12 Questions with Matt DiBenedetto (2019)

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Matt DiBenedetto of Leavine Family Racing. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?

I’m an iPhone user now. I used to be Android, but I switched because I’m not very technologically savvy and I feel like everything in the iPhone world is easier.

It sounds like you were almost our first Android answer of the year. Android has completely struck out so far to this point.

Oh man, it’s been like four or five years probably, so I switched quite awhile ago. Everyone said stuff just works easier and it does better, especially for dummies like me.

2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?

I think the selfies — like having your phone ready and obviously turned the right way and ready to roll — that’s more of a memory they have with the driver and the fan.

3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?

Not quite. I’ve learned to calm myself down on the street because there have been instances where literally it was like “I’m going to wreck this guy. Oh wait, I’m on the street, I don’t want to go to jail.” (Laughs) So I’ve learned driving on the road, when other people do that, to just kind of look at them being silly and blowing it off.

4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?

Inside the race car safety equipment? Yeah, there’s one that — I don’t know if I should even speak of. But a really long time ago, I was in my teens, and my glove caught — I was actually spinning and my glove caught the buckle and it took all my seatbelts off and undid them. So my steering wheel was a little bit too low, which was my fault, and it just was a freak situation of like spinning and kind of freaking out, reacting really fast and turning my hand all the way down here. When I did, it just caught them and turned — a very odd situation. It wouldn’t happen nowadays; stuff’s advanced a lot more, but yeah.

So this was during a spin?

Yes.

Oh crap. Were you hurt?

No, not at all. No problems. But definitely was an attention grabber.

5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?

Let’s go with no on that one. It’s probably better I just drive. I think it’s usually better if they do their jobs and I do mine. I get in there and just make that thing go as fast as it can and they make they the car go as fast as it can.

Then if something happens where you guys get caught and we the media comes to you and we’re like, “Matt…” you can actually say, “Well I didn’t know.”

Exactly. It’s always better if you can truthfully play dumb. The less you know, the better.

6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?

I would say probably heavy seafood. It was a super hot day at Dover years ago and a truck driver was cooking a bunch of shrimp and clams and mussels and stuff like that. He was like boiling it all and it was like 90-something degrees outside and I was like, “Oh my gosh, NO. This is horrible timing.” It was already miserably hot and it just smelled like fish and seafood around our place. So I would go with that for sure.

7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?

Uh, yeah. Have you seen how big the universe is? We’re like less of a grain of sand. So I’m going to go with yes, and there’s like maybe some super technologically advanced racing division. But yeah, we’re very small.

8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?

Usually the typical question is, “How’s your car?” That’s normally how it starts. But it was different though when (AJ) Allmendinger was here. We talked about some really off-the-wall stuff that was not pertaining to race cars at all and we would mess with each other a lot and he would, you know, inappropriately smack me on the butt or poke me in the butt or whatever. (Laughs) We played around a lot. So yeah, there was no serious conversations between the two of us.

9. What makes you happy right now?

Doing what I love every day. That’s it. And I appreciate it a whole lot more because of the path I’ve had to go about. Truly, I live for this stuff. So just being able to do this, mainly my only passion, and being able to do it for a living and progressing the way I have and having to do it the pretty old-school way, it makes you love and appreciate it so much more.

10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do as long as you’re driving.” Would you accept that offer?

Yeah. And I’ve seen this question asked to other drivers and some say no. They are crazy or they apparently have not been through the same path that I have to get here. I would do way worse than that for the situation. So the ones who have said no or, “Oh, that’s too much,” they’re crazy. I’m going to send them through my path to get here and I promise you they’ll change their mind.

11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.

We’re going with 95.

Is there someone on the track who you do not like to try and pass? Like every time you see this person, you’re just like, “Oh no, not this guy?”

Ryan Newman.

That seems like a common answer people may have.

Yeah. Nothing against Ryan — he races everybody the same — but when you catch him, it’s like, “Oh, this is going to be a task right here.”

12. The last interview was with John Hunter Nemechek. He wants to know: If you could get a tattoo, any kind of tattoo, anywhere on your body, what would you get and where would you get it?

I possibly will get my first Cup win somewhere on my arm. I don’t know if it’ll be inner arm or outer arm. I never really want a tattoo other than that. That’s the only way I’d get one. It’d be a good, meaningful tattoo.

So like how Austin Dillon and his team after Daytona 500, they all went and got tattoos right after? So we should see you at a tattoo parlor right after your first win?

Mine might be a little more thought out, probably. (Laughs) It’ll be meaningful and a little more serious. I like what he did, it was very spur of the moment and totally kudos to him. But I think I’m planning mine out.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but it will be with an IndyCar driver. Do you have a question I can ask somebody in the IndyCar world?

I would say, what do they think is harder and easier about racing an open wheel car versus a stock car, if both? What they think would be harder, and what they think is also easier. So what’s harder about stock car racing that they think, what’s harder about open wheel racing.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Matt DiBenedetto:

May 15, 2018

The Top Five: Breaking down the Long Beach and Richmond weekends

Five thoughts after the IndyCar race in Long Beach and the NASCAR race in Richmond…

1. It’s an event

The Long Beach Grand Prix — at least the IndyCar part of it — was an uneventful race dominated by one driver who started from the pole and only lost the lead during cycles of green-flag pit stops. Alexander Rossi, the winner, won by more than 20 seconds (!!!) — the largest margin in more than two decades.

By most traditional measures, it was not a good race.

But I’m willing to guess the majority of the massive crowd at Long Beach didn’t care at all — and maybe didn’t even notice.

Street circuits like Long Beach aren’t about the racing so much as they are about the scene. And it was a glorious scene.

“This isn’t a slight at any other series, but this is an event,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “I go to races all the time; I love going to events. I wish there was an event every weekend.”

As mentioned here Friday, there’s a real joy about being in Long Beach for the three days of racing — and Sunday was no different. People stood on tiptoes along fences with cell phone cameras aloft and craned their necks for a better view on elevated walkways and bridges. They strolled along the perimeter of the track (a freaking harbor!) and soaked up the sunshine while seated in various grandstands around the course.

The attraction at the Long Beach Grand Prix really is the event itself, and it’s no wonder attendance set another modern day record this year (187,000 over the three day festival). There were six different racing series on track, plus concerts, DJs, a car expo, food and drink options galore and Instagram-worthy photo spots at literally every turn. It’s an absolute must-go if you ever get a chance.

But while there are certainly hardcore IndyCar or IMSA fans who attended, most people were just here to see cars and spend a fun day walking around with their families or friends.

So are those people going to get bent out of shape about a lack of passing in the IndyCar race? Uh, NO. But that’s what happens when the focus is on the event more than the race, which is almost always the case at street circuits.

Long Beach is a weekend that can certainly serve the devoted race fan and give them all the racing they could desire from dawn to dusk every day. And it’s also a place that can satisfy even the most casual of race fans — including those who might never see another race.

All of that adds up to make it the greatest racing event in America — not race, but event. When the event is the attraction, there’s no such thing as a bad day on the track, even if the main event was a snoozer.

2. Scott-blocked

Just when it looked like Graham Rahal had held off Scott Dixon for a podium finish at Long Beach, IndyCar stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk ruled the spot should be taken away.

IndyCar said Rahal violated its blocking rule — which is reviewed in the drivers meeting — that says, “A driver must not alter his or her racing line to pursuing drivers.”

Essentially, officials decided Rahal made a movement in reaction to Dixon — though NBCSN analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy disagreed and said Rahal moved first. Nevertheless, Dixon was awarded third place and Rahal was dropped one spot, which IndyCar said was the lightest penalty option available.

The outspoken Rahal was calm in his postrace television interview, and later met with officials to discuss the incident. He then told reporters after seeing the replay, “I stand behind the move even more than I did before.”

“Hell yeah, I blocked,” he said. “Anybody would have blocked. The thing is you can do it legally.”

But the stewards, along with race director Kyle Novak, disagreed. Blocking — which IndyCar tells drivers is defined as “movement in reaction to (a) pursuing competitor” — is not allowed. There’s nothing that says a driver is allowed to make one move.

And that decision raises more questions, team owner Bob Rahal said, because similar cases happen all the time.

“Everybody is blocking all the time,” he said. “So to call that a block? What’s a block? … It opens up a can of worms.

“Now the issue is you’ve got to live up to that for every single race from now on in. You make this call, then what’s the difference with the next one?”

Bob Rahal said he hates it when positions aren’t settled on the track, and I have to agree. It’s not unlike a referee calling a borderline holding penalty that alters an NFL game on the final drive.

I get the blocking rule is in place for a reason: On a narrow street circuit with open-wheel cars, unregulated blocking could be disastrous from a safety standpoint. You don’t want drivers zig-zagging back and forth to defend position.

Still, this call…eh. It sure seemed close enough to let it slide as a racing incident — and on the last lap of a IndyCar’s second-biggest race while going for the podium, it would have been preferable to see the drivers’ battle determine the position instead of officials.

3. Stop the bickering

It’s an odd experience to cover IndyCar because for some reason, any positive comments about another series creates a lot of sensitivity and tension for NASCAR and its fans.

Many NASCAR supporters were quick to chime in this weekend when they saw something NASCAR does better — No blocking rule here! Our drivers never win by 20 seconds! — and IndyCar fans took shots at NASCAR when they could — The best driver wins our races! We don’t have cars failing inspection!

It’s almost as if people don’t realize one series can be praised and appreciated without taking it as a backhanded shot at the other. There are things IndyCar actually does better that NASCAR can learn from — but by the same token, there are also things NASCAR does better that IndyCar can learn from.

The fact the series are considering joining forces for a doubleheader in the future is a good thing, because they offer very different philosophies.

NASCAR emphasizes the show/entertainment in a desire to please its fans, with stages and overtime and playoffs. IndyCar emphasizes pure speed/pure racing, preferring to let the races play out in a traditional way.

Cup racing, Rossi noted, “is very different than what we do.”

There’s nothing wrong with liking both, or liking dirt or Supercross or sports cars or Formula One or whatever it may be. It’s all motor racing, right?

“More people are coming to the realization today is we shouldn’t be pitting one against the other,” Ganassi said. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. Should we all be shooting at each other? I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

4. Mercedes vs. Ferrari

Formula One gets ripped for having only two teams that dominate the sport — and rightfully so. It would be great to see other teams like Red Bull or even Haas F1 Team have a shot to win, but Mercedes or Ferrari have won 91 of the last 103 races. F1 has let things get out of hand with the spending of its powerhouse teams, so much so that F1 actually promotes the “midfield” battle (which is really just the race for “best non-Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull car.”)

But while NASCAR certainly has more competitive racing than F1, a two-headed team domination has formed in the Cup Series of late. And to be honest, that’s a bit worrisome.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have now combined to win 11 straight Cup races — the first nine of 2019 and the final two of last season.

Stewart-Haas Racing has had its chances, but everyone else — including Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing — seems behind right now.

NASCAR is at its best when a wide variety of teams and drivers are winning. It keeps the storylines fresher throughout a marathon season and in turn helps keeps fans more engaged (and less annoyed).

Let’s hope the other teams can step up to catch Gibbs and Penske sooner than later, or there’s danger of a predictable slog of a season that could make the “Big Three” look like child’s play.

5. Inspection wars

Taking a step back and being across the country from NASCAR this weekend made it hit home how bad it looks for cars to be failing inspection and crew members to be getting ejected on the day of a race.

Everyone understands NASCAR has a job to do with keeping these sneaky teams in line, but there has to be a better way on those two-day weekends where post-qualifying inspection takes place on the day of the race. Those inspection failures — the ones that come with stripping starting positions and throwing people out of the garage — is so self-defeating for NASCAR.

In the very moments when excitement should be building for the race, the string of updates about failed inspections only builds anger and frustration instead.

Just like with qualifying, this is a problem that can be solved. It might require some give-and-take and creative thinking, but NASCAR has to get out of the business of creating its own bad headlines so people can get back to focusing on what they like and enjoy about what is still by far the No. 1 form of auto racing in America.

Five quotes from the Fast 6 at Long Beach Grand Prix

The IndyCar drivers who qualified first through sixth at Long Beach on Saturday — Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal — held a smile-filled news conference after the session, cracking jokes and laughing through several exchanges.

Here are five of the best quotes from the Fast 6:

Josef Newgarden, on how impossibly close to the wall the drivers get at Long Beach:

“It’s kind of like when you’re pulling out of a parking spot and it’s tight on both sides and you back up and you start to turn and you’re like, ‘Man, am I going to miss that car in front of me?’ And your nose is like right there.

“Like 50 percent of the time, I’m just like, ‘Well, I think I’m going to make it. If I don’t, I hit him.’ (Shrugs)

“That’s kind of what it feels like. All the time on every lap, you’re just like, ‘Argh, I could hit — or maybe not.’ Most of the time you don’t. That’s what it’s like for me. It’s kind of fun.”

Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud on starting alongside each other Sunday despite their incident at the start of last year’s Long Beach Grand Prix:

Rahal: “(Last year) was like a very minor love tap.”

Pagenaud: (Scoffs in disagreement.)

Rahal: “It’s going to be a lot harder to hit him when he’s next to me. So if I’m going to do it again, I’m going to try really hard to do it.’

Pagenaud: “I think you were next to me…”

Rahal: “No, I was behind you and…”

Alexander Rossi: “It was like a torpedo.”

Pagenaud: “Yeah, a torpedo!”

Rahal: “That’s Power’s issue now, right?”

Will Power: “You behind me?”

Rahal: “Yeah.”

Power: “The difference is I’m from Toowoomba, see, and we fight.”

Rahal: “I’m really not worried about you. I’ve got like 50 pounds on you.”

Pagenaud: “I might not brake in Turn 1 just to make sure I don’t get hit.”

Rahal: “Actually, I would be perfectly fine with that. If you want to do that, that would help. You could like take out everybody and I’ll be good.”

Simon Pagenaud, off to a poor start this season, on proclaiming he was “never gone” after he made the final round of qualifying:

Pagenaud (deadpan): “It’s just my ego coming out. I’m a pretentious person, so I just said these things. Why not say it, right?”

Reporter: “I was wondering if you’re feeling unloved or ignored or if there’s something going on…”

Will Power, his teammate: “I have been ignoring him a little bit.”

Pagenaud: “Actually I have plenty of love, mostly from Will, a lot from Josef (Newgarden), too much sometimes. But no, I feel confident, so I think ego comes out when you’re confident. I think that’s what’s going on maybe.”

Reporter: “Do you have a chip on your shoulder?”

Pagenaud: “A chip? Chips are for dogs, I think. So I don’t have a chip, no. It’s all good. I’m pretty focused, 100 percent. Yeah, might have shown some aggressiveness, fire — and that’s not a bad thing.”

Alexander Rossi, responding to a reporter who said it was tough to pass at Long Beach:

“I don’t know how true that is. I don’t think it’s that hard to pass.”

Graham Rahal on why the drivers seemed so happy after making the Fast Six (final round of qualifying) but not winning the pole:

Rahal: “It’s not even the top six anymore. You feel like if you’re in the top 10, you’ve been solid. Didn’t used to be that way. Obviously, we’d all like to be on pole. It would be even better. But I think you really have to feel a sense of like accomplishment as a team. You can see it across all our mechanics, too; everybody is happy. You make it to the Fast Six, you’ve really done something.

“In my first years in this, if you made it to the Fast Six then you were like decent. And nowadays it’s just like the gap — like this morning, 1.1 seconds across from 1st to 25th over a street course this long (almost two miles) with all the bumps and curves and this and that — nowhere else in the world will you find racing that competitive, period. So I think you should feel proud if you had a good day.”

Long Beach Grand Prix weekend off to a fun start

The music thumped, the beers flowed and the taco line stretched a dozen deep on another sun-splashed day at one of America’s great racing events: The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

But this wasn’t race day; this was just Friday, the opener of what amounts to a three-day festival of racing. With fans seemingly spread all over the 1.968-mile course, it’s not hard to see why Long Beach reached an 18-year-high in total attendance last year — hosting 185,000 people over the course of the weekend.

“It’s a place everybody likes to come to, because the energy around this place — today is a Friday, man!” said IndyCar rookie Pato O’Ward, who is getting his first taste of Long Beach this weekend. “The paddock is full, the stands are like…packed. I’ve never seen a Friday so full in my life. It’s really cool.”

The majority of people at Long Beach, of course, are not hardcore race fans. Surveys conducted by the promoters show 60 percent of fans who attend the Grand Prix watch just one other IndyCar race all year (the Indy 500, obviously).

But as long as they’re here, the fans seem to enjoy themselves to the fullest. Some are families with young children, some are couples holding hands — and drinks — and some are SoCal bros with their buddies. There are all sorts of people from all sorts of demographics, but the one thing they have in common is they seem happy. And the vibe around the track has a tangible sense of joy as a result.

“What we all love the most is the atmosphere,” defending series champion Scott Dixon said. “The fans here and the people that come out, the event the promoters turn this into, it’s a big deal.”

That’s what can happen when there’s 45 years of equity built into an event and people around the region make it an annual tradition to attend — whether they know much about racing or not.

The other part of the Grand Prix’s success is the course itself. Not only is it beautiful and centrally located in a tourist area, but the circuit is “rewarding” and “a blast” for drivers, O’Ward said.

“It ticks every box off for a driver that you’d want,” added Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was fastest in Friday’s first practice. “You’ve got the passion and the energy out there from the fans, the track is challenging you as a driver — it’s got that aspect to it that you really enjoy and you can’t wait to get back into the car.”

Friday was a fun day, thanks to the atmosphere created by all the fans. With a favorable weather forecast, the rest of the weekend has potential to be even better.

“I wonder what it’s going to be like Sunday,” O’Ward said. “I’m super excited.”

The Driven Life: Matthew Todd on his second chance at living

Matthew Todd and his daughter, Harper. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Race fan Matthew Todd, who made a miracle recovery from a traumatic brain injury suffered one year ago this week. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Matthew, can you start by taking us through your injury and how it all happened?

My life changed forever in April of 2018. I was holding a door for a lady and took a few steps away from the door after she was in and a displacement caught my right foot. It caused me to stumble. I just fell down to the right — I put my right arm out, my elbow, to catch myself as I was falling forward — and something caught the right side of my head.

On the way down, instead of just having a bump on my head, the object that caught my head was in the perfect spot and it tore the cranial artery that we all have on the right side of our head. It ruptured the artery.

I remember falling. I remember holding the door and taking a few steps. Everybody slips and falls from time to time, I guess. But it’s usually as not as tragic as this was. It’s injured me for the rest of my life.

But I can say — in addition to being the worst injury I’ve ever had — outside of having my daughter, Harper Ruth, this is the greatest blessing God has ever given me. That brings us to the reason why we’re having a conversation today.

What happened next? I assume you were immediately transported to the hospital?

They gave me my first helicopter ride and unfortunately I don’t remember a darn thing about it. I’d never been on a helicopter before, but I was that day. They got me into Durham at Duke University Medical Center and operated on me immediately. But I was incapacitated from the time I fell and made contact with the displacement that tore my artery. I was put on life support.

The procedure was supposed to last two hours. About 90 minutes into it, representatives met with my mother and had her sign some paperwork. They informed her that “From the neck down, your son is very healthy. He has healthy organs.” They said, “He is an organ donor, right?” She said, “He has the heart on his license. He is an organ donor.” They said, “Great. We can use his organs and the other form you signed is to give you the rights to his body.”

That statement there, when I would share this with my friends and family, that’s something that would make me cry. I would get emotional right there. I can’t imagine what my mom went through in that moment.

Statistically, with this injury, the large majority do not live. And if they do live, they have extreme disability for the rest of their life as far as their bodily function, cognitive skills, motor skills — the works. And I was very fortunate.

But they were still operating on me. They got through the procedure. God blessed me with the fact my brain did not swell. They were very worried about the 12 hours immediately following the cranial surgery. They opened up the right side of my head. I had 93 staples in my head. And my brain didn’t swell, so they were able to put me in a private room in the ICU. They estimated I’d be there in the ICU anywhere from 30 days to several weeks. Then I’d go to another floor in the hospital and remain there for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Todd had staples in his head to close up his skull after doctors operated to repair his artery. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

During this time, you told me you are absolutely positive you experienced a taste of the afterlife. And unfortunately we don’t have enough time to go into all of it today, but you described being on a vessel, experiencing vivid colors you’ve never seen in real life and seeing loved ones who had passed away.

I went straight into an area of complete peace. I was in no pain. I was not bothered by anything, just an unconditional euphoria of peacefulness. I’ve never been through a near-death experience, but this was something that was just incredible to me.

It takes 40 to 45 minutes to tell the entire story, but I saw relatives, I saw friends, they were healthy and happy and they looked better than I ever saw them here.

And then I’m walking through these doors into a light. There’s no sense of falling, fear, nothing. And as soon as I go through that light, I’m sitting straight up in my bed at the hospital. Like a bolt of lightning through my back. It felt like the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker corps had all hit me at once.

You said it was about three days from the time of the accident to the time you woke up. I know they told your family there was a chance you’d never to be able to walk or talk, and if you did, it would be weeks or months before you spoke with any coherency once you came out of your coma. And so there were a lot of people around when you suddenly came to.

The news was bad. Everybody literally at that time was waiting until I was going to pass away. Like maybe a day or two and there’s going to be a funeral.

I woke up. There was a lot of people coming in and checking me or seeing  me. All I was doing was talking to family and friends the best I could. I couldn’t remember anything for sure. At that time, I remembered my daughter and my dog, Blue.

Over time, things started coming back to me, but not in great detail. But it didn’t matter. I was completely in an emotion of subtle happiness. I had been through a traumatic brain injury and I was just peaceful at that time. My brain was not flowing, it was not working properly.

Matthew Todd woke up and was able to speak after only three days in a coma. He was sent home within a week after the accident. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

You mentioned they sent you home shockingly early — less than a week after the accident — because you were able to pass some cognitive tests. But obviously you had a lot of restrictions on what you could do as you were in the very early processes of recovery.

I got back home on a Monday afternoon. I laid down on the bed in my room and after about 10 minutes of laying there, I had no idea where I was. I had no idea what house I was in. I had no idea it was my house. That’s how far away I was from everything until my cognitive function allowed me to start processing memories.

Still to this day, I look at pictures of my daughter over the course of her five years and wonder when she took her first steps, what were her first words. Those are things I can’t nail down right now.

I have very good detail on some things. I’ve been reliving the days in the hospital often, but there’s lots of things over the course of my 37 years I can’t recall in detail. I rely on my family and friends to help piece me in, and also going to a place and looking around.

The reason I mentioned the house and not remembering was all of my signed diecasts. I started collecting diecasts several years ago — not a lot of them — but I enjoyed the driver to sign it in silver on the windshield. My first Father’s Day gift was a Jeff Gordon signed Gen 7 car that I got. NASCAR is an absolute wonderful sport in general.

I don’t recall watching television that week. I don’t recall doing much of anything. I had no sense of hunger. I could not process hot and cold temperatures. That following Saturday, I cut on my television. The TV was on, and I go to turn a channel and the DVR was recording.

The first question is, “What’s a DVR?” and “What is this?” Mom said, “Matthew, that’s a race.” I’m like, “Well what race is it?” She’s like, “That’s a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.” And they were racing as I recall at Richmond. I’m not 100 percent, but I believe they were in Richmond. And I didn’t even know I was looking at a NASCAR race. But Mom explained to me I was a large fan of the sport and I have been since I was 3 years old.

So you had no idea you were a NASCAR fan?

I had no idea what I liked and didn’t like. Down to food, music, sports, hobbies — all that stuff.

The NASCAR stuff, through following that sport, that was able to bring me a lot of happiness and the memories that came back to me. I had time on my hands, and I enjoyed watching the shows, the races and everything I could about it.

But it also started waking up the memories I had in that particular thing I enjoyed — racing. Constantly you read a name or a car, number, team, whatever it may be. It just wakes something up.

Every race I’ve been to, I can’t remember them all now. I used to be able to. I used to be able to tell you who won the races. Some I can, some I can’t. The details of specific memories come back in full force or I’m only going to get a piece of them or none at all.

It’s hard to picture that. But it sounds like NASCAR essentially played a role in helping you retrieve those memories.

Imagine the hard drive of your computer being wiped clean and then all the memories flowing back in. Sometimes early on, it was very slow and then it picked up very quickly to where every day, I could be doing anything and a memory from a random time in my life will come back to me.

As far as the racing, I went through everything in my house. I remember seeing the yellow bib that had a No. 18 on it. That brought back the memory of visiting Joe Gibbs Racing several years ago. I had gotten a bib for my daughter, Harper. Of course, she loves M&Ms. Whenever a race is on, she’s always looking for that No. 18.

I cannot tell you how much happiness it brings me when a memory comes back in something I have a great and positive passion about. One of the best memories that has come back to me was I was looking at the No. 24, but I was seeing the name “William Byron” under it. And I was like, “That doesn’t match to me. This is not what I’m recalling.” And then Jeff Gordon’s name — I don’t know if I read it or what — but that comes along, I pull out the diecast and see, “OK, that was Jeff Gordon’s car.” I piece together that he’s retired. And then — bam! — the first race I ever went to comes to mind, and that was the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 (which was Gordon’s first win).

Looking at the diecast, following (NASCAR reporters), things build up the more time you spend on it. Just like the exercises I have to do for my pathologist.

Wow, that’s so cool. Well I want to shift gears a bit here and talk about what perspective you’ve gained from this experience and having a second chance at life. One of the things I’ve noticed from following your tweets is you often tweet about the word “Real” and capitalize the R. Why is that?

“Real” is one of the most important words I have. Real people, real knowledge, real experiences. That’s what matters. Fake stuff is a waste of our time. People who are not honest are a waste of our time. Enjoying a sunset or a sunrise, that’s a real experience. I cling to what is real.

Back when this happened, I could not read a book or follow a movie because I couldn’t remember page to page what was going on. In a movie, I’d watch it begin and then 20 or 30 minutes later, I couldn’t follow the course of the story being told on the screen. But I’ve healed through that.

You mentioned it bothers you when people judge others, which is something you said you no longer do after the accident. 

Back when this happened, your car — how new or old it is — didn’t matter. Your house — how big or small it is — didn’t matter. Your clothes — how stylish or not stylish they are — didn’t matter. Your job didn’t matter. I just worried if people were healthy and happy.

The judgment of where someone eats or sleeps or how they earn their living, none of that at all mattered to me. And to this day, I care about someone’s health and happiness — I do not look at the stature of a person by the material things they have or the amount of money they have. I only care if they’re healthy and happy.

Going to a restaurant, I’ll never ever again go to a restaurant again and worry about, “I’ve got to get that piece of prime rib” or “I’ve got to eat the chicken soft tacos here.” All I care about is who I am with and what kind of real experience or real conversation or real enjoyment we’re going to have.

You also mentioned before the accident, you were as guilty as the rest of us as speeding through life and not taking the chance to enjoy it. I see from your tweets now that you really take the time to savor life’s small moments, even watching rain hitting the driveway.

I used to go 100 miles an hour and get everything I could get done and pack the most into every single day. And now that I’ve had this time to be forced to slow down, stop, pay attention to what’s going on around you, the beauty of the world around us is just amazing to me.

I was sitting in a garage and watching raindrops fall on a concrete driveway that I’ve known most of my life and I had never noticed the reflection of the sunshine off the raindrops when they hit the ground. They looked like diamonds dancing. I would sit outside for several hours and listen to the birds chirp, feel the breeze, watch the sun come up. Just absorb every bit of the natural beauty this world provides us. Seeing a good sunset, looking at the stars, seeing the moon — those things put me in a condition of awe. I’m in awe over those things.

Stuff that when you’re busy day to day, you’re working, you’re going here, there,  you’re raising a child, you’re doing the best you can — you don’t stop. You know the old saying “Stop and smell the roses.” I encourage everybody to just appreciate having air to breathe, food to eat, clothes to wear, a car to drive, a job to go to. Or if they’re retired or unable to work, make something of the time you have.

I walk around today knowing the afterlife, to me, heaven is very real, but we have to make the most of our time here. We’re all on a clock. We don’t know when that clock is going to stop and we do not control it. So it’s better to not waste your brain energy and be uptight, mean, mad all the time. It’s better to be kind — and above that honest, genuine, real.

If you don’t like something, you don’t like something. If somebody you care about wants to know why you don’t like something, feel free to tell them. Do what makes you happy. That’s not a get out of jail free card to do whatever you want, but be kind. If you like double cheeseburgers, eat double cheeseburgers. Don’t eat them to the point where you’re going to gain too much weight and have a heart attack, but enjoy it. Somebody likes the hot dogs at Martinsville? Gobble them up. Enjoy the hot dogs at Martinsville.

Speaking of Martinsville and going back to racing for a moment, you said you no longer have a favorite driver and never will again. Not because you don’t like the drivers, but you said your appreciation for what they do dwarfs any rooting interest. Do I have that correct?

I can appreciate what these people did in that industry that brought happiness to millions of fans. That’s what it all boils down to, right? Why do people enjoy playing golf or computer games or cooking? They do it for happiness. They do it for solitude. They do it to slow their mind down and enjoy some peace.

That’s a good reminder for those of us who work in NASCAR as to what it brings people. On another note, you said a big positive of Twitter was helping to rediscover your interest in racing. But it also bothers you after your experience.

I’m very saddened by the fact it seems social media has become a cesspool of opinions. And we all have those opinions. But just because someone’s opinion is different than yours doesn’t make them a bad person. It doesn’t mean the world is going to end. It just means they think a different way than you do about one particular topic.

You go to a restaurant. I might order the hot dog. You might order the cheeseburger. Guess what? We’re of a differing opinion about the menu. But we’re still going to enjoy ourselves and have a great conversation.

On a final note here, if you could give people advice on one thing they could do differently to appreciate life a little more in light of your experience, what would it be?

You don’t wake up every day and look at every single problem or issue a person may have. Just focus on the small things you can do. Work on the small things, and then once you do enough of those, you may see a big change in the large things. You’ve got to keep your focus on what’s important. But enjoy what you like to enjoy and be respectful of someone enjoying something that might be different from you. 

12 Questions with John Hunter Nemechek (2019)

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with John Hunter Nemechek of GMS Racing. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?

I’m an iPhone person. I’ve been Apple pretty much my entire life, other than middle school when we had to use Microsoft computers. I feel like the Apple generation of being able to share notes and have everything backed up from an iPad to a Mac to an iPhone is definitely way easier than having to transfer files on a Microsoft computer. Once you learn the software, it’s a little bit easier to use and more user friendly — even though Microsoft is what we use here at the racetrack for all of our data and everything else like that.

2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?

Normally I can sign and take a selfie at the same time, so I’m pretty good at multi-tasking. I feel like when people say stuff to you, it goes to heart. So whether I’m in a rush and running around, you’re always going to make time for the fans. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re able to do what we do.

I definitely think being able to take a selfie and sign an autograph is more than just someone saying something, because it gives them something to look back on from then taking a picture with me — especially kids. When you see a kid in the garage, you want to do everything in your power to make sure that kid gets an autograph or that kid gets a picture.

Growing up in this sport, growing up around Dad (Joe Nemechek), I was in a little different situation where I necessarily wouldn’t take pictures with drivers just because I was always under Dad’s wing. But being an outsider looking in from a kid’s experience, that’s something that they’re going to remember for the rest of their life — no matter if they cheer you on or the next guy on. Whoever it is, when you take that picture and you sign that autograph, that’s something they will remember.

Do you think the way you view fans is shaped in part by what you saw your entire life growing up?

I would say so. Seeing where the sport was, where it’s come to and where it’s going back to, I would say it’s huge from every perspective from growing up in the sport. I was two weeks old the first time that I came to a racetrack, so I pretty much grew up here. And to see the younger generation starting to come back to the racetrack and kids and more interaction from Monster being the title sponsor for the Cup series and Xfinity doing events and stuff like that, it’s pretty spectacular to see the growth in the sport continue as I grow in the sport as well.

3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?

No, I don’t think so. I more or less laugh at people on the road from the perspective of them getting mad from being in traffic or whatever it may be. I mean, it’s part of life. There’s cars on the road, there’s people on the road, everyone is driving the fastest they can go on the road doing the speed limit.

Traffic jams do suck, but I think it’s funny when you’re sitting in a traffic jam and everyone’s blowing the horn, flipping each other off and stuff like that. It’s like, where are you going to go? If I move over, you’re going to go one spot forward. It doesn’t really matter. So I sit there and laugh and just take it all in.

4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?

Yes. When I was young coming up through the ranks, I wouldn’t wear a HANS in a quarter midget. We would just wear a neck brace. And I flipped once in a quarter midget — and I wore a HANS after that the entire time.

There’s also been times where I’ve been out on the racetrack and have reached back and only one HANS tether was hooked up, but that was early on. Now I get in with everything strapped on, make sure it’s all bolted up and ready to go.

5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?

I think me being on the technical side, I’d like to know what it is that’s making me go so fast. But from a driver’s standpoint, I’m more or less trying to focus on the driving aspect more than the engineering aspect like I was on the truck side. I think I can continue to grow as a driver if I focus on that, I think it’ll only help me in the long run.

So I’m going to have to say I don’t want to know about it. Let’s just show up to the racetrack, let’s continue to make adjustments and if there’s something secret and fast, the less people that know, the better. Because most of the time when you have an advantage, it ends up beating you to the racetrack because someone can’t keep their mouth shut at the shop or whatever it may be.

So the competitors get wind of it?

Yes, exactly.

And it shows up in the garage?

Exactly. So the less people who know, the better off it is.

6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?

I don’t eat a lot before races. I’ll have like a bland salad and chicken or something along those lines. I haven’t really had any personal experiences before from eating foods or like getting disturbed in a race car or anything.

I have had butterflies so bad when I was young that I’ve thrown up before as I was strapping in before a race. Those were pretty interesting times with nerves.

Thrown up in the car?

Yeah, so that was during my transition from motorcross back to stock cars. So I really hadn’t done it that much. We qualified on the pole at Motor Mile, my first ever pole in a stock car. And I threw up right before the race, which wasn’t good. I didn’t throw up in my helmet, so that was good. I didn’t have to deal with that the whole race.

But I would say you don’t want to eat anything heavy before the race, anything that’s going to upset your stomach because you’re stuck in there. I’ve heard stories of guys who have had accidents in their seats or thrown up and whatnot, and I don’t want to be that guy that sits there in that for three hours, four hours, however long it may be. The smell after the race, could you imagine? That would be so bad.

You couldn’t pay the interior guy enough.

Nope.

7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?

I’m going to say yes and yes. I’m not really one to say there’s aliens or whatever it may be, but I would definitely say there’s other universes and stuff out there that we don’t necessarily know about, and I definitely think they would race. Why not? Race spaceships, whatever. I mean, in theory it sounds cool, right? I would love to do that. That’d be awesome, that’d be a lot of fun.

As soon as we get the technology to get to other planets, we can start exchanging drivers or pilots or whatever they call them.

I would say we already have the technology in my theory to go to other planets and stuff like that. I think we have sent life to other planets, just no one knows about it. I have that theory. There’s a bunch of different theories from watching documentaries and stuff like that that you can come up to, but I like to have my own.

8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?

I’m not a huge conversation person before the race; most of the time I’ll have earbuds in listening to music or kind of getting in my zone. When Cup guys are around like Logano or Kyle (Busch), I like to pick their brains. They’re some of the best in the business, right? So pick their brains about what they’re kind of fighting, trends of the race. I have raced against Kyle forever in Late Models and trucks and now the Xfinity Series, so we talk about Super Late Models before the race. If I see CBell before the race, if we talk, we’re kind of just hanging out mentioning race car stuff or talking about fitness or whatever it may be. But really not a huge conversation person before the race.

9. What makes you happy right now?

Being here at the racetrack, being able to do what I love and just being blessed with the opportunity that I have to be one of the 40 guys competing full time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and trying to make a living out of it. It’s a rare opportunity. There’s a bunch of kids who are at home sitting on the couch who say, “Hey, I want to be there someday,” and sometimes reality’s not there. I’ve been blessed for this situation and the pieces of equipment I’ve been given to continue to grow and continue in this sport, and I’m just really thankful for that.

10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do forever.” Would you accept that offer?

Yes, I would. NASCAR as a sport has come to more of a sponsorship standpoint sport rather than a driver’s ability or whatever it may be. It’s very rare that you see a guy get hired for talent now. It’s mostly the “Hey, what can I do as far as business to business with the team owner and his companies?” or “What sponsors can I bring to the table?”

So to be able to grow in the sport and continue to progress and have the opportunity and have a sponsor that’s going to back you for a lifetime, that’s something that is unheard of right now in this sport. So to have something that would come and say wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig? Heck yeah I’d wear it! Why not?

11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.

We’re going to go with 23.

This is from the 2011 12 Questions. When you eventually quit racing, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?

When I eventually quit racing, my retirement story, I want to be one of the best in the sport — one of the guys that when he walks up and down pit road, his smile shines and he’s known in the garage area. I feel like with my family’s history in the sport, my last name is definitely a present in and around the garage area just from Dad’s success.

But I want to outdo him. I want to be one of the best in the sport. I want to win Cup races, I want to win championships and I feel like it’s a realistic goal to get there with the hard work and the determination and the commitment I have to the training aspect, the hard work aspect and just continuing to try and make myself grow as a person and become my own person is huge.

I want to have some Tony Stewart stories, Richard Petty stories, just stories that you can go back to after you’re retired and tell. I think Ken Schrader is one of the best for telling stories just from being around the garage, and he was Dad’s teammate at one point and we’ve raced around him at Eldora and stuff like that. He’ll sit down and he’ll just tell stories. It’s pretty remarkable to hear what has happened in the past and what those guys went through. There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

You mentioned working hard. I hear you’re one of the most hard-working, driven guys — that you really go above and beyond. Why do you think it’s so important for you to stand out like that?

Whether I get recognized as a hard worker or not, it’s self satisfaction. I want to know that I’m coming into this sport giving my 100 percent. Whether it’s watching video, taking notes, being on a bike, running, being in the shop with the team guys, being hands on — whatever it may be, I’m going to put 100 percent into it. And if I don’t, then I don’t need to be here.

I was brought up the way that you better do stuff right the first time, and like I said, not everyone gets an opportunity like myself to be able to be in this garage and continue to progress through the ranks like I have, and have great people around you and great supporters and great sponsors that have backed me for many years. So I feel like I owe it to myself to be 100 percent on my game each and every week that I show up to the racetrack.

12. The last interview was with Corey LaJoie. In light of the recent McDowell-Suarez dustup, he was noting that Suarez wasn’t necessarily that guy that people would have picked to be the tough guy in the garage. He wants to know: Who do you think is another sleeper in the garage who is a sneaky good fighter that maybe nobody would anticipate?

Cup garage, Xfinity garage or Truck garage?

I’ll leave it open to wherever you want to go with it.

Well, I’ve seen a few guys throw punches at a couple MMA training events from the Truck Series who have now moved up to the Xfinity Series, and none of them can really fight. So I’m not going to go with any of those guys. (Laughs) I’m not going to name names. But when you punch with your fist upside down, you know that is not going to be very good.

I would say from the Cup garage, probably Matt DiBenedetto. He’s a strong guy, right? Like he does Crossfit and stuff like that. I’ve never seen him throw a punch and he’s always seemed like a nice guy, but every nice guy has a hot side. So if you push certain buttons, I would say that it could come to that.

I would not want to fight Matt DiBenedetto.

No. You would probably get knocked out first punch. I would say Ross Chastain or Jeremy Clements. I know that they got into it at Bristol, but I would say on the Xfinity side, those are two guys that are nice guys in the garage and always have a smile. But like I said, you push a wrong button, they’re coming after you, that’s for sure.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver?

So I got my first tattoo yesterday.

Are you serious?

I did. So I’m going to say, if you could get any tattoo in any location on your body, what would it be and where would it be? 

Do you care to share yours or are you going to keep it a secret?

Yeah, I got a cross yesterday. Last night actually. When it heals, it will lighten up a bit. So it’s a wood grain cross. Something that went into a lot of detail and thought. I’ve been a Christ follower all my life and continue to go to church. I think things happen for a reason, right? I mean, He’s watching over us and I’m blessed to be in the spot that I’m in and he’s always Lord on board.

But when I go up and shake someone’s hand, I’m a man of my word and a man of God, so you know that you’re getting the truth out of me and 100 percent out of me. I’m right handed, so that’s why I did it on my right arm.

Right where your wrist is.

Yup, right there.

You can see the detailed little waves in the wood.

Yeah. So the same guy that did Ryan Blaney’s tattoos actually did this last night. London Reese is pretty good, check out his artwork.


This is the first 12 Questions interview with John Hunter Nemechek