How I Got Here with Jose Castillo

Jose Castillo and co-host Amy Long on the NASCAR Trackside Live stage. (Courtesy Jose Castillo)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to explain their career path and how they reached their current role. Up next: Jose Castillo, track emcee, “entertainment captain” and host of NASCAR Trackside Live.

First of all, why do you say, “Keep it spicy?”

It started years ago when I got a little habanero light bulb over my head as this logo. I love spicy food, first of all, but my friends were always like, “Jose, you’re always coming up with spicy ideas and everything.” So I just started doing “spicy.”

I love that. It’s your catchphrase, and every time I see you I’m like, “Yes. He keeps it spicy.”

That’s the plan.

So Jose, people are probably familiar with you from seeing you at the NASCAR Trackside Live stage and on the screens at a lot of these SMI tracks. What is your role right now in the NASCAR world?

So I’m a host for NASCAR Trackside Live, which we brought back last year — we’re going on a year and a half of that. And then for the last 12 years, I have been a host and emcee up on the big screen at a lot of the SMI tracks. I started at Bristol and went to Charlotte and then I’ve done Kentucky and Las Vegas and Sonoma. So I’ve been up on the screen being an interviewer, and my job is to help the fans have fun — which is why sometimes I go by “entertainment captain.” It’s a good role.

I like “entertainment captain.” That’s a very good job description. So obviously this probably wasn’t on your radar when you were growing up, to be an entertainment captain, I’m going to assume. So how did this all start out for you?

So it’s funny you say that it wasn’t on my radar, but looking back, I’m like, “This is totally what I’ve done my whole life.” I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. My dad is from Mexico, my mom is from Florida; I was born in Philly but grew up in the South. So I’ve lived in Tennessee pretty much my whole life, it’s where I grew up. In Knoxville, I would come out in front of the big plate glass window in front of the dinner table and I would fall over and make jokes. I’ve always wanted to be on stage and help people laugh. Like that’s my job. My job, if I can make people have a good time and help them enjoy themselves, then I’m doing what I love. And so it kind of progressed from there.

I gave my senior high commencement speech to 5,000 people, and I gave this talk and I remember it like it was yesterday. And at the end of the talk, I was like, “Wow, I may have inspired somebody to do something through this talk and I really like this. This is what I want to do.” And somehow I figured out a way to do jobs that involve that.

Jose Castillo interviews Luke Wilson at Sonoma in 2016. (Courtesy Jose Castillo)

So you get out of high school and you have this realization. Sounds good, but getting people to gather and listen is a whole different story. What was your next step?

It’s hard, because a lot of people see somebody on stage or up on a screen and they’re like, “I want to be that person.” So there’s a lot of people that want to do that.

I think there are some people who go through the “work hard” route — which somehow, I managed to do that route. Other people it’s the “you become famous overnight” (route) and I think a lot of those people don’t necessarily deal with it well. I have a lot of respect for the folks that work hard at it over a long period of time.

I went to Berry College for a very brief, glorious semester and did stand-up comedy. So I was the opener guy. I would walk up on stage and kind of warm up the crowd and then introduce the comedian who came out. And that for me was a job where I was like, “OK, I can’t be a stand-up comedian because that’s such a hard job to just bare your soul every night. But I like this idea of being an emcee, a master of ceremonies. The spotlight’s not on me, my job is to help other people have a good time, to help the event go well, to help the experience happen.”

So I think for me, it’s not about having the spotlight; it’s about making sure the event, the experience goes well and people are having a good time.

How nervous were you when you started out doing this kind of stuff? Obviously, you’ve been doing this long enough now where it’s normal for you. So how did it evolve over the years to where you’re comfortable enough to be in your position?

I think there are some people who are born with a natural ability to feel comfortable in front of a crowd. Jerry Seinfeld said it best, where he’s like, “The number one fear in the United States is standing on stage in front of a group of people. The number two is dying. So people at a funeral, they’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” That’s how most people view public speaking, having a microphone in front of a crowd.

And I think, for me, it was always very natural. Do I still get nervous? Sure, there’s times where I get butterflies or whatever. But I think it’s how you look at it.

I think a lot of people look at it and they go, “OK, I’m nervous,” or they can say, “I’m excited.” Guess what? It’s the same thing. Excitement is the positive side of looking at it, going, “What’s going to happen?” Something could happen, something cool, something bad, I could fudge a line, we could have a great moment — but I’m excited about it. Other people, they look at it in kind of a negative way and they go, “I’m nervous. What happens if I screw up, what happens if we fail?” So I think positive people that look at it that way are more likely to get up on the stage and be like, “This is exciting, we’re going to do something fun.”

So after college, what was your first step in the real world?

I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years. Fortunately, both my dad, grandfather, and even on my wife’s side of the family, they’re all entrepreneurs. It was very hard for me to hold down a steady job working for somebody else. And so I always looked at things of, “How can I push out on my own and try things?”

Man, I had a lot of failures. I ran a commercial recording studio for a while that didn’t do well. I tried to do a speaking career very early on and I had no base to start on to do speaking. That didn’t go well.

And eventually through all that, landed on a blog. It was and I started this blog — this was maybe 15 years ago — and started doing some public speaking and some videos, recording videos of people and being the emcee, like the man on the street. And that was really kind of my first, “OK, I could get paid to hold a microphone and talk to people.”

So it started being successful enough where you were making somewhat of a living off of it?

No. I was not even close to making a living off of it. (Laughs) It was just one of those moments where I’m like, “OK, this is something I could do.”

It was really 12 years ago when Bristol Motor Speedway, they called me — I knew a couple friends there — and they said, “Jose, we’re going to do something a little different.” They were really the first track, I think, to do social media right and to do engagement with the fans right. And they said, “We’re going to make our screen something for the fans. We’re not just going to show country music videos, we’re not just going to show commercials. We want our fans to be up on the screen.” So they said, “Jose, will you come out to the track and interview?”

I’d been to one NASCAR race before that. And I liked it, but it was just kind of one of those things on the side. It was like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” But I had no idea what I doing. So they said, “Jose, you come in, we’ll give you somebody, and you go out in the campgrounds and just film people, hang out with them, and we’ll make them the stars up on the screen.” And I was like, “Heck yeah, I’m in.”

So I showed up to my first race 12 years at Bristol Motor Speedway. They had a camera crew, producer, a director and they’re like, “Alright, here you go. Go have fun.” And I’m like, “Alright, let’s go.” And so we jumped on a golf cart, went out to the campgrounds and started cooking with people, hanging out with them, showing them partying and having a good time, playing games with them up in the stands.

We filmed a lot of it, we did some of it live, and we started putting that up on the screen. And people loved it. People love seeing themselves up on the screen. That’s why we have Dance Cam, that’s why we have Kiss Cam, that’s why we show crowd shots. People love seeing themselves up there because it makes it part of the experience. So that was my job, was to come in and help those fans be part of the experience.

Were you essentially using some of your experience, whether it’s the stand-up comedy stuff or the speaking stuff you’d done or the man on the street stuff?

Yeah, and a lot of it was the fact that we had no budget, we had no script. We had some guidelines, but Bristol was so great about saying, “Jose, we trust you to just go have fun with our fans and make great content and tell stories.” And then it grew from there.

We started seeing other tracks going, “Wait a minute, there’s a guy up here helping fans have a good time. Can he come to our track and help us?” And so it really started to grow from that, but it was about taking all those things that I’d done up until that time and using them as part of that experience to help the fans have a good time.

And you’re right, it was kind of like, “Oh yeah, I learned this game over here doing this, we’re going to play this little game with these fans,” or “You know what, it’s OK to be relaxed and realize you’re going to say a wrong word. Yeah we’re live on the screen, but there’s only 150,000 people here, that’s not a big deal.” (Laughs)

So you mentioned other tracks saw what you were doing and wanted to be part of this. So because you’re part of the SMI family, was it easy for you to go about sort of on loan to these other tracks, or did they have to come to Bristol and ask permission? How does that work?

Here’s the deal. Bristol is always my home track. That’s where I started and they gave me the opportunity to be where I am today. And for a long time, I didn’t actively seek other tracks. I was like, “Bristol is special and unique and I want to stay a part of that.”

But there came a point where I was like, “You know, I could do this as a career.” Like at that point I was still doing marketing work, I was still doing other things and running my business, and I was like, “This is an opportunity that I feel like if I don’t step into, I’m going to miss it.”

And so it was really a combination of everybody. Basically, I’m a contractor — I work for myself — but the tracks hire me or NASCAR Productions hires me, whoever it is, and so I’d gotten enough calls that I’m like, “I’m going try this and see what it looks like.” But I definitely stepped out also saying, “I want to respect the people that brought me to the dance.” And we’ve been able to work through that and so far, it’s been really good.

Because here’s the deal: All the SMI tracks, they show each other love on social media, they’re helping each other out. It’s really one big family, and so it’s been fun to be a part of that. And even NASCAR on the bigger scale is this big family of people. I’ve never worked in something like this where everybody knows each other, and for the most part everybody’s like, “Come on, we want to help make each other better.” And that’s something cool. That’s part of the reason why I love doing it.

You mentioned a year and half ago I think now is when the Trackside Live stage started back up. It’s still at SMI tracks and you’re hoping to eventually expand to all the tracks. How did that start up? I’m sure that didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. And are you pleased with how it’s been going so far since it restarted?

First of all, it’s been amazing and I’m super humbled I got asked to be a part of it. Like when they asked me, I was like, “Really? Are you sure you guys want me to come?” And they’re like, “Yeah, we think you’d be a great thing for the fans.” And I wanted to make sure that I was going to be something that was a good fit and that the fans were going to have a good time. And so when they asked me, I was like, “Yes,” and so far there’s been an amazing response.

This idea of bring back NASCAR Trackside Live — it’s funny because it was four or five people and organizations’ ideas coming to the same realization at the same time. There were people actively inside NASCAR Productions who had said, “Hey Jose, we’re going pitch this idea for a show.” Then there was Marcus Smith and SMI going, “Hey, we need to give more to the fans beside the track.” There was NASCAR going, “Hey, we need to do more for the fans beside the track and do these experiences.” And so all that kind of came together at the right moment where they’re like, “You know what, we’re going to try it.”

It really was the ignition of Marcus Smith saying, “OK, I’m going to step out and push this and let’s see how it goes.” And so last year we launched it at Bristol. It was kind of our inaugural show, and it a little weather-y and there were some other things. But it was a great show. We had Goldberg up on the stage throwing stuff through a tire with his son, and the fans were up there playing games with the drivers and celebrities and guests, which that doesn’t ever happen.

So we’re like, “We keep making these little moments happen where the fans go, ‘Wow!’ and we’re going to win the day.” We had a couple sponsors come on board and we’re looking already on how this can grow and go to other tracks and we’re excited. I think it’s awesome.

When you’re up there, what’s the interaction with the drivers like? How does your relationship with those guys work? I feel like you’re able to draw a lot out of them when you’re up on the stage and I don’t know if it’s just your personality on the spot or because of relationships you have. How do you do it?

It’s a combination of things. So one is, and this is a note for anybody who wants to get into this, is do your homework on questions. Really digging in and finding out what’s going on in their lives, what’s unique, etc.

The second thing is being in the sport long enough. I’m not at every race every weekend, so when we started this, there were a couple drivers kind of like, “OK, I think I know you, I’ve seen you.” But now doing the show for a year, now it’s like high-fiving some drivers and saying hi, talking to each other at other events, on social media, etc. So there I think is a comfort level from the drivers going, “OK, this is not a journalism show, this is not a ‘Hey we’re going to get you with questions,’ this is just a chance to go have fun and play some games.”

And even some repeat drivers like Ty Dillon coming back on and saying, “Man, I’m looking forward to whatever game we’re gonna play.” Or Kyle Larson being like, “Dude, I’ve won every game I’ve been on the show, I want to win this game.” It’s hilarious. So I think they’re responding really well to it.

Let’s say there’s somebody out there reading and they’re like, “Man, Jose has a freaking cool job. I’d love to be on stage with these drivers, trying to bring the personality side out to the fans and having fun interacting with the fans.” What advice would you give to people who want to try to break into the industry?

We live in a time right now that is unprecedented for the amount of content and stories that you can tell with very little equipment, with very little money, with very little access. So if you want to do this, take out your phone right now and turn it around and hit the record button and start telling stories and start giving your opinion and start capturing things that are unique and different.

I think on the one side, anybody can do this. They really can. Does it take a special personality or a special gifts born in to help make it better? Yes, for sure. But I genuinely believe we live in a day and age where anybody can create their own show, anybody can create their own content and push it out there.

The other side of that is it’s got to be unique. It’s got to be something different and it’s got to be from the heart. People know if you’re trying too hard, and if you’re not having a good time, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing or if you’re trying to push it or you’re trying to make it into something it isn’t, they’re going to see right through it.

So I’ll encourage people, if you want to go watch this video…I did a TEDx Talk called “The Wheelbarrow Story.” It’s a story my dad told me about how you can have fun doing anything. And so much fun that it’s infectious, that other people want to come have fun with you.

That’s what I think is why people gravitate to myself, to other people like that, is because we’re having fun. The secret is, we’re just having a good time. So if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, then turn the camera around and help other people have a good time and enjoy it together and you’re going to be successful.

Let me ask a follow-up before we close out here because every time I see you, you’re always smiling, you have this energy, you’re super positive. There’s a lot of times when the world’s not so positive or maybe you wake up and you’re tired or something. What advice would you give to me or other people who sometimes you just feel like, “Ugh, I just don’t feel it that day. I wish I had the energy and felt more positive but I don’t.” How would you answer that?

First off, I have bad days. You can call my wife and daughter up right now and I guarantee they’ll tell you a time when I have not smiled. So I am not perfect. And nobody is.

But I think there’s a joy that comes from wanting to help others genuinely. If you look at the people who want to serve other people and who are genuine about doing that, there’s a joy. There’s a fun there that even if they’re having a bad day, it still kind of shines through.

My mom was always like, “If you’re having a bad day, go help somebody else.” And all of a sudden you’re not having a bad day because you’re helping somebody else. You’re focusing on serving somebody else and helping them have a good time and you start to forget about your own problems.

So I think that moment we get into, “Oh man, this sucks, woe is me,” whatever, find somebody else and help them out. It’s that simple, and I think you’ll find joy and you’ll find excitement in seeing other people having a smile on their face.