The series of 12 Questions continues this week with Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports. Despite missing eight races with a broken back, Almirola can still make the playoffs Saturday night at Richmond Raceway with a win and a NASCAR waiver.
1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?
There has to be a balance of both. Race car drivers are always fine-tuning their craft and you constantly learn. Even Jimmie Johnson, after winning seven championships and all the experience and laps that he has, he still learns every weekend — or at least I think he does, just from talking to him and conversating with him.
So as a race car driver, you’re constantly learning and working at trying to be better. But there has to be some natural ability and some natural talent to be able to make the work pay off.
2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I think with our sport, you have to compete and run up front and be sort of in the spotlight to gain the fans. So we’ve gotta do a better job of that; I’ve got to do a better job of that. And if you run up front, the fans will come.
People love to cheer for winners and people love to boo for winners, right? You saw that with Dale Earnhardt, you saw that with Darrell Waltrip, you see it with Kyle Busch. Obviously, you’ve seen it with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Back in the day, people used to hate Jeff Gordon if they were a Dale Earnhardt fan, and then Dale showed some love to Jeff and when Dale passed away, it seemed like the Rainbow Warriors came out in flying colors. So I think success breeds stardom, and stardom breeds fanbases. So I’ve got to do my part on the racetrack to gain more fans.
3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?
Away from the racetrack, I think the hardest part is just balancing life and a family and still trying to work, still trying to work out and stay in shape, make the sponsors happy, go and do sponsor appearances or PR requests, go and do Race Hub or NASCAR America. All of those things, they take time out of your weekday life. And don’t forget Thursday through Sunday, we’re 1000 percent dedicated to racing.
So our families sometimes get put on the back burner, and I think that’s the most challenging part for most race car drivers — especially ones like myself who have a wife and kids — just trying to find that balance during the week. If you said yes to everything, I could find ways to work seven days a week every hour I was awake. But trying to figure out when to say no is the hardest part.
4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?
Absolutely. My wife (Janice) especially, if she was there, she would poke and prod me to loosen up some and do those kinds of things. So yeah, I think I’m a very personable guy. I enjoy people and I enjoy people coming up and saying hi, especially if they’re respectful — I think that’s important.
So Janice doesn’t mind getting date night interrupted?
No, not at all. She thinks it’s good and she thinks it’s cool that people recognize me. Like I said, as long as they’re respectful. There’s the occasional (person) that’s not very respectful, but most people are extremely respectful. When people come up and just want to meet you or get a picture and an autograph, it’s kind of cool.
I never thought that day would come. When I was an 8-year-old kid or a 10-year-old kid racing go-karts, never did I ever in my wildest dreams think that someone would want my autograph — even though when I was about 10, I would sit there and practice my name in cursive in case I had to sign an autograph one day. And now, I have to do it.
5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?
I think the amount of hard work that all these crew guys put in. They work 60 hours a week during the week at the shop, and then they come to the track and put in three or four hard, grinding days at the track. They devote more of their life to this than even the drivers and team owners do. The crew guys, all of the front of the workload, really falls on their shoulders. They ensure that the cars are prepared and built and the haulers are going to and from the races. So much of this sport rests on their shoulders, and they put in a tremendous amount of work and that’s sometimes overlooked.
6. Who is the last driver you texted?
Jimmie Johnson, about going on a bike ride this morning.
How was your ride?
It was good. I rode 42, 43 miles, so it was a nice morning ride here in Darlington. The weather was nice for it. It was a little humid, a little overcast, but it was nice to get up and get the blood flowing.
7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?
Yeah, absolutely. We go out and we put out a show for the people that come to watch, the people who tune in on TV to watch, the people who tune into the radio to listen to it. That’s what we’re doing: We’re putting on a show.
If there wasn’t anybody that watched, and if there weren’t any fans in the stands, every race car driver in the garage area would probably still race — but we wouldn’t have a job doing it. We wouldn’t make the money we make, we wouldn’t have the sponsors we have, we wouldn’t have the involvement.
Having the fans, that changes the whole atmosphere. We all grew up racing Saturday night short tracks, and when you go there and have 1,000, 2,500, or 5,000 fans, you don’t really pay much attention to it. But then when you start racing in NASCAR and you walk out in that driver introductions stage for the first time and you see 100,000 fans in the stands, it changes things. It brings a whole new level of excitement and energy to our sport.
8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?
I’m not big on doing it. I tend to refrain from doing that most of the time. But when it’s deserved, it’ll certainly come out.
What happens when it gets done to you?
Usually I’m mad, like, “What the heck is that guy’s problem?” Sometimes, you know when maybe you’re gonna get it and you maybe did it on purpose. Like you know it’s coming and you don’t really care. And then other times you’re kind of caught by surprise.
9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?
Sure. I think the one guy that comes to mind for me is Tony Stewart. When he raced, and I thought we raced really well together, and he raced everybody like that. Like he would race you hard when he knew he wanted that spot or had a car good enough to have that spot, but then on other days when he was struggling with his car or whatever, he would not hold you up, he wouldn’t fight you. And then the next pit stop, if he made an adjustment and his car was better and he came from a straightaway behind and caught you, you would pay him that same favor back; you would let him go and wouldn’t hold him up. He learned from the Mark Martins and the Dale Earnhardts and those guys how to race that way, and that’s the one guy where I always felt like if he cut me a break, I was sure to return the favor if it came back my way.
10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?
I’ve had dinner with Garth Brooks. He’s pretty famous.
That’s awesome. How was that?
That was pretty cool. We went and hung out with him and Trisha (Yearwood) backstage at what was supposed to be one of his final ever concerts in Kansas City at the Sprint Center. We hung out with him backstage before he went on, and had pizza and drank some beer. That was really cool.
11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?
(Thinks for awhile) I’m not trying to stall because I don’t have anything I want to improve on, I’m stalling trying to figure what’s on the top of the list. I have a lot of things I want to improve on.
I think I’d like to improve on just being a better husband and a better dad when I’m available. It’s so easy in this sport about getting caught up in racing and racing kind of being number one and everything else taking a backseat. Even in those moments when I am home and being a husband and a dad, I still find myself lost in my own thoughts about racing and everything revolving around racing. So I think that’s probably the one thing that would most benefit me to improve on, is to just continue to be a better husband and a better dad when I am home.
12. The last interview I did was with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. His question was: What did you do on the off weekend? And if it was fun, why didn’t you invite him?
(Laughs) Well he did something really cool, and he didn’t invite me, so I’m pissed, actually. He went out on a huge yacht and toured around down at the Bahamas. So I’m jealous, and shame on him for asking me why I didn’t invite him to our little resort that we went to.
My wife and the kids and I — Janice, Alex, and Abby — we all piled in the car and went down to the beach down in Georgia and made a long weekend out of it. The kids started school, so taking them out of school for a whole week is not really ideal, especially when they had just started. So we took them out of school for just Friday and Monday and made a long weekend out of it. We left Thursday afternoon when they got out of school and went to the beach. So we had a great time. The weather was a little crappy a couple of the days, but we still made the best of it and had a lot of fun.
I don’t know who the next driver interview is, but do you have a question I can ask another race car driver in general?
Yeah. Ask them why they agreed to do this interview. (Grins)
This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).