The Driven Life: Ryan Preece talks about betting on yourself

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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: Ryan Preece, Cup Series rookie for JTG Daugherty Racing.

It’s well documented that you had to take a risk, take a big bet on yourself to advance your career. When you were trying to make this decision, did you feel like this was by far the clear option for you?

No. It all really goes back to 2016 when I raced at JD Motorsports (in the Xfinity Series). At the end of the year I re-evaluated everything (after finishing 17th in the standings). I’m a racer. I come from winning a lot of races, and I didn’t see myself getting to where I wanted to be, so I moved home. I went home (to Connecticut).

From Charlotte?

From Charlotte. This was 2016. Going into 2017 I was hired by the guy I was driving for, Eddie and Connie Partridge, the (owner of) T.S. Haulers Motorsports, to work full-time on the race car. I had one of the most successful Modified seasons I had had.

So in 2017, there was an opportunity that came about that year. Carl (Edwards) retired, and a friend of my texted me. Kevin “Bono” Manion, a crew chief at Ganassi a while back, he worked at (Kyle Busch Motorsports) at the time, and he told me to call Steve de Souza (who oversees Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series program) at the time because there would be some openings. To me that was the opportunity that I needed because I knew I could win races; I just needed the car, I needed the team.

So I did everything I could to come up with funding as soon as I talked to Steve about what it would take. It got time to close it out and there was still $80 grand that needed to be found. I basically I looked at two people and said, “Hey, I need $80 grand. I need to figure this out, otherwise I can’t race this race,” or whatever it was going to be. And they loaned me the money.

It wasn’t like going to a bank, so I didn’t have to sit in an office and explain my business plan. I told them, “Hey, this is the opportunity I needed” and I’m lucky to have been surrounded by people like that.

But the mindset I had was I knew I could win races. I was winning from 2011 or 12 on — I was winning 15 to 20-plus races a year. And I knew that if I had the right opportunity that I could do it.

So ultimately it all came down to me believing in myself and not really accepting failure, not being content with just being at the Xfinity level in 2016. It was like, “Hey, I don’t want to just be here; I want to be successful here.” Sometimes taking a step back helps you get three steps forward.

I think that’s kind of a mindset that might be lost in today’s day and age. People might think taking a step backward is a bad thing when it might not necessarily be. But I was fortunate enough to have those opportunities and then do my part in them and succeed.

Let’s talk about that taking a step back part because I think that’s really interesting. I do think that there’s a mentality out there today where you always have to keep moving up the ladder, and if you’re not, like you at least make a lateral move. And you moving back home from Charlotte, I’m sure a lot of people once you told them, were like, “You’re leaving Charlotte?”

People who were close to me even said they didn’t agree with the move that I made. But at the end of the day it was really my decision. I see every in and out of this sport. It was the path that I needed to take.

I’m 28 years old, and in racing terms that’s very young still. Back in the day, you look at drivers and they were just getting Xfinity Cup rides at 28. They weren’t even getting full-time Cup rides until sometimes 30 or 33. You don’t have to be in Cup by the age of 21 to 24. It isn’t always going to work out that way.

You don’t have to drive a Late Model, or you don’t have to drive a Modified, you don’t have to drive a midget. You don’t have to race on dirt, you don’t have to race on asphalt. If you’re good at racing, you know you’re mentally tough enough and you’re obviously talented enough to do it, you’re going to get there or hopefully you get the opportunity to at least try to get there.

So there’s not necessarily one way to make it here, and I think that’s kind of a lost thing that we’ve seen in racing. There’s almost been a certain way that people think that, “Hey man, if I want to get to this level, I’ve got to do this, this, this and this.” It might have worked for a couple guys here, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.

I didn’t have the funding to go run a K&N car or run an ARCA car. It just wasn’t gonna happen. So I did everything I could with where we were racing Modifieds and then Tommy Baldwin was a huge help along with other people to get me in Xfinity. My first start with Tommy I think was 2013 or 14 — one start in 2013, two starts in 2014 — a couple Cup starts just to kind of get me approved to get me through this process.

It’s been a six-year process to finally get to this point. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.

You’re always getting advice from people when you’re trying to make moves and you’re trying to figure out the right decision. But it sounds like you trusted your own gut enough, and that’s really hard to do if people are telling you something different. If you go against that because you believe in yourself, that’s a very powerful thing.

So when it came to racing and opportunities and kind of how all that went, I’ve asked for advice from very few people on what I need to do. Because every time I try to force something to happen it just never worked out.

I remember after I won Iowa and after I had run Kentucky for JGR I went to Joe (Gibbs), I went to Toyota, I went to all those guys and said, “Hey, what do I need to do to get a ride?” because nothing was coming about. It was like I finally after I went to them and said everything I could, I remember going home and I’m like, “Alright, well, I’ve done all I can at this point. Now it’s up to fate.” If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.

And I remember I got a phone call. It was like 8:30 in the morning and I was taking my brother golfing for his bachelor party. I got a call from Steve de Souza saying, “Hey Ryan, we got a sponsor and they want you in the car for 10 races.” And it ended up turning into 15.

But that’s fate. I did my part and then a lot of it was the right people and everything else kind of falling into place. It was definitely a risk, but at the end of the day it’s no risk, no reward.

Is it just a matter of purely listening to your gut or do you write things down and weigh options when you’re trying to make tough decisions?

If you talk to my wife she’d tell you absolutely not, it’s like shoot off the hip.

So it’s trusting your gut.

It’s trusting my gut. I knew I’m capable of winning races. I’ve won a lot of races, and I’m very proud of that.

Sitting back in 2016 when I saw JGR 1-2-3 in practice, qualifying and racing for quite a few races, I knew they were a dominant team and that’s what the sport is all about. It goes in waves. I’ve always kind of looked at which team I felt was going to be the dominant one or the one that seemed to really be making strides in their program and that’s something that I still stay in touch with these days.

You hear Kevin Harvick say, “You can’t drive a slow car fast.” And that’s something that I learned when I was racing Modifieds, because there were times when I’d win three races in the row — and then we go up to the next race and we couldn’t run ninth. As much as a driver can win the race, a team helps them win that race, along with the crew, the crew chief building that setup. It’s really a team sport. So that’s something I learned.

We’ve been building our setup with this team (at JTG’s No. 47 car). We’ve been working on our speed and trying to find that niche for me, and once we get there we’re going to be running just like the 37 has at multiple times this year. We’re going to get there and I think that all those moments helped prepare me for this.

What’s the most important thing if somebody’s considering making a move or taking a bet on themselves to quit a job and try something else? What do you wish people would know about that process?

It’s a risk. It is. But if you believe in it and believe in yourself, if you’re willing to do what it takes — and I’m not just talking about putting your eight hours a day and that’s it, because it’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s going to take a lot of risk. But at the end of the day if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “Man, I can do this. I know I can,” believe in it and do it.

I’m from New England, so Barstool Sports is a big deal, and I watched the documentary that’s been going on with Dave Portnoy and how he started Barstool and how he’s built it to what it is this day. And that’s inspiring, too. I mean, that’s the American dream. Whether you enjoy his content or not, he is living the American dream on what he built. He took a risk on himself, just like I’ve taken a risk and many others have taken risks.

By being content and living your day-to-day life when you want more, you’re not going to get to that point by just sitting in your chair waiting.

How do you overcome the fear to do it?

I’ve never had fear when it came to things. I’ve always believed in myself, so I never feared failure — because failure was never an option, right? I just knew.

So I can’t relate to somebody who fears failing, because if you fear that you’re going to fail, more than likely you’re going to — whether you want to hear it or not. So you’ve just got to believe in yourself.

At the end of the day stay positive, and hopefully — not hopefully — it will end up happening.

A Good Day: Daniel Hemric, Ryan Preece get Cup rides based on talent

Just when you thought money was the only way to get an opportunity in NASCAR, along comes a trio of talent-first stories to provide at least some evidence to the contrary.

First there was Ross Chastain, whose ability to elevate his JD Motorsports ride earned him a chance with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team — for whom he recently won the Las Vegas race. The rest of his story is still unwritten, but at least he got a shot.

Then, on Friday, two talent-first drivers were given the kind of opportunities that represent hope for the future: Daniel Hemric was named driver of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Cup car and Ryan Preece was announced as the driver of JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47.

Both will compete for Cup Series Rookie of the Year and neither had to bring armored trucks full of money to do it.

That might be a small victory, but it’s still notable these days.

Hemric, a North Carolina native, grew up with NASCAR dreams while racing in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became one of the country’s best Late Model drivers and has consistently contended in NASCAR’s lower ranks — albeit without a win.

“It just says it can be done,” Hemric said of making it to the top without millions of dollars behind him. “To any racer out there who thinks it can’t be done, today is a huge step to show it can be.”

Then there’s the story of Preece, who took a gamble on himself by borrowing money to secure two starts with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team. In his own personal must-win situation, Preece finished second to Kyle Busch in his first race with JGR and then won at Iowa. That led to a pair of additional races in 2017, when he had two more top-five results.

This season, Preece won another Xfinity race — and $100,000 in the Dash 4 Cash, which allowed him to pay off his loans.

It also opened the door for even more opportunities with JGR and caught the attention of JTG Daugherty, which hired him on talent alone.

“If you are going to fall down that hole of ‘Money, money, money’ you will never make it,” Preece said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not. There were a lot of nights I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I didn’t know if I could even make it to this level.

“I was going to try, though. I was going to try like hell.”

The effort resulted in a job at NASCAR’s highest level — and it might not have happened had he never invested in himself, first. As it turns out, that was a necessary part of Preece’s journey.

“The fact that he has been able to win in Xfinity against the best of the best, obviously that put him higher up on the list,” Geschickter said. “He was definitely on the radar anyway … (but) it didn’t hurt.”

Will stories like these suddenly become a trend? Not likely, as money continues to rule in today’s NASCAR. But that makes them all the more notable when a team rewards a driver with an opportunity based on talent — not how much money they can bring.