the package we raced at the All-Star Race when we almost won. We ran it at the first Michigan race and we ran third. I was confident going into the race but you never really know how much other teams have gained on those one-off rules packages implemented between the other races.
I remember Chad and the rest of our team were super, super confident going into that race. Aerodynamically the team had made a lot of gains. I was confident about things and we were good, really good, from the first lap that we hit the race track. It really looked like it was going to come down to Chase Elliott and myself on Sunday.
You could kind of see that it was going to play out between Chase and I all race long. I was able to beat him on a couple of clutch restarts, which is an area where I’ve struggled a lot, and still struggle to this day. It was just a big relief to get the win. Also, it was big as we were still feeling the effects of losing Bryan Clauson just a few weeks before. We were locked in the Chase for the first time too, so that was awesome. We kind of got on a roll after that, as we finished third the next week and second the week after that.
I was feeling really good going into the Chase, and then I ran into my normal NASCAR bad luck. We were running fifth late in the first Chase race in Chicago and had a tire come apart with eight laps to go and we finished 20th. At Dover, we had battery issues and went like three laps down, and that killed our shot at continuing in the Chase. But we ended our year well like we always do, with another great run at Homestead. So hopefully we can just start this year off strong and I think we can get a couple more wins.
What does the future hold?
I’m 24, and I’ll be 25 this July. Besides winning NASCAR races and championships, my main goal in racing is to run a season with the World of Outlaws some day in my future. Fortunately, I’m in Cup at a young age. I feel like if I can run for another 12 years in Cup, I’d still be in my mid-thirties and I could still go Outlaw racing.
You never know, if I’m Jimmie Johnson in 12 years I’m probably not going to quit Cup. It’s just really tough to try and foresee your future when you’re this young, and this early into the game.
But I definitely want to race with the World of Outlaws. And hopefully, at that time the World of Outlaws are as big or bigger than they are now. And hopefully, Donny Schatz is still racing when I get there because I’d love to run a season or more with Donny. You never know how things will play out though, so it will be interesting to see where my career takes me. Stay tuned!
The Drivers Project is a media collective devoted to North American open-wheel racing.