The Driven Life: Matt Tifft on the keto diet

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: Matt Tifft, the Cup Series rookie who drives for Front Row Motorsports.

You’ve obviously been through a lot more than average person has, at least at this age in your life. You had a brain tumor that had to be removed. As a result, as I understand, you’re on the keto diet. I think that’s a result of the tumor, correct?

Sure, yeah. It wasn’t for probably a year and a few months (after surgery) that I really found (the diet), but I had a friend over at the National Brain Tumor Society who I worked with very closely through my recovery process and everything. She was a track runner at UNC Chapel Hill years ago and she said, “Hey, I know you’ve been struggling a little bit with getting the last bit of your mental clarity and stuff back after the recovery process.” She goes, “Hey, I heard of this ketogenic diet. I’ve been on it for a few weeks and I’m feeling great, and there are some clinical studies that are showing that the keto diet can help prevent a brain tumor from growing” — or coming back, in my case.

I was feeling OK, but I hadn’t made a full recovery back from how I was feeling after the surgery and stuff. This was probably September 2017. We were going to Dover that weekend for the playoffs and I went cold turkey one day, going from normal eating to the next day starting full-out keto. Hardly any carbs, hardly any sugar. So I was feeling it that weekend for sure, but it’s been a year and a half since then.

Wow that’s amazing. And you’ve stuck to it all that time?

I have. I can probably count on one hand the amount of cheat days I’ve had in the year and a half. My teammate Michael McDowell is on it too and my fiancee is on it now.

But what’s cool about it to me is I was able to go on it and I’ve gotten much better mental clarity. I was feeling great and all of a sudden I started dropping weight, too. From when I started, I’m 45 pounds down or something.

You’re not a huge guy to begin with.

No, it was just kind of back to my high school weight, really. But I just feel better than I ever have.

I love it because there’s so many (keto-friendly food) alternatives. In the beginning there weren’t so many, but it’s become so popular that people are making alternatives for cookies and chocolates and breads and stuff. I don’t indulge in all of them, but it makes it sustainable.

And I think the cool part about it too, as I’ve learned more of the research side about it, is how it can help reverse type 2 diabetes, it can prevent against epilepsy and dementia and Alzheimer’s — which was the original goal for it. And (helping) my brain tumor effects are in there, too.

My crew chief, Mike Kelley, just started it last week. I talk to (Austin Dillon crew chief) Danny Stockman about it last year when I was over at RCR, because he saw how much I lost and how well I was doing and stuff. I said, “Danny, why don’t you just try that out?” He said, “Alright, alright, I’ll try it.” And I think today he’s down 70 pounds and the dude looks like he’s lost six or seven years. He just looks so young now.

It’s cool to see that for me, to know that “Hey, I helped a guy in the garage area do that.” It helped my fiancee; she’d have a high heart rate sometimes for no reason or just everyday stuff, she wouldn’t be feeling so great and all of a sudden it helps her feel better. So I just love it just because I feel better on it, so that’s why I’m a big advocate of it.

Wow, you make it sound really good. So if somebody is reading and all they’ve heard is the term, can you go over the basics of it and why does it help you?

So the basic formula to achieve a keto diet is 75 percent of your daily calories come from fat sources, 20 percent come from protein, and 5 percent come from carbs. And so what it ends up being is 20 grams or less of carbs per day. That’s one Fig Newton. So that’s a big adjustment for people in the beginning, is just finding what has carbs and what has sugar in it and what doesn’t. Sugar-free doesn’t mean carb-free.

So the whole science behind it — not to get too crazy with it — is your body has two energy fuel sources: there’s glycogen and there’s ketones. So glycogen is sugar, and when you intake carbohydrates or sugars, your body breaks it down and uses glycogen to fuel your body. That’s why people have blood sugar spikes — ups and downs, peaks and valleys, whatever you want to call it.

With ketones, at any given time you have about 32,000 calories worth of fat in your body. So marathon runners, endurance athletes, they run more on their ketones after they’ve kind of burnt through that initial phase. So it’s a more efficient process for your body.

And the other thing is the insulin response from the things you eat on a ketogenic diet is extremely low. So it’s kind of like eating similar to a diabetic, but what it does is it reduces the inflammation of your body, which is why it has the cancer-positive effects to it. I don’t want to say (cancer) curing, I don’t want to say that at all. But I’ve seen examples of that because of the reduction of inflammation in your body — and that’s why you kind of just feel better, because you kind of just feel like this heaviness and fog has been lifted off.

So this sounds kind of complicated, but I understand that part of it is you have to check your blood levels or something?

You don’t have to. My teammate Michael McDowell, he likes to, but I think he’s kind of a nerd about it. He’s super into it. I’ve checked it twice in the year and a half I’ve been on it.

So it’s not a necessity.

No, not at all. You can do that. It’s a cool tool because you can see exactly how you’re doing. I just go more off of feel.

I guess my thing is we’re all busy, right? And you are on the road too, so you’re as busy as anybody. How do you keep this up when you’re traveling, when you’re out at dinner, when there’s not great food options available? How do you maintain this?

Well, so there’s two things about it. There’s something called lazy keto, which you kind of have to go on the road. That means not everything is all organic or all grass-fed — because on a very clean keto diet, that is what you would have. Ultimately, (organic and grass-fed beef) is the optimal thing, just like any clean-eating diet you talk about. Would I say that’s achievable? I think it’s way too hard to do it all the time.

But for me, the essentials of the keto diet, I would say for somebody starting, is bulletproof coffee — which is essentially butter coffee. So I have that every morning. Avocados are a great source of fat and a healthy fat, too, to where you’re not going to feel like you’re eating fat. That’s a good healthy fat. And nuts.

But also if you go to a restaurant — last night I got a 12-ounce New York strip steak. You can do steak, you can do vegetables, you can do burgers without buns, you can do smoked chicken wings if you want to. So that part of it makes it easy for me. And you can do cheese. So you can do all the things where you kind of feel like a fat kid, but you just take out the grains and the bread and stuff from there. For me, that makes it super sustainable.

You can also do like almond milk and things like that to where, you know, it doesn’t feel like you’re missing out on much. They have so many products now like Quest bars and cookies and stuff. It’s great to have those options now, because when I started they didn’t have that many. But now that’s it’s so mainstream, they’ve come out with so many things. You can go to a gas station and pick up something you can fit into your daily macros of that 75 percent split of calories in there.

Do you have to keep some sort of chart or track of what you’ve eating and stuff to maintain that?

Yeah, so I use My Fitness Pal, which is an app from the App Store. I do the premium membership because it allows you to put in all your goals for your macronutrients, between the fat, carbs and protein.

But you don’t necessarily have to. I think people who are starting off on it, it’s good to do that just to see where you’re at because you kind of learn what foods have higher percentages of proteins and carbs that you don’t really necessarily need to have or want to have in there. So it’s good for the first month or two.

Past that, people get in a rhythm and don’t really need to do it that much. But if you’re trying to be at an optimal state of it to either lose weight or try to get blood pressure down, whatever the heck it is you’re trying to achieve, it’s nice to have that just to confirm what you’re doing.

But a lot of it is off of feel. Like I know if I go eat a pork chop or something, I need to have ranch or blue cheese. You have to have a little bit of a fat source with it. That’s another thing, too — you can do wedge salads and Cobb salads and Caesar salads and things like that. You just take off the croutons and it’s not too bad.

So do you miss having a cake or a cupcake or something like that?

You know, I have a bad sweet tooth. I’m totally guilty of that. So the first six months, that was kind of tough for me. But like I said, they didn’t have those bars and stuff like they do now, and that really takes care of my sweet tooth. So I can go in my trailer and I’ve got chocolate chip cookies in there that are totally fine for keto. So that’s where I can kind of solve it with that.

Certainly you do have those urges, but if you just substitute it out with a keto-friendly one or a lower carb count one of those, then you’re generally OK. But the cool thing about it was, the higher amount of fat you do have and when you start getting regulated in that, those cravings go away. So I can sit down at an Outback and look at the brown pumpernickel bread, and that used to kill me because I wanted some of that so bad. And now it’s like, “Eh, I’m good,” you know?

But one thing I would tell people is that if you do have those urges or cravings in there, it’s OK to have one fry, it’s OK to have one onion ring. The thing is, you don’t go overboard because you can still fit it in. There’s no keto unfriendly foods, it’s just getting it in the daily count. So it’s not like you’re going kill yourself doing it, you just have to know, “Hey, if I have one or two fries, that’s gonna get me five carbs out of the 20 I’m allowed to have per day.” And sometimes it’s 30 carbs or whatever, but you just know, “Hey, if I have one or two and it kills that craving for me,” you kind of enjoy it inside your system.

So it’s not that it’s banned, it’s just the amount is so small that you have to choose what’s going to be your one thing.

Yep. So you have a cap on how many carbs you can have, and the hardest part is that you have to think away from the usual things. So like white chicken, turkey, pork chops, anything that’s been told as a healthy lean meat, you actually want to have the dark, fattier ones to fit in there because your body will turn the protein back into glycogen and use it as sugar. So you have to be careful with those things. So that’s probably the hardest adjustment for most people the first 60 days or so.

Let’s say I want to do this tomorrow, go cold turkey like you did. What is the adjustment period like? Am I going to suffer through two weeks of being the most miserable, unpleasant person to be around?

No. So typically the first three days you’re on it, you’re adjusting and you’re feeling pretty good. You’re not going to feel many benefits just yet. Somewhere between the five- and 10-day period, you enter something called what might be referred to as the “keto flu.” What’s happening is that your glycogen, your sugar stores are going away and is now being replaced by those ketones, which is the process of becoming fat adapted, and now your body is using fat for fuel. So you’re not going to feel terrible in there, but you might feel a little cramps here and there, you might feel a little lethargic, maybe a bit of headaches.

The easiest thing you can do in that period is salt everything, because it holds onto the water better. Because when you lose those carbs, that’s holding onto water, so you’ve got to drink a lot of water. Put some salt on stuff, and get electrolytes — get little electrolyte packets or Vitamin Water Zero, Powerade Zero, whatever — and that will help you through it. And it normally lasts only three or so days, but it’s only one day where you’re really feeling it.

But then once you get to Day 20, typically what happens is when you get to that three-week period, and all of a sudden the mental clarity picks up like crazy. You start to see the fat loss, and that’s where people turn the corner.

So it’s not something you can do for two or three weeks. You’ve got to commit for 30 days, I would say, and then you decide if it’s not for you or not. For me it’s a lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for you, doesn’t mean it’s right for the other person. But I know the people it has helped.

For me, being on a clean-eating diet, I’m so tempted with cheating that I couldn’t stay on it. So keto is a lot easier for me because I feel like I’m cheating, but I’m actually not.

Let’s move on to a different topic before we have to go. Obviously as I’ve mentioned before, you’ve had sort of a traumatic life experience. Do you look at life differently, and you feel like you have a different perspective now?

I do. I feel like it took me some time to mature and realize what it meant at the same time. It wasn’t like a light switch where BAM!, it happened.

I was told by doctors I’d never drive a race car again. I was told that I probably wouldn’t be able to drive a street car again, I would have to undergo chemo and radiation and all this stuff. And I went to different doctors and got different opinions in there.

But ultimately, I think if you look at the second half of 2017 and our 2018 season, all of a sudden I started to get a lot better. Our results started getting better, I started to perform better, this opportunity with Front Row came up to jump to the Cup Series.

I think that happened because I learned that I love racing. I absolutely love racing, it’s my passion, it’s what I want to do for my career and I live and breathe racing. But at the same time, when you have a really crappy day, when it just sucks and you’re pissed off and you’re just like, “Damn, this really sucks” — you just have those days sometimes in racing.

What I think it allows me to do is when I get back on the plane, I’m able to digest the things that happened, learn from it, go home and reset. Because I know that for myself there’s been much worse days. Also, when I went through that whole process, there were people who had grade four tumors. My step-grandmother had a grade four tumor and passed away. There were people who had it much worse off than I did.

And you know what? I get to go around and drive a race car in the Cup Series for my living. Like that’s pretty sweet. That’s a dream of most people, that’s a dream of mine; I was a fan, that was my dream to do this.

So I think it puts it in perspective that you are allowed to have a bad day, you are allowed to be pissed off because you love it and you want to do better and you want to succeed. But when you go home, it resets and you enjoy those little things.

I got engaged over the offseason, I’m looking forward to (being married). Just little things like that that you just kind of soak in and enjoy those parts of it more, and I think it allows you to be better gelled with the (crew) guys because they know you want it, but at the same time things don’t carry over from week to week. It’s kind of an on and off switch that I’ve been allowed to now turn on and off faster because I can compartmentalize things better.

What are some things that you feel like you’ve learned that you just wish you could apply to everybody else. Like if people just knew this –without learning the hard way — it would help their perspective on life.

I think it’s different for every person. But at the same time, I think allowing yourself to step back and enjoy moments.

The Daytona 500 pre-race and the pace truck ride there and watching the Thunderbirds go by, I allowed myself to soak that in. Yeah, I was nervous as crap because the Daytona 500 was my first Cup race. It’s like, “This is nuts!” But I allowed myself (to enjoy it), and I can remember that whole thing in my mind. If I had been stressed out and just so focused on the race car at that moment, I would have missed that whole thing. And when I got in the car and put my helmet on, you better bet I was ready to go. But I think it’s just enjoying those things and enjoying the people who you’re friends with, who are your loved ones or whatever.

My whole thing with my journey is I’ve been seen as a very positive person through all this and I try to serve as an inspiration to people. The biggest thing you can do is, and it’s an old saying, but treat people the way you want to be treated with stuff. I think people get too lost in the every small day to day thing, they lose track of bigger picture stuff.

Like I said, it’s OK to be mad at things, it’s OK to be human. But at the same time, try to do something good in the world, try to be nice to people. Even if it’s just petting your dog, whatever the heck it is, it’s just taking those little times to not let time fly by.

I didn’t know going into that surgery room what was going to happen to me, and I certainly then realized after (things like) going to a concert, that was fun again. Just you enjoy those little moments more and I think time flies by and crazy stuff happens and you gotta sit back and enjoy that stuff.

And realize that for us in this industry, we get so down on things and we are so stressed out about stuff, but we get to work in NASCAR. That’s one of the top sports in America — in the world — and that’s pretty dang cool. I like to sit back and realize that so many kids have this dream of being a Cup Series driver, and I get to do that. So I want to make sure that I do the best job that I can.

12 Questions with David Ragan and Michael McDowell (2018)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with a double edition: Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and Michael McDowell are both included in this one. Given the format, it’s highly recommended to listen as a podcast — but it’s also transcribed below for those who prefer to read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

DR: I have dreams every night in general, but I don’t really remember them. Sometimes about racing, sometimes about other things. But when I do dream about racing, it’s never really about the competition and trying to race and win, it’s always about trying to get to the racetrack or the cars being on the track on the pace laps and I can’t find my helmet or I’m stuck in the (hauler) lounge and I can’t get out or something weird like that. Or I’m late or I can’t get my window net up. It’s always things I’m worried about that.

MM: It’s very funny he said that. I have dreams about seeing the cars start the race, too, and you’re not in it. And you see your car and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” That’s crazy. But I would say maybe once or twice a month. Like David said, it’s hard to remember. I do remember last night’s dream. It was turkey hunting, not racing.

DR: You should write them down and see if you see a correlation to certain things that are going on in your life.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize? I didn’t mean for this to be awkward right after you guys got into each other. (Note: This was recorded the week after the two crashed at Las Vegas.)

DR: It’s perfect timing. (Laughs)

MM: I don’t know if you picked up the audio, but my crew chief, Derrick Finley, was walking through David’s hauler and he just snickered as you asked that question. (Laughs)

DR: I’ll go first, being as I wrecked Michael last week and myself. I do think it’s important. Whether you wreck someone intentionally or whether it’s an accident, I think you should bring it up. If you wreck someone intentionally, you need to let them know you don’t like what they did and why you wrecked them. If you do it unintentionally, I think it’s important say, “Look, man, I’m sorry. I hated I did that.” Just to clear the air. Communication is important. We race with each other 38 times a year and the last thing we need are grudges on the racetrack that bring both teams down. Certainly that’s important with teammates, but even other people in the garage. I try to make it a point to reach out to someone if I wreck them.

MM: Yeah, I think it’s super important. Having been on both sides of it, the intentional part is hard, right? Because if you truly did it intentionally, there were things that built up to it. It doesn’t just happen. But a lot of times, those are the ones that are left undone. Like Ross Chastain and (Kevin) Harvick (in the Darlington Xfinity race). I mean, Ross hooked him. There’s no question and nobody can say anything otherwise. Harvick knows he hooked him. So then not having that conversation, that will be an issue down the road in their careers for both of them. So just being able to bring it up (is important). I had it happen with (Marcos) Ambrose— I intentionally crashed Ambrose at Martinsville. And he waited for me after the race. He came up to me — I’ll never forget it, because it was like the most awkward conversation ever — and he was like, “Well what happened?” I said, “Well, you chopped me two or three times and then I crashed you.” And his face, his jaw dropped. Because he’s like, “You’re saying you did that on purpose?” I said, “Well, I don’t want to lie to you. You chopped me off two or three times, so I crashed you.” And I think he said something like, “I should kill you” — it was something very angry and violent, which I get, because I get ramped up. But I remember the next week he’s like, “Most people would have lied to me. Most people would have said, ‘Hey man, I got in too deep, I locked up my tires and I ran into you.’ I didn’t know how to respond when you actually said you did it on purpose.” But just talking through it, what he said made a lot of sense. He said, “I figured you weren’t going to run the whole race.” Because at the time, I was start-and-parking, but Martinsville was always one of the places we ran because we could be competitive. So he said, “I chopped you because I figured in 10 laps you were going to come in, and if anybody could cut me a break, you could.” Well then all the sudden it made sense to me and I was like, “Maybe I overreacted a little bit because that’s fairly logical.” So what I’m saying is even though sometimes it intentionally happens, walking through it is an important step.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

DR: Just saying I’m a good dad and a good husband is the most. The racing thing is my career right now, but it’s not going be my career one day. It would be flattering if somebody told me I was a great race car driver or really fast, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. So I think the biggest compliment someone could give me is I’m a good son or a good husband or a good dad.

MM: I don’t really care. To me, compliments…it is what it is. Racing in particular, you’re only as good as your last race. So when you get done with your career, nobody is really going to care. So for me, it’s the areas that matter. It’s my faith and family. Those are the areas I want to do well in. But honestly, whether someone thinks you’re doing well in those areas or not really doesn’t matter.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

MM: I actually got to do it. One of the authors and pastors and guys who have been really influential for me who I hadn’t met was Francis Chan. He was a guest of ours at California, which was really cool. I love racing and there’s lots of people I would like to host, like ex-Formula One drivers and things like that. But you can only talk about so much for so long. It’s cool to get somebody outside our circle who is doing other things aside from going around in circles.

DR: I’m at the racetrack to race. I would love to meet some different people outside the racetrack if we were going to sit around the campfire and tell a couple stories. But a lot of time, I feel like celebrities are kind of fake in whatever field they’re in, and I don’t care to hang out with anybody like that. I would say so no, I don’t have any interest in entertaining anyone at the racetrack, as long as I’m working. I don’t really care. I’m not big on celebrities.

I happened to know that.

DR: That’s why I don’t like being a “celebrity.” I don’t even like that. I want real people. I want the poorest person in the grandstands who had to borrow money to go buy their ticket. That’s who I want to hang out with.

MM: Yeah. And I think the reason some of us are like that is we know what it’s like to be in that role of celebrity. When you go to a dinner and you’re the person and all that, you feel this pressure to entertain. You feel like you’ve got to turn it on, like you’ve got to tell good stories and have good jokes. When David and I hang around, you can just be normal and have normal conversations. It’s hard when you got to a setting where people think you’re the celebrity. So you don’t get the authentic person — even myself — because you’re like, “OK, they invited me as the guest — as the race car driver — so you’ve got to tell race car stories and you’ve got to be funny and charismatic and all of these things,” and it’s like…eh. It’s not worth the pressure.

DR: Yeah.

5. In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the pole for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

MM: I haven’t really studied the vegan diet. But I’m on the Keto diet. And I don’t know if there could be a greater separation between vegan and Keto. I only eat fat and meat. So no. You can give me the No. 1 stall, but I’m sticking with Keto.

DR: I would go vegan for a month. I do eat a little steak and chicken and fish. It would be kind of a pain in the butt to do that, but if I had a chef that would help, I’d be OK with it. I wouldn’t want to do all the work — that would be a lot of effort. But as far as eating, I love vegetables and fruits. I could do it, and I would. I want it for Martinsville.

Real quick, for Michael: Does the Keto diet really give you more energy, as is billed?

MM: This would be a whole other 12 Questions, but it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life for my health. I’ve lost 35 pounds since doing it, and I’m stronger and better in the race car than I’ve ever been. I’m sure there’s lots of science behind both ends of it, but for me, I did it because I didn’t feel great after Sonoma. I was constantly fighting headaches and feeling depleted. I tried something different and it’s been amazing for me. It’s really been something that has changed my overall performance in the race car.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from both of your careers and you have to tell me where you finished. In the spirit of this interview, I went back and found a race where you guys finished back to back. This was the Kansas race last fall. Any idea where you finished?

DR: I know exactly where I finished.

MM: I don’t exactly where I finished, but I know real close.

DR: It was 16th and 17th. I was 17th, you were 16th.

MM: I was going to say 18th for me.

It was actually 17th and 18th.

DR: Who was 18th?

David was 17th, Michael was 18th.

MM: Oh, there we go!

DR: I remembered I was 17th, but I thought you finished in front of me!

MM: That’s funny! You know, I don’t forget top-20s the last few years because you only have a handful of them. So you remember them for sure.

7. I know I’ll get a great answer here because you guys seem like huge rap fans. Who is the best rapper alive?

MM: Well, I am a lyrical gangster. Not a lot of people know that. Eminem is by far the best rapper to walk this planet.

DR: I know rappers, but I don’t know who the best one is. I guess whoever has still got a job and has got the new CD that is out. I have no idea.

MM: I think Eminem is unchallenged, though.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

MM: Joey Logano. He’s just goofy. He’s just silly.

It’s just his face? You don’t actually want to punch him?

MM: No, I love Joey Logano. He’s one of the nicest, realest guys in the garage. But he definitely has a punchable face.

DR: I think whoever is winning a lot. Back in the mid-2000s it was Jimmie Johnson, just being so perfect and winning all the time. Now it’s probably Kyle Busch. He just wins everything.

MM: Fans ask me all the time to punch him in the face. Fans are weird, they’re like, “Hey man, just do me a favor. Just crash Kyle Busch this weekend.” I’m like, “OK, yeah. That’s exactly it. I’ll do that. Thank you for the advice.”

DR: Kyle is a friend of mine. I think he’s one of the best drivers this sport has ever seen. I like Kyle. So I’m not trying to punch anybody. Well, I don’t want to punch anybody first. But yeah…Kyle. (Laughs)

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks.  Pick one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

MM: Tom Hanks would be the coach driver because I think he would actually be a cool guy to hang out with. He seems like an interesting guy. LeBron James would be a good spotter. He’s got a lot of energy. And Taylor Swift could be the crew chief.

DR: Well, we’re going to outrun Michael that race. (Laughs) I’d probably put LeBron on the pit box because he’s probably a good leader and a good coach. Taylor has been living in the motorhome on tours for the last 15 years, so I’d probably let her drive the motorhome. And then Tom, I’d let him spot.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

DR: Good experience.

MM: You’ve got to have it scoped out before it actually starts. If you’re waiting until you get off the truck and you go, “Where’s the bathroom?” — you’re done.

DR: I usually look when we’re walking out to qualifying. Less crowded, a little more time. I’m pretty religious about going to the bathroom right before qualifying or the race. So you’ve got to know.

11. NASCAR decides they would like the highlight reel value brought by the former Carl Edwards backflips and want their own version. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

MM: Just whatever it would take to get proper training. I’ve always wanted to be able to break dance and do some flips. I don’t really have the physique for it, but if they’d train me, I’d do it.

DR: Yeah, if we could be trained, that would be awesome. I think a signature deal like that is really cool. If you get to win often during the year, it would be neat. I’d like to be able to do it if they provided a trampoline out by my car.

MM: Or a mat. Just a mat. My biggest fear would be if your toes hook the roof. Then it’s going to look real bad and feel real bad, too. That’s a lot of momentum.

DR: I’ll just do a cartwheel.

MM: I think David could probably do (a backflip).

DR: On a trampoline. I wouldn’t want to do it in front of everyone for the first time and fail, though. That wouldn’t be fun.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Timmy Hill, and he wanted to know: If you play fantasy sports, what is the name of your fantasy football team?

DR: I do play one league of fantasy football. With all the shenanigans in the NFL, I tried to back out of it this year, but I’m with a group of my friends so I stayed on board. I’m a pretty boring guy, so my team name is “Team Ragan.”

MM: Mine is worse than that. I don’t play at all. I did when I was at (Leavine Family Racing). One of the guys got fired and I took over his fantasy football team. I’ve never watched it. But that was actually really fascinating for me, because once I downloaded the app, I started to watch. Because I was like, “Ooh, I’ve got a guy running tonight.” So it made me realize how important that is for our sport. Because even if you’re not a David Ragan or a Michael McDowell fan, if you have us in your fantasy lineup for the day, you still want us to run top 15 and if you see us passing cars, it’s exciting. So it’s a cool element.

Do you have a question I can ask the next interview? It’s with Ryan Blaney.

DR: You want to ask a question the fans would enjoy. His dad and uncle are big sprint car guys. What’s the reason (he doesn’t) go back and run some sprint cars and dirt cars or something like that?

Previous 12 Questions interviews with David Ragan and Michael McDowell:


April 28, 2010

March 3, 2011

Aug. 1, 2012

June 5, 2013

Oct. 20, 2015

June 9, 2016

July 26, 2017


Feb. 24, 2010

April 7, 2011

Oct. 15, 2013

June 3, 2015

Oct. 26, 2016

June 24, 2017


How I Got Here with Bob Decker

Bob Decker monitors qualifying on pit road at Watkins Glen. Once the hauler is at the track, Decker has various other duties with the team. (Photo: Shari Spiewak)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up this week: Bob Decker, hauler driver for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 team.

Can you tell us what your job entails?

The easy part is driving the hauler. Once you get to the racetrack, you set up according to points and you park the truck. It’s usually a day early before the team gets here. We usually park the trucks at night, so we have to unload the tool boxes, unload the truck and get everything squared away for the next day when the guys get here.

What do you do once cars are on track?

I pretty much maintain the trailer, take care of everything that needs to be done on the trailer, set everything up — like the observation deck. Then when the race practice starts, I’m in the garage. I help change tires, I run the cool-down unit, I run fuel, weigh the fuel for each practice, get the ice. Pretty much a little bit of everything — keep it organized.

How did this all get started for you? Did you grow up as a race fan?

When I was 5, my next-door neighbor was the manager of Orange County (Fair) Speedway in Middletown, New York. He used to throw me in the car and sit me in the grandstands. From then on, that’s where it all started.

Did you think you wanted to have a career in racing? Did you just enjoy it?

I was always a car nut. I was pretty lucky — once I got of age where I could afford to do this myself, I had my own dirt race team in New York for 14 years. I ran a Big Block Modified there. Did pretty well. Won a couple races, got Rookie of the Year. After that, I got married and had a kid and started a trucking company. I worked for Horseless Carriage running my own truck from coast to coast.

Being a race fan, I traveled with the Outlaws and helped Joey Saldana out. It was pretty much an easy truck driving job because I got to make my own schedule, where I wanted to go. So I picked the races and followed them around quite a bit.

After that, a friend of mine called me in North Carolina — he was with the Outlaws — and asked if I wanted to get a job in NASCAR. My daughter was moving to North Carolina to go to college, so he said, “You want to go to work for Roush, driving a hauler?” I said, “Hmm…NASCAR?” Racing is in my blood, so that’s pretty much the top of the line racing series, so I jumped at the chance.

What hauler did you start driving?

I started with Carl Edwards on the 99. I was with him for five years and we won 16 races together. Had a good time. It was pretty awesome.

And then did you go from there to Front Row?

When the Petty/Roush merger deal went together, they wanted me to go over with Kasey Kahne on the Petty side. Unfortunately, Kasey only stayed one year. But I was with the Petty deal, so I was with Marcos Ambrose for four years. So that was pretty fun.

You’ve gotten to work with some fun drivers.

It’s a good opportunity I’ve had so far in racing. I couldn’t be any luckier. There are a lot of guys in the business who have never won a race. I won my first year here. It was pretty cool.

If we can back up to your own racing career for a moment, you said you owned the team for 14 years. Did you drive that entire time?

Yes. There were three owners and I was the driver and part-owner.

You said you won some races. Why did you give it up?

Basically got married and couldn’t afford it anymore. (Laughs) That’s pretty much what happens to everybody.

Do you miss it?

I still drive. We’re pretty lucky — we’ve got guys who are ex-racers and we go to different tracks, and they give us their cars and we go out and race them. It’s pretty awesome.

(Motor Racing Outreach) used to put on a race at Black Rock (near Watkins Glen) before they changed the schedule to a two-day show. And all the Cup guys would go over and race. They happened to need a driver one time because a driver didn’t show up and they knew I drove a car. So they said, “Do you want to race?” I said, “Sure, I’ll take a shot at it.” I hadn’t sat in a seat in 12 years. And I went out and won the race. So that was pretty cool.

Bob Decker is responsible for keeping the coolers filled during race weekends. (Photo: Shari Spiewak)

Is it true you also did some military service at one point in your life?

Yeah, I was in the Army. I was only in for three years. My dad owned a tree business, and once I did my time in the military, I was stationed in Fort Ord, California. I got out and basically got back to work with my dad.

Why did you want to be in the military during that time?

Believe it or not, I went in when I was 17. You know, I was a child with no father. My father was a boss. (Pauses, tears up.) So basically, I went in (to the military) to take care of my mom.

Was that hard for you to leave home during that time?

Yeah, it was pretty hard. My mom was a single mom. (Continues to fight off tears.) I’m sorry. But it was a good experience. I’m glad I did it. Served my country, got out and basically went back to work again.

Were you able to do any racing when you were in the Army?

I was too young. Like I said, I was only 17 when I went in. I had a motorcycle and raced motocross. But that was pretty much it with my racing.

I didn’t start real racing until I was 27, because I didn’t have the money. We basically scrounged everything together and got a couple guys and threw a car together and from then on, we got pretty good.

We got a couple sponsors — I was sponsored by Wendy’s, so that was pretty good. A couple other big sponsors. A friend of mine hit the lotto for $7 million, so he helped me out quite a bit and kept us going. So we did pretty good for what we had.

If you hadn’t gotten the call to come do NASCAR, what direction do you think your life would have gone?

I’d be in racing somewhere. It’s in my blood. When I’m 80, I’ll still be at a dirt track. I’m a dirt racer. I never raced on asphalt. I’m a true dirt racer. I love NASCAR and everything, but my heart and soul is in dirt racing.

I’ve had people ask me how to become a hauler driver. If someone out there was reading this and wanted to drive a hauler in NASCAR, what advice would you give them?

First of all, you have to have a good record and a good license. Nowadays, they’re trying to get the younger crowd in here. It’s pretty much luck of the draw. If you know somebody, it’s a plus. Keep trying, keep your resumes out there. Show up. Show your face, because nobody knows a piece of paper. That’s with any job. Carl Edwards used to hand cards out and say, “You need to hire me.” And he was right — look what happened to him.

Any final thoughts on what it’s like to be you?

It’s pretty good. I’ve been so lucky in my career. I’ve always had a good job. I’ve got a great family. Beautiful home. (Gets choked up.) I came into NASCAR and they used to have a truck driver challenge. They had the Pilot challenge and the Freightliner challenge. You drive your truck through chicanes and stuff. And I’m the only one so far to win both of them in the same year.

Whoa, what’s up with Michael McDowell at Las Vegas?

Here’s a list of drivers who had a slower single-lap speed than Michael McDowell in Saturday morning’s practice session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin…

That’s what happens when a driver has top-10 speed in practice, which was the case with McDowell. He had the ninth-fastest lap in the first of two Saturday practices, following up on his 15th-place qualifying effort Friday.

What’s going on here? A few things, McDowell said. Ford Performance is giving the team more help, the technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing is paying off and McDowell has chemistry with his new team.

Where it’s coming from is I feel like I’ve got a group of guys who believe in me and have given me all the tools to do what I think I can do,” McDowell said. “That’s a big part of it.”

McDowell said his teammates — not just Front Row’s David Ragan, but Roush’s Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — are all working well together. But even the No. 34 team didn’t expect to be quite this high up on the speed charts heading into Vegas.

We were hopeful we could be close to the Roush cars and we could be lingering in those teens to 20,” he said. “Definitely we have a little more speed this weekend than we anticipated to have, but it’s a long year.

You’ve got to ride it when it’s good, because we know it’s not always going to be like this. It’s a dogfight out here, but it’s fun when you’ve got fast cars.”

Of course, single-lap speed doesn’t mean McDowell is going to have a top-10 finish in the race. Of the 19 drivers who ran at least 10 consecutive laps in the Saturday’s first practice, McDowell was 16th.

But this weekend is feeling good so far for a driver who was not long ago facing the driver unemployment line. McDowell was let go from Leavine Family Racing last fall with no prospects for 2018.

“Performance makes things better, but if you put your happiness in performance, you’re very miserable in this sport because only one guy wins every week,” he said. “I’m thankful to have a job and I’m thankful to be in the garage. There was definitely a time last year when I didn’t think I was going to be here.”

12 Questions with Landon Cassill

The 12 Questions series concludes for 2017 with Landon Cassill, who has been in the last-but-not-least position for six consecutive years now. Cassill will end his tenure at Front Row Motorsports this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway and is currently looking for a new ride.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I’m (leaning) more heavily toward working at it than natural ability. There’s a lot of people out there that are just good at everything and I don’t think I’m one of those people. I think I’m good at a lot of things, but I definitely am a person who learns through my mistakes and fixing my mistakes, so I feel like I kind of have to work at it.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth 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?

I feel like I’ve made that pitch almost every day through my social media activity in the way I communicate with fans. I mean, you just have to meet me at the racetrack and kind of see and understand how I kind of conduct myself, the way my sense of humor works. If you’re looking for a driver on the entertainment side of things, someone you’d like to follow off the track — and I think my on-track story is kind of cool and compelling as well. I think I’ve been through a lot in the Cup Series and had unique opportunities. I haven’t had that breakthrough opportunity yet, so I think it’s kind of, as Mark Martin put it awhile back, I’m kind of coming up the old-school way and I feel like that’s the way I’m doing it. So that’s a cool story to follow on-track.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I think balancing the work between, “How do I make myself a better race car driver?” but also “How do I market myself?” and “How do I brand myself and spend time on social media?” Things like that.

It’s kind of going back to Question No. 1 a little bit. I work pretty hard on my feedback and my post-race reports and try to reflect on what I did at the races, how I can use that for the next race. Sometimes it’s busywork, like office work, and so much work that you have to get done at a desk. A lot of it is writing; I have an iPad Pro and a pencil and write a lot of my notes, whether it’s on the plane on Mondays or whatever. And it’s time sensitive, too, because I tend to forget what my car did as the week goes on. So I don’t write as well on Wednesday or Thursday after a Sunday race as I do on Sunday night or Monday morning.

So balancing that kind of stuff, getting that work done versus trying to be sponsor-friendly or fan-friendly and keeping up a solid brand and a good personality — because that stuff takes time, too — that balance definitely is a tough part of the job.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Absolutely. Yeah, just form a line and we’ll stop eating our dinner and I’ll sign autographs and take pictures until everybody is through. I do that on Wednesday nights at the Brickhouse in Davidson.

You have a big line, huh?

Yeah. (Laughs) I’m just kidding. I’ve never ever been to the Brickhouse in Davidson, that’s just the first restaurant I thought of.

Yeah, I don’t care. I’m totally fine with it. I really appreciate people who know who I am or know something about me — like if you feel like there’s one thing you know about me and you see me out in the wild, you feel like, “Landon, I want to remind you of this funny thing you did,” or something I did on the racetrack or whatever, I want to hear it. I think that’s cool. That’s the kind of race fan I am: When I see somebody I look up to or admire, that’s how I open a conversation. It doesn’t bother me to meet fans in the wild, in public.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

(Long pause. His public relations representative Shari Spiewak notes he had all year to think of an answer.) I feel like this is important, this is like the story that hasn’t been covered enough. I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want you to turn around and be like, “Well, actually, it was just written about last week in the New York Times, they did a big special about it in their sports section. Yeah, you’re gonna screw up the whole thing.”

I think we should talk more specifically about how drivers drive, what makes up their driving styles and what certain drivers do compared to other ones to make their cars go fast.

I think that’s a product of two things. I think number one, we don’t necessarily know. I think we do, but in all the money and engineering that we spend in the sport, we spend it all on the race cars because it’s kind of a long-hanging fruit in some ways. Because if we kind of put the drivers in the car and trust that they’re going as fast as they can, why not just build the car to go faster?

But we’ve never really over-engineered the drivers. I feel like there’s speed left in the drivers, learning their techniques and what Kyle Larson does differently than Jimmie Johnson, what Kyle Busch does differently.

And I think the second reason why we don’t talk about this a whole lot is because I think a lot of the way to talk about that and learn more about that is through data, through the feedback that we get back from the EFI and things like that. So I think the teams don’t want to give up a lot of information. But I think it would be really cool if you could get the engineers and the crew chiefs to be a little bit more open about their drivers and what they do specifically, what they do with the throttle, what they do with the brakes, if they’re really erratic with the steering wheel, if they use a lot of steering wheel, if they don’t use a lot of wheel. I think it would be cool to see a breakdown of how everybody drives, what path that sends them and their teams down.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

David Ragan yesterday, and Dale Jr. before that. David asked me if I wanted to go hiking yesterday after we landed kind of early in Phoenix and I didn’t take him up on it. Usually I do. When David hits me up, we usually get dinner every few weeks, something like that, on the road.

In the past, you’ve tweeted a couple of screenshots of you having an incredible amount of unanswered text messages. Why do you not read your text messages? I understand not reading your emails, but how do you explain not reading your texts?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know, I just don’t open them. Like sometimes if we’re having a text conversation and it finishes and you’re the last person, like if you send the closing text to the conversation and I see it, then I just don’t open it. Does that make sense?

It pops up, so you don’t actually click on the conversation and read it. You just see it come up and you’re just like, “OK?”

And I have my read receipts on, so people know if I read it or not.

So you gotta be careful about that, because you don’t want people to say, “You didn’t write me back.” So it’s easier to say, “I didn’t read it.”

Yeah, kind of. It’s a way to maybe control the situation.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers? Earlier this year, when we were talking about it, you predicted most would say no. It turns out that mostly everybody have said yes. So what’s your answer?

I mean, I feel like we’re entertaining for sure. I think we’re athletes and I think that NASCAR is an entertainment sport. But I don’t know if we’re entertainers.

I feel like professional wrestlers are entertainers, and I don’t want to compare NASCAR to professional wrestling. I think that’s a slippery slope and I don’t want to get in trouble for anything like that. And that’s not what I’m implying anyway.

But I think maybe we can be both. There’s some drivers out there who are not that entertaining — so would you call them entertainers? Or are they more like heavy on the athlete, not as heavy on the entertaining?

I don’t know. It’s up to the next person (in the 12 Questions). Well, I guess we’ll never know! We’ll never truly know the answer because I’m the last person to do that question.

8. This is the question you came up with last year: What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

This is such a good question. It really is. It is one of your all-time best questions for 12 Questions?

It has to be. Not to heap all this praise on you, but that’s one of my favorite questions.

Go ahead, heap all the praise.

So I feel like first of all, I’m guilty of it both ways. I’ve flown my share of birds in my career and I’ve received them in my career. When you take the emotion down and you think about it, I feel like it’s a sign of weakness on both sides.

It’s a sign of weakness if you’re flying the bird — it shows that you’re frustrated with the person behind you, that you’re letting them, whatever they’re doing to you, get in your head. I think back in the times that I’ve done that, and like I regret it every time because it shows I was more concerned being mad at that person, flipping them off, than focusing on the race.

So usually if nothing happens, that’s great, but if something happens, you end up in a pissing match with that guy. Then you just screw up your race because you’re worried about a middle finger. So I feel like it’s a sign of weakness if you’re flying the bird, and I also I feel like it’s a sign of weakness if you’re reacting to somebody who’s flying the bird.

Some people’s policy is, “I’m gonna wreck anybody that flies me the bird.” Well, that’s stupid, because you just let them potentially ruin your day. I mean, you might wreck them and ruin their day, but what if you damage your car? What if you ruin your own day? All because they flipped you off? And so I think it’s a sign of weakness if you fly the bird, and I think it’s a sign of weakness if you have a reaction to someone flying the bird.

When I get the bird, it makes me laugh because it lets me know that person in front of me, I’m in their head now, and it makes me want to keep doing whatever I was just doing to them to get them out of my way.

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?

No. Not really.

You don’t? Most people said yes this year.

I don’t know. I generally race people pretty fair, but my number one rule of thumb is I do what gets me the best possible finish. So that’s why my knee-jerk reaction to that question is no, because I prioritize myself. And I guess I’m not implying that those other people that say yes would prioritize someone else over their own finish, but I definitely prioritize my finish over everybody else.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

So I had a really cool dinner in England at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with some really cool guys, Dan Gurney and Sir Jackie Stewart. We were all at the same table, so there was maybe 12 of us there. That was a pretty cool dinner. I spent a lot of time with those guys at Goodwood. Those are definitely the most famous people I’ve ever been around.

At the time, I was driving a Chevy on the NASCAR side and my suit had a Chevy emblem on it. Sir Jackie Stewart said, “Oh, you drive a Chevy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Someday, you’ll be good enough to drive a Ford.”

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

(Thinks for a moment.) I guess I’d like to get better at answering questions on the spot.

These shouldn’t be on the spot, Landon. You helped vet these questions.

I forgot about that. Man, you know, I feel like I have good communication skills, but I feel like I’m not always the best communicator. Sometimes I feel like I can be a better communicator.

That’s what I hear from all the people who haven’t gotten replies to their text messages to you.


12. Last week I interviewed Austin Dillon. He wanted me to ask you: If you could bring three sponsors into this sport to make it better, what would they be and why?

That’s a really cool question. I would bring in some sort of technology company like Apple or Google or Microsoft. And I would hopefully build a deal around accessing their smart people and using that to our advantage on the racetrack, whether it’s like developing artificial intelligence for a simulation program or something like that. I think that would be cool, so definitely one of the major technology companies.

I would definitely like to have Whole Foods as a sponsor because the discount card at Whole Foods would be great. That would be useful for me and my family.

And beer sponsors always seem to work out pretty well, too. I think it’s nice having a beer sponsor.

Now the question that you are going to ask is going to an unknown person before the Daytona 500 next year — provided I’m still employed by all my patrons. What is something I can ask somebody going into the Daytona 500 next year?

Kind of going off of the answers to one of the questions earlier, I wanna know: What is your driving style? That’s kind of my question. But I want them to answer specifically:”Do you use a lot of brake? Do you get to the gas earlier than most?” I’m curious what your driving style is.

So essentially, “From what you know from comparing yourself to other drivers, how much brake do you use, how quickly do you get to the gas, how do you make it through the corner compared to others?” Something like that?

Yeah, I think so. It would be useful to know if they drive the car loose or tight, but I don’t know how they’ll answer that. But yeah, I’d like to know, “How much data do you look at and what does that tell you about your driving style?” How about that?

Thank you for joining us, and I truly hope we are doing this together next year at Phoenix, which meant you would have found a ride.

Do I have to be a full-time Cup driver to do the 12 Questions?

No, definitely not, but it would just be convenient.

Would you do 12 Questions with a used car salesman?


There we go.

Landon Cassill won’t return to Front Row Motorsports, becomes free agent

At just 28 years old, Landon Cassill has already made 253 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. If it’s possible for a Millennial to be considered a veteran driver, that’s Cassill.

But the journey will have to continue elsewhere next season. Cassill said he was informed Monday he will not return to Front Row Motorsports in 2018, and he will now begin the process of finding a new ride.

A driver with a cult following on Twitter, Cassill has been behind two popular social media campaigns during his time at Front Row. Last year, he got fans to tweet “38, nice” in honor of his car number at the time; this season, he’s been retweeting fans who take a photo at sponsor Love’s Travel Stops and say they can’t find the driver there.

Cassill said via phone call on Tuesday he was not told why he was out of a ride, other than the team was making “radical changes” for next season. In a statement to this website, the team said it was appreciative for his time there but offered no further details.

“We’re thankful for the last two years having Landon as a teammate and an ambassador for our sponsors, and we’ll keep working hard with him and the No. 34 team for the best possible results the remainder of the 2017 season,” a spokesperson said.

Cassill acknowledged he was surprised by the decision, but said “there’s no message of despair.” After getting over the initial shock, he said, there’s been a feeling of anticipation to see what else is out there.

“I’m kind of excited to see what doors open up for me,” he said. “I have a unique resume in this sport right now. I think my youth is what kind of helps stay plugged in on a social side and off-track side, and then I just have a tremendous amount of experience in the Cup Series — maybe not having the limelight of a top-notch team, but I’d like to work myself into one of those scenarios where I can showcase what I’ve learned.”

This position isn’t new for Cassill, who has driven for seven race teams in the Cup Series as well as four different teams in the Xfinity Series while making 118 starts there.

The Iowa native was originally a Hendrick Motorsports development driver but ultimately had to come up through the Cup ranks in an old-school way: Starting with start-and-park teams, then slowly climbing the ladder in the small team ranks.

His latest stop was Front Row, where he’s averaged a 26th-place finish over two seasons for a team that counts a top-25 result as a good day and a top-20 as a great one.

Along the way, he built a following of underdog-loving fans who appreciate Cassill’s savvy when it comes to the Internet culture.

“One of my big motivations right now is to succeed for all these people who are so emotionally invested in following me and see where I go and what I do,” he said. “I don’t want to let my fans down. And I say that genuinely and feel that, because I know there are fans who have stuck with me for a long time. I feel a sense of responsibility for them as much as I do my own family that I have to provide for.”

Cassill said he would be open to talking to anyone across NASCAR’s three national series (“I don’t turn down any phone calls when I’m in these situations,” he said) but would prefer to land somewhere that has a “road map for me to continue to grow my success.”

“I’ve had a lot of things in my career where my hard work has paid off and put me in positions to keep myself in the business, and I don’t really plan on stopping that at all,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself in how I do things to go about being a professional race car driver that I don’t think will change. I think for me this is just another chapter in my career and my life.

“It’s tough, because sometimes these changes are the best things for opening doors, but they’re the hardest thing in the moment. That’s probably what my family and I are going to be dealing with right now.”


12 Questions with David Ragan

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with David Ragan of Front Row Motorsports. I spoke with Ragan at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. This interview is available both in podcast and written form.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I think it’s probably 60/40 — 60 percent natural ability and 40 percent working at it. You have to have good eyesight, good reflexes, you can’t get carsick … being closed in a confined area for long periods of time, have a feel for turning and braking, a tight and loose feel.

But I think you can work at it. The technology we have at our fingertips today that shows driver traces and Dartfish videos and metrics on pit road, metrics on the racetrack, you can definitely be smarter and have a better racing IQ.

I never thought about the carsick part of it, but yeah, I guess if you’re going around in circles all the time, it’s probably not something for you if you can’t handle that.

Some people get carsick in the simulator. I know there’s some drivers who are better than others when being tossed around, moved around. And your perception’s a little different looking at a video screen and you’ve got different things going on.

I knew that Mark Martin got a little sick on the sim when he tried it one time, and I think he even had to take Dramamine going to different types of road courses that had high elevation changes and different things. So you gotta be able to sit in there, withstand all the moving and bouncing around.

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?

I’m just a normal dude that gets to drive race cars, so be a fan of David Ragan. I mean, I think NASCAR fans are generally fans of more than just one driver; they like a few drivers and maybe dislike a few drivers. I’m not a jerk, so you don’t have to dislike me. I’m just a normal guy, so you can pull for David Ragan. I’ll be here a few more years; I’m not getting ready to retire in the next six months, so I guess you can pull for me for a little while.

That’s good. So it’s like, “I’m normal and I’m not a jerk.”

What else do you need? That’s right.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I think being away from family is probably the hardest part. Away from the racetrack, it’s the commitment to sponsors and traveling during the week for testing and other obligations that NASCAR has requested of your time or your sponsors or your manufacturer. I think just showing up on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, sometimes that’s the best part — just getting in the race car and going through the motions. But it’s that test on a Tuesday and Wednesday and it gets rained out and you have to stay until Thursday and go straight to the racetrack and you’re only home for one day (that makes it difficult). Or you’ve got an appearance out of town and you’ve got to fly commercial and it’s tough getting there, it’s tough getting back. Just being gone from home is probably the toughest part.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, absolutely. Again, I’m just a normal person and I appreciate them asking for my autograph because one day, no one’s gonna care. So I think that while someone does care today to get an autograph from David Ragan or a picture, I think that’s pretty cool. And yeah, sometimes it’s a little drowning to be swarmed in an area that you’re getting a lot of requests.

I don’t take my motorhome to every racetrack, so when I’m staying at the hotel and you’re trying to eat breakfast and get to the racetrack and this one fan sees you and takes a picture, then the whole downstairs lobby eating continental breakfast, they’re all trying to take your picture and talk to you. And all you want to do is get out so you can get to the racetrack and beat the traffic. That does get annoying at times, but I’m grateful that they want that picture. And like I said, when I’m a little older and not racing full time, no one’s probably gonna care. So I’ll sign all the autographs you ask right now.

So you’re like in the hotel breakfast area, everyone’s getting their orange juice and their bagel or whatever, and somebody’s like, “David Ragan!” And everyone’s like, “Oh, wow,” and they’re all race fans so they’ll come over to you?

Yeah, that does happen sometimes. Like I said, I don’t take my motorhome every single week and when I don’t, I’m just downstairs getting my Raisin Bran and my bagel. There’s usually that one person who’s got that keen eye. He spots you, and then the other 20 people that aren’t paying attention, they’re like, “Well I want my picture, I want an autograph. Let’s call the kids up in the room and get them downstairs. Can you wait on them?” That happens, but you just kind of roll with it.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Have the lug nuts gotten enough coverage? Missing lug nuts? That was a joke.

I think the behind-the-scenes industry part doesn’t get enough coverage. What I mean by that is the guys back in the shop building the race cars, the sales department traveling to a random company to try and make a sales pitch or the licensing department trying to create new products for the souvenir haulers. All of the stuff that goes into making NASCAR what it is.

I think we could do some behind-the-scenes TV shows, some documentaries — it would be really interesting. My wife (Jacquelyn) is not a big stick-and-ball (sports) fan, but she loves Hard Knocks and she really loves watching the behind-the-scenes stuff on draft day. She could not care less (about football), but it’s really interesting to hear about the young kid out of college that’s getting ready for his life to change, depending on where he’s drafted at.

So I think in our sport, we all get to see coverage of cars going around in circles and interviews at the racetrack. But all that stuff (like) our engineering department working at the wind tunnel, I think it would be cooler to have some behind-the-scenes shows during the off-season and during the year. You know, the truck drivers trying to get back and get the trucks switched out, and the meetings where you’re having to decide, “Should we test here or do we not need to spend the money to do this or do that?” So it’s an interesting sport we have, and I think it would be really neat to tell that story.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I texted Michael McDowell yesterday. I brought my shotgun to New Hampshire and I was gonna see if he wanted to go to a clay and skeet shooting course not too far down the road, and to go shoot some. But we found out they were closed on Saturday, so I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to go now.

Who’s the better shooter: You or McDowell?

That’s a good one. He shoots probably a little more than I do; he’s an avid hunter and outdoorsman and we both enjoy doing stuff like that. I have knocked him out of a little competition before, but he’s probably a little more accurate and a little more consistent than I am.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Absolutely. I think race car drivers, whether you want to be or not, you are an entertainer. And I think that that’s one thing I don’t really enjoy about my job, is being an entertainer. I don’t feel like I’m really an entertainer kind of person. Like I’m not too big on building my brand and doing all this thrills and spills stuff. I just want to be David Ragan and go race and go home and spend time with my family.

And I think some drivers are like that, and that’s OK. And then some drivers are more active on social media, they’re more out there — and that’s cool, too. I think the sport needs both sides of that, but I don’t really wanna show my life to everyone and just be an entertainer. So I think about guys like Matt DiBenedetto — he does a good job on stuff like that. But David Ragan is kind of the opposite. I still watch black-and-white TV shows and I despise some of the social media stuff, so I don’t like being an entertainer. But that is part of the job description.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

My middle finger policy is that I usually don’t give the middle finger out too much. I only have one or two times in my career. I think that’s kind of equivalent to if you’re talking to someone face-to-face and don’t agree, you just shove him or push him. I think that you can have disagreements on the racetrack, but you don’t have to flip someone off.

Now if someone flips me off, I’ll try to wreck you if I can. That’s like the slap in the face while talking. So if someone confronts me, like pushes me, then we’re probably gonna fight. I think on the racetrack, if I get a middle finger, I’ll try to wreck you if I can catch you in the next few laps, and then I usually calm down and forget about it. But usually the person who gives you the middle finger, they’re driving away from you and you’re not able to catch them. But yeah, the middle finger, I do not like that. It makes me extremely mad behind the wheel of the car.

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?

Yeah, I think drivers have a pretty good mental idea of who’s friendlier to race with or maybe who’s a little bit harder to race with. Some of the guys that you do cut slack to and they return the favor, that is nice to see that. So yeah, there’s a majority of the guys that all race each other really good, and then there’s some guys that you’re trying to pass and they make it really, really hard on you. And absolutely — when they’re trying to pass me, or when I’m a lapped car and they’re catching me, I don’t just move out of their way.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

That’s a good question. I’ve had dinner with Richard Petty before, and he’s pretty famous. You know, again, I’m not real big on like the glitz and glamour and like being friends with all the pace car drivers and movie stars that show up. I can’t even name half of them. I can’t name three quarters of them that are dignitaries, so I wouldn’t know if they were famous or not.

I’ve had dinner a few times with the governor of Georgia. I would say he’s pretty famous. The ex-governor, Sonny Perdue, is now the Secretary of Agriculture for the Trump administration; I know him pretty well. So maybe a political figure down in the state of Georgia.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I’m pretty tardy sometimes on seeing a text message and not responding, and then it kind of gets lost in the shuffle. And I was talking to my wife about that not long ago — her and I are both kind of bad about that, and you get busy with life or the kids are there and every time you pull out your phone, my two little girls are there and they wanna get it and play with it.

So I think just being a little more responsive when I get an email or text message — like if I read it, respond then, but don’t read it until you can respond because that’s probably not nice if someone sees you can read it through iMessage and you respond to them the next day. So try and be a little more up to date on that.

Do you have read receipts on where people can tell? You can turn those off.

(Turns to Front Row Motorsports public relations representative Shari Spiewak) I don’t know. Shari, you text me some—

Shari says that Landon Cassill has his read receipts on and David does not.

So maybe that’s by default, because I don’t think I changed that on my phone. So yeah, that’s just one of the things.

There’s always other stuff that I can do a better job on, but working out, getting up when my alarm goes off — the normal stuff that we all could do a better job on. If I see a piece of cookie or ice cream in the freezer, not eating it. Just to be a little better on that.

12. The last interview I did was with Matt Kenseth. He had gotten a question from Denny Hamlin and instead of thinking of his own question, he just decided to pass it on to you. His question is: Who is your favorite teammate you’ve ever worked with, and who is the worst teammate you’ve ever worked with?

That’s not fair. Matt’s got his seniority and he can do stuff like that. Matt just didn’t want to answer that question.

I’ve had some really good teammates over the years. I’ve always been kind of the younger guy on the team, and I felt like all the teammates I’ve had have been good to me. They’ve been nice to me around the racetrack, they’ve included me in some off-the-track opportunities, they’ve let me fly on their planes with them quite a bit. So I feel like I’ve had pretty good teammates.

But Carl Edwards would probably be one of the best teammates I’ve ever worked with. He was very down to earth, he would answer any questions that you asked, he would offer his opinion on how to improve things and would let me fly with him and do things like that. So that was always nice. Carl was a good teammate.

And now the tough question, the worst teammate. I don’t know. I haven’t really disliked any teammate that I’ve had. I think any teammate that I’ve had over the years, even when I was subbing for Kyle (Busch) and I got to work with Denny (Hamlin), Matt and Carl again, they welcomed me pretty good and were very cool even though I was gonna be there for a short amount of time.

I really haven’t had that one jerk for a teammate. If I do, I’ll have to let you know. Hopefully Landon and I can stay hooked up here at Front Row for a few more years, but Landon’s a good teammate. I got to work with Landon for the first time in 2017 and I didn’t really know Landon that well. I’ve seen him around the garage a lot, but he’s a cool guy. He’s an entertainer and I’m not, so we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum there, and so I’ve embraced that and that’s been pretty fun to try and watch him do his thing. I’ll let you know when I have a good jerk for a teammate and give you some good dirt on him.

I don’t know who the next interview is gonna be with. Do you have a general question I could ask of a future driver?

After a race, you typically go back to your hauler or your motorhome and you change, you hit the road, you go to your helicopter or whatever you’re doing to get back.What’s the first thing you look at when you get to your phone?  Do you look at the rundown of the race, do you look at your text messages, your emails, Twitter?

The first thing I look at is typically my text messages, if anybody texted me during the race. Or if my family’s not here, I’ll say that I’m headed to the airport. And then if it’s football season, I’ll immediately look at football scores on a Sunday afternoon. So see with other drivers what’s the first thing they look at.

I may have to steal that for next year’s 12 Questions. Is that OK?

Yeah, I’ll give you clearance to do that. You don’t have to give me any royalties.