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. 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.
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: Sherry Pollex, the longtime partner of Martin Truex Jr. who turns 40 years old on Friday — a birthday she wasn’t sure she would ever reach during a fierce battle with cancer.
Following you on social media after everything you have been through with your illness, I feel like you’re living life to the fullest and maximizing each day more than anybody that I know. So I want to talk to you and see if you can offer some tips for other people.
Thank you for that, first of all, that you think of me that way. That means a lot to me.
I do feel like I’m a really positive person and I try to wake up every day and live life to the fullest. I felt like I did that before I got diagnosed with cancer, but now that I live the way I do after cancer, I don’t know if I was fully living that way with that much joy and gratitude.
So I feel like now life after cancer is mentally and physically exhausting at times, but I try to wake up every day and see the positive in everything that I do. Even on the days I don’t feel good, I always think, “This too shall pass. Tomorrow is a new day and I’m going to feel better tomorrow.” Or “Something amazing could happen tomorrow and I’ll meet somebody that I can inspire or bring a smile to their face.”
Even just like if I’m at Target or I’m at the grocery store, it’s amazing what you can do when you’re at a checkout line and the person checking you out seems like they’re having a really bad day or they have a bad attitude. If you just smile at them or tell them they’re pretty or tell them that what they’re wearing is beautiful. It can be such a small compliment, but it can completely change somebody’s life.
I wake up every day and just have so much gratitude and joy for this life that I’m living, even though I have a chronic illness. And it’s so hard. People ask me all the time: “I don’t get it. How do you stay so positive and how are you happy all the time when you have Stage 3C ovarian cancer?” And I wake up every day and just think this life is amazing.
If you look around you, there’s so much positivity and there’s so much beauty in this earth. The people who want to make a difference and want to inspire each other — there is a lot of us if you look for us.
The first thing that I do when I wake up in the morning, first of all, is I pray, which I think kind of sets the intentions for my day. I thanked God for the warm bed that I slept in this morning, I thanked him for this amazing trip that I had with my girlfriends for my upcoming 40th birthday. I try to say at least three to five things that I’m grateful for. Like I do like a little gratitude moment: I just say what I’m grateful for and then I do a big stretch and I get out of bed and start my day. And I think that that’s such a great way to start your day.
So many people, the first thing they do (after waking up) is they get on their phone or they get news alerts on their iPhone, right? Or they get on Twitter or they get on Facebook or they get on Instagram, and there’s so much negativity on them. There’s so many great things about social media, but there’s a lot of negativity, too. There’s so much negativity on those outlets and for me to start my day like that, I’m not setting a good intention for the rest of my day, right? If I’ve already looked at that, I’ve already started my brain thinking that way and I don’t want to do that.
So I think if you start your day with thinking about the things that you’re joyful for, the things that bring you joy and you think about gratitude and all the things that you’re thankful for, you know then that kind of sets the tone for everything in your life and it makes every day seem that much better. It does for me, anyway.
So is it literally like you wake up and you force yourself to not look at your phone? You won’t pick up your phone?
Well I have this new rule — and I actually learned this from not only my counselor, but just some other holistic healers that I listen to and other spiritual leaders that I listen to. I listen to a lot of podcasts, too, and I learned that for the first two hours that you’re awake, you shouldn’t look at your phone.
I realize for everybody that’s not possible — people that have kids and have to work and have to go right into their day. But I wake up fairly early for me, so I make it a rule that for two hours from the time that I wake up on most days — not every day, it’s not possible every day because some days you have commitments and you have things you have to do and you think of something that you should have texted somebody last night, so you do it really quick. So some days it’s not possible, but I try to at least three days a week not look at my phone for the first two hours that I’m up.
I read my Bible. I write in a gratitude journal. I have a cup of tea and I sit out on the back porch and look at the lake and think about how beautiful the area that we live in is. I think about what I’m going to do that day if there’s an opportunity to inspire somebody with my story or my disease. I write a lot of blogs on SherryStrong.org, so I write that from my phone.
If I have to write on my phone, I try to stay away from social media. I try to just use it for whatever I’m using it for in that moment. Like for instance, my Bible app is on my phone, so sometimes I’m on it because my Bible app is on there. But I’m not looking at negative news outlets and I think that’s so important, just to not start your day with negativity.
So how do you avoid getting sucked into the negativity of the world once you do start looking at it? And not just on social media, but in life you’ll come across people who are negative. How do you try to keep the positive spirit going throughout the day?
Well for one, I think if you have negative people in your life like that, you shouldn’t be friends with them. That was one of the first things I did after I was diagnosed: All the people in my life who are what I call Debbie Downers, who just were bringing me down in my life, I just got rid of them. I’m not around them anymore.
I’m not mean or ungrateful for the people who have helped my through my life or have done things for me, I just don’t have friendships with those people. I don’t choose to spend my time with them.
So I think it’s all about choices, right? We wake up every day and we have a choice on how we want to live our life that day. Do we want to live with joy and gratitude, or do we want to be negative pessimists? I choose to wake up every day and I’m like, “Yeah, I have this disease and it sucks.” Nobody wants to have cancer and nobody wants to take chemo every day. But I always think to myself there’s so many people that have it so much worse than I do. I think about all the people that have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer or have cancers that are way worse than I do and can’t get out of bed in the morning and can’t even go to work and can’t function and can’t get up and make breakfast. And I think about those people and I pray for them and then I think about how lucky I am that I can do those things.
So I think if you just focus on what you can do and what you can’t do, it makes such a huge difference. Yeah there’s some things that I can’t do that I could do in my pre-cancer life. But it’s OK; the rest of my life is not going to be perfect.
Nobody’s life is full of sunshine and rainbows. That’s probably my favorite thing to tell people. No one’s life is perfect. No matter what you see on social media, nobody’s life is perfect. We have this idea of what our life should be like, with marriage and kids and everything is perfect and we live in this house with a white picket fence, but that’s not everyone’s reality. And it’s really no one’s reality, because everybody that even tells you they have that reality usually doesn’t have it.
So I always think to myself we all have this path we’ve gone down in our lives and we make a choice when we go down that path to be around negative people and to let negative things in life affect us — or we don’t. And if I come across something on Twitter or Instagram that’s negative, usually I scroll right by. I don’t read it. I don’t pay a ton of attention to it.
Do I get mad and angry like everybody else? Yeah, of course I do. If you follow me on social media, you can see that I’m a firecracker. I have a sassy attitude and I do get upset about things. But I’ve learned to just take deep breaths and let those things go by quicker than I used to. I have my days where I’m not happy about stuff and there is negativity around me, but I’ve just found a different way to cope with it.
It’s interesting that you mentioned a couple times that you sort of seek a chance to inspire someone. I guess in my daily life it’s not something that crosses my mind where like I’m thinking, “Oh, I could actually improve this person’s day.” Which I should, because anybody can improve somebody’s day — you don’t need to have a license to do it or something like that.
Yeah, and you just hit the nail on the head, right? We all have different ways we inspire people. You don’t have to be a cancer patient to inspire somebody. You don’t have to have gone through some kind of tragedy or great trauma in your life to inspire someone. We all have our gifts that God has given us and we all have something we can use to inspire others.
I tell Martin all the time, “Your gift is that you are able to have this amazing talent to be a race car driver and you can use that platform to be a role model to other children and kids that look up to you and want to be you one day.” Or, “Use it to inspire kids that are battling an illness or whatever it might be.” There’s so many things that we can do.
And I think when you’ve gone through something like I’ve been through and then you come out the other side and you’re like, “Oh wow, I’m still here. I’m still alive and I still have this opportunity to live this amazing life even though I’m probably going to fight this disease forever until it kills me.” How can I use that? Like what is God trying to teach me? What lesson am I learning?
To me, it was like this huge awakening, like this spiritual awakening. Like God is trying to teach me something; what is this path that he’s put me on and how can I use it to do good in this world so that when I leave here I leave behind this legacy of wanting to help others and bring positivity and sunlight and happiness to other people?
So that’s really what I concentrate on with Sherry Strong and with our (Martin Truex Jr.) Foundation. Every time we go to the hospital or every time I talk to another cancer patient, sitting down with them and holding their hand and being like, “Yeah, I know it’s really tough right now and I know it sucks. But there’s going to come a day where you are going to feel better and this too shall pass.” That was my favorite thing to say to myself as I was going through my really rough chemo: “This too shall pass.” There’s going to come a day where I’m going to be sitting here like I am with you today and the sun is going to be shining and I’m going to feel great and I’m going to be like, “Oh my gosh, God gave me a second chance at life. Now what am I gonna do with it?” And for me that’s, “OK, how can I inspire more people and give more people with cancer hope?”
Because that’s my passion, right? We’re all gifted at something and we all have this path that we’re on, and for me it was I just wanted to help other people make it through this disease and teach them about integrated medicine and all the things that I used to help me feel better and the mindful practices that I’ve used to help me get through it. It’s just been amazing and I feel so lucky to be here.
Some days you’re tired and have to rally yourself. Some people drink coffee or tea; what do you take? Do you have, like…pills or something…?
Are you asking me if I like have a magic happy pill? (Laughs)
No, like some holistic something. I don’t know.
So I think I kind of know what you’re asking me. I do take a lot of supplements and a lot of vitamins, which I think helps me feel good. When we feel good as humans naturally, our mind feels good and our body feels good.
I’m a true believer in you are what you eat, you are what you live, you are who you say you are, right? So like for me, that’s practicing mindful connections every day. I do yoga a lot and I do a lot of meditation and I’ll even repeat little mantras in my mind, like, “I am healthy. I am strong,” because like the mind-body connection is huge to me.
If my mind feels good, I can teach my body how to feel good even though I’m battling this disease. So I do a lot of like green tea and dandelion tea and I make this essiac tea, which is like this cancer-fighting tea. I do a lot of things that boost my immune system, and I think those things all help my body stay strong so that I can fight my disease but also to keep my mind healthy so that I can be in the right state of mind to inspire other people and bring them joy and happiness and do things for myself, if that makes sense.
So I don’t think there’s like this magic pill that you take every day. CBD oil is huge right now and that’s proven to lessen people’s pain and anxiety and inflammation and so yeah, that’s sort of like a happy pill I guess if you wanted to say it that way. I mean there’s other things that you can do, but for me, those are the things that work for me. I’m not speaking for everybody, I’m just more speaking about what I do for myself and those things kind of set my intentions for the whole day after I do yoga and meditation and I take my supplements and I make a green smoothie. That’s kind of how I start my day and if I feel good, that kind of sets my tone for the whole day.
Are you on some sort of a diet where you’re strict about stuff, or do you just try to make healthy choices with what you put in your body?
Oh no, I’m on a really strict diet. Like a crazy strict diet. I eat like only really healthy foods. It’s crazy. A lot of it is on SherryStrong.org, but that’s probably the number one question I get asked from people on social media, is, “What do you eat every day?”
This morning, I made a green smoothie with a lot of fruits and vegetables in it and some mushroom powder and some collagen and some protein powder. Usually for lunch I have a big salad and then for dinner I have salmon and vegetables. So that’s like an average day. That’s not every day because I eat a lot of variety and stuff, but I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables mostly.
But I think that that’s huge because like we just talked about, you are what you eat. It kind of sets the tone. If you eat crappy food all the time and you eat junk food all the time and you eat a lot of refined sugar and you drink a lot of soda and all these things, then you don’t feel good, you know? And then when you don’t feel good, how can you be a source of happiness and joy for other people? Because you’re miserable with yourself and how you feel.
Some people can’t help it — they’re battling a terrible illness, so it doesn’t matter how they eat. They still don’t feel good you know? But if you have the opportunity to make that change, then what an incredible change that you can make.
Everybody has stuff that goes on in their life in varying degrees and it’s tempting to feel sorry for yourself. Why don’t you feel sorry for yourself? Or at least you don’t come across that way.
Yeah, so I had that in the beginning when I first was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Most people who have followed me on social media know that I really wanted to be a mom, and in the beginning, about three months before I was diagnosed, I was trying to get pregnant. I went to the doctor because I was like, “Oh my stomach hurts, I’m a little bit bloated,” I thought “Maybe I am pregnant.”
And then they told me I had Stage 3C ovarian cancer and I was going to be in surgery five days later and I was going to have a radical hysterectomy and I would never have kids.
I had that moment when I got home, that “Why me?” moment. I threw myself on the floor, like fully blown like temper tantrum fit like a four-year-old would do. And Martin just stood there and watched me and just cried and was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you, I don’t know what to do with you,” because he was so sad, too and he was so devastated that I was so sick.
We didn’t realize how sick I was until we saw the scan and all the tumors in my body — which there was like 40 to 50 tumors in my body.
So I think I had that in the beginning, that, “Why me?” And then I remember talking to a friend of mine that was getting chemotherapy and you might know him. His name was Steve Byrnes. He was sitting next to this 97-year-old lady on his right who was getting chemotherapy for breast cancer or something. And he was sitting next to a 19-year-old on his left who had testicular cancer. And he said, “Sher, I walked in and I sat down to get my chemo, and I was feeling sorry myself and I was thinking that, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why can’t I live a normal life?’ And I looked next to me at this 97-year-old lady that was at the end of her life fighting and I looked to my left at this guy that was 19 and just starting his life and was fighting and I thought, ‘Why not me? What makes me any different? What makes me more special than them? What makes my life, my age, color of my skin, my social status, whatever it might be that makes you different — what makes me different from them?’”
And we talked about that a lot, Steve and I. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. No disease discriminates. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through in your life; we’re all going to experience some type of suffering or tragedy in our life, right? So how do you get past that point where you’re just like, at one point in my life I’m going to have something bad that’s going to happen and then I’ll come to a place where I’m OK with it?
It’s different for everybody, but for me it was just like, “I’m around these children every day that fight cancer and they’re five years old and three years old. They haven’t even had a chance to live their life yet.” And then I started to feel lucky that I was 35 when I was diagnosed and that I had lived 35 years of my life.
I was like, “Wow, look at all the amazing trips I’ve gone on, look at all the amazing things that I’ve done. How lucky am I that I have made it this far and that I’m not five or 15 or 19 fighting this terrible illness and might not ever have the chance to get married or have kids or do all the things you want to do in life?”
For me it was spending time with friends and family, traveling, inspiring people. Yeah, I wanted to be a mom, but I couldn’t be anymore. So it was like, “OK, do I want to adopt now? Do I just want to take care of these babies at the hospital and let them be my kids?”
And I haven’t felt sorry for myself a day since. I really haven’t. I haven’t had one day when I woke up and thought, “Why me?” Even in my worst, darkest days like when I shaved my head, when I was in the worst of my chemotherapy, when I had my recurrence, when they told me I had to go on oral chemo — I mean I’ve on chemo for four out of the last five years. I’ve never had one day where I was like, “Why me?”
I just thought, “I’m gonna get through this and I’m gonna live every day and I’m going to live it to the best of my ability. I’m going to be a happy person while I’m living it and whatever happens happens. God’s blessed me with this much time on this earth, if he takes me now, then whatever I’ve done and whatever I’ve blessed to do, then let that be my legacy here.”
If you could just inject the average person with some bit of knowledge that you just wish people could realize about life in general, what would it be?
As a cancer patient, that’s such an interesting question because there’s so many things, right? You wake up and you’re like, “Why can’t people see that butterfly that just flew by was amazing? That God made that butterfly and she’s so beautiful?”
The color in the sky is bluer and the grass is greener. It’s so hard to explain to people that you have to go through what I’ve been through to experience that, and I hate that. I wish everybody could just experience that and not have to go through tragedy to feel that. Because for me, everything about my life has been more vibrant and colorful and amazing and joyful. And I hate that it took cancer for me to see that, to see how amazing that all is.
But the one thing that I think every day when I wake up that I’m like, “Why can’t people just see this?” would be like when you think that you have a problem and you think it’s a really big problem, (it’s not). Like it could be sitting in traffic, right? Martin gets so frustrated when he’s sitting in traffic on I-77 and he starts to get all upset about it and I’m like, “Why can’t you just see right now that this problem is so small? Why can’t you see that there’s so much more out there, there are so many bigger problems and that there’s somebody right now who is praying for your problem?”
My mom tells me every night when you say your prayers, remember that there’s somebody across the world that’s wishing they could trade prayers with you — because they’re wishing they could pray for what you’re praying for. And it’s such a true statement.
It’s not just Martin, it’s not just me, it’s everybody. Every single person that wakes up and goes throughout their day is going to encounter some obstacle or some problem that they go through, and every time they hit that bump in the road, instead of thinking, “Gosh, this is a mountain I can’t climb,” instead of complaining about it…why don’t we offer a solution, or why don’t we talk about the positive sides of it?
And I realize that that’s not always going to happen. Like I was upset with the way qualifying was a couple weeks ago, too. Like I get it, we’re all going to have those moments. Nothing can be perfect all the time.
But we can choose how we react to those moments and we can choose what our attitude is to those moments and we also can make choices to say, “You know what, this is a really small problem in my life and this too is going to pass.”
Then when something big comes along, it’s like you’re ready for it, and then you realize all those little problems were just getting you ready for that really big one. Those things are just really small in the grand scheme of things.
So I think that’s probably my biggest (thing). I’ll be out to lunch with girlfriends and they’ll be talking about pickup at school and how they waited in line for so long and the kids didn’t want to go to school or something happened at school and bullied the other kid or something happened. And I’m like, “I wish those were my problems. I wish my kid was at school when somebody was mean to her today and I can teach her that that’s not OK and to kill people with kindness every day. I wish I had a little girl like that.” You know?
Like I wish I had a little girl that was healthy and awesome or a little boy and I could inspire her to be this amazing person to other people one day. But I’m never going to have that opportunity. So I think it’s all about perspective, right? We make a choice every day when we encounter a problem and putting it in perspective of what’s really going on in our life and people’s lives around us and the minute you do that and you have compassion for somebody else, it changes everything. It’s pretty incredible.
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: Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing.
I see on the walls of Stewart-Haas Racing, you guys have motivational quotes. And here in the hauler right here on the door it says, “I believe that we will win.” Why is that important to try and show that to the team?
I think our number one priority for any race team or any business or anything like that is you have to believe in it and all your employees have to believe in it. You see a lot of successful businesses — whether it’s a race team or not — they have the personality of people that believe in the business.
You look at the Disney mentality, and that’s what Ray (Evernham) preached at Evernham (Motorsports) for so many years: If you see a piece of paper on the ground, then pick it up and throw it away. Don’t walk over it. That stuff was started years and years ago and it has carried on through these race teams. You have to believe that you can perform and you have to believe that you can win and if you can’t do that, you really don’t have a chance.
Obviously you’ve worked for some great leaders and some great race teams and you are now heading up your own team. How much of what you do now is a product of lessons you learned from Ray, and how much is stuff that you’ve decided on your own?
I think most of my work ethic started with my dad (Gary). Totally different careers, but he’s been a car salesman in Charlotte for 45 years. He would get up and leave home at 7 o’clock every morning and he would get home at 8 o’clock every night and he never, ever complained. And he sold cars six days a week, he didn’t worry about whether he ever had a day off, he just got up and went to work and he enjoyed it.
That kind of carried on into me when I started racing go-karts and Late Models and All Pro series and different things. I just worked and I never needed an alarm clock; I got up when I needed to get up and I worked 12 hours a day like it was nothing. It didn’t bother me. So that kind of started it with my father and then it led into Ray.
Ray was probably one of the biggest influences on me and the way that he was a leader — I’ll be honest, I still miss that. I told somebody this week I wish Ray would come back. But he just conducted things the right way.
We had meetings every week, everybody in the entire company knew where we stood, what we stand for, what our priorities were and where we were going. He always preached that Disney mentality of keeping things nice and neat and clean, and if you got on an airplane and you were caught with an ink pen in your pocket, then you’re in trouble. You better have pencils on the plane because you didn’t want ink pens getting on the seats of the airplane. Man, I appreciated that stuff. Some people it aggravated the crap out of, but for somebody like me, I loved it. So he was a huge influence.
The rest is just watching people. I think watching Chad (Knaus) and the 48 team was my third-most thing that improved me as a person and as a crew chief — watching how he operated and watching how he expected his people to act and how they dressed and their equipment and how it looked and their cars and how presentable they were.
These guys who have been on the 4 team for five and a half years will tell you the first thing I said is, “I want to be like the 48 but better.” And that’s what we’ve tried to do. I think through some of these years they’ve proved to do that; sometimes we fall short of that, but overall we’ve done a good job.
One thing I kind of struggle with sometimes is there will be days where I’m totally fired up to go work hard and put in a solid effort, but then I see myself sometimes where I’m just like, “Man, I’m just tired today” or something like that. On those days when you have that, when you wake up and you’re tired or your kids have something going on, how do you get yourself to go still work hard through that?
Well I’m fortunate that get to do something that I love. I wish I could say everybody in the United States and everybody in the world needs to just do whatever they love. Sometimes that’s not a possibility. Sometimes you just have to go get a job, no matter where it’s at, and you have to do something to make money and provide for your family.
Like last year, for instance, I felt like I ran on adrenaline the whole year. We were winning races and I never needed an alarm clock. I woke up five minutes before my alarm every day and I knew exactly what time I needed to be at work and my system was just working on its own. I would drive to work and have all this stuff in my head that I had thought about in my sleep that we needed to do better and what we needed to fix.
You turn around this year — it hasn’t been as good as what we have hoped — and yeah, there’s some mornings when you wake up and you’re like, “Oh God, we gotta go do this” or whatever. But the biggest thing is having people around me that also believe. The days that I’ve had a bad day, my group has a good day and they support me. And then you’ll have another guy on your team that is having a bad day and you have to bring him up and support him.
It works in any business. You walk in a Chick-Fil-A and you’re amazed at what they can do, or you walk into Jimmy John’s and you’re like, “Oh crap, they’ve got my sandwich ready already.” But they work as a team and they know how to help each other and get each other through days.
But like I said, all this stuff has started many years ago with great leaders and probably most of it started in the military. Ray used to always preach to us or give us things that came from military people and quotes and stuff like that. Sometimes you just have to be around the right people, and until you’re around the right people, you really don’t know what it’s like.
But you have to do something that you enjoy. I think that’s number one, and you have to do something that makes you happy every day and that you don’t dread to get into your car and go to work.
When you have success, how do you keep the pedal down and keep going forward and not just say, “Well, this is probably good enough?” Like, “Do I really need to put in this extra couple hours? We’re probably going to be fine.” Do you know what I mean?
I think you have to have that mentality that nothing’s ever good enough. Sometimes it drives my wife crazy. But you know, that’s kind of how I stay. Unless you can stay that way, it’s not going to be good enough. I hate to carry that home and say, “Well this isn’t right and this isn’t right and this isn’t right and this isn’t right” and it drives her crazy.
But on the other hand, we’ve got over 350 people walking around at Stewart-Haas Racing now. It’s so easy just to come in and do an eight-hour day and just do what you’re told and walk out. You’re really looking for those exceptional people that come in 30 minutes early and leave 30 minutes late and then come and ask you if there’s anything else that they can do before they leave. Those are the ones that really stand out.
It’s all about mentality though. You have to stay on task and stay focused and it really comes down to the total team. You know it always starts with a leader, but you have to have the right people under you. I’m fortunate enough to have a great group of guys that stay working hard. My engineer, my shop foreman, my car chief, all those guys — they help me corral the group and stay motivated. I have bad days, like I said, but overall we keep each other going.
I know a lot of success in any business has to do with a combination of talent and hard work; you can’t have one without the other. Do you believe if somebody is really talented, they can get by without working as hard? Or does success at the ultimate level require hard work no matter if they have talent or not?
I think you can have a lot of talent and somewhat make it. You see that in some race car drivers that have a ton of talent, but they don’t do everything that they could possibly do. And you look at it and you’re like, “That’s a shame that they don’t work any harder than they do, because they could completely destroy the field every week.”
And then you see other guys that don’t have as much talent and they work their guts out and they study and study and they run pretty good. So yeah, that’s possible.
I think there’s different ways of looking at it for different careers. I think most careers you have to work hard, and unless you work hard you’re not going to be successful and do the things that you need to do. So it really comes down to being focused and working hard.
What’s your lifestyle like as far as the amount of sleep you get or what you eat? Do you have to do anything to keep your energy level up? Do you have any secrets that people might be able to help themselves with that way?
I think the easy answer for people is to get up and drink three cups of coffee and then get their day going, but I don’t drink any caffeine at all in an entire day. I may have a little bit of tea now and then, but I try to stay away. I drink water the entire day and it would have to be a pretty bad day to catch me making a cup of coffee — which I do every now and then.
But over the last couple years I’ve tried to take care of myself better and try to eat better. Everybody’s like, “Well you never needed to lose weight,” but last year I lost 30 pounds and I feel 100 percent better. I may have gained about 10 back over the winter.
But overall, I try to eat a little bit more healthy and I try to drink water. I think if your body gets used to that, you’re better off because you don’t want to be relying on caffeine to get your through the day because at some point you’re going to crash.
And as far as sleeping, it changes every week. It can be eight hours or it could be five hours, and some nights you just don’t sleep well and you have a lot on your mind.
I put in a lot of hours at the shop and some people may think that I have a lot of toys and I like to play and this and that, but that’s kind of my way of getting racing off my mind. But I really don’t get to use them much. I love the lake and I love UTV riding and stuff like that and I love to be with my family.
Most nights, the boys (his 10-year-old twins, Brody and Gavin) are asleep when I leave to go to work and they’re going to bed as soon as I walk in the door. So I don’t get to see them but about 10 minutes when I get home in the afternoons and try to get them in bed pretty much.
A few weeks ago, somebody was talking about my week and I said, “Well I worked 14 hours on Monday, I worked 16 hours on Tuesday and I worked 14 hours on Wednesday. Thursday morning I stayed home and I got on an airplane and flew out Thursday, and then I worked at the racetrack Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And then I was back at the shop on Monday morning at 9 o’clock.” And everybody’s like, “How in the world…?” But it’s my job, and I enjoy it and that’s the only way you’re going to be successful, is to work hard.
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: Katie Hargitt, IndyCar reporter and founder of Fuel the Female.
Fuel the Female has gotten some decent attention and is gaining a lot of momentum. First of all, can you explain to people who haven’t heard of it how you came up with this concept and what you’re trying to accomplish?
I’ve been in motorsports for 20 years, both as a driver and as a reporter. And every step of my motorsports career, I’ve had really powerful female mentors. When I was a driver, I was a part of Lyn St. James’ Women in the Winner’s Circle and her driver development program. Once I got into reporting, I was traveling with ESPN NASCAR as a runner and got close with Nicole Briscoe and Shannon Spake; Jamie Little was pregnant at the time.
So I’ve always just had these great female mentors and I said, “When I’m in the position to give back to girls who want to be in motorsports, I’m doing it.” That’s always been that pie-in-the-sky goal that I’ve wanted to chase.
And with the way the world is going, last year I feel was like the year of the woman. There was this really powerful movement for women internationally and I woke up one day last winter and I thought, “This is the year. We’re gonna do it.”
So I approached my friends at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and asked if we could do just this day where we brought out some high school girls from the Indianapolis area and introduced them to the careers that are available in motorsports as it relates to STEM — so the engineers, the mechanics. Because I feel like there are a lot of resources for female drivers, but not so much those women who are in the technical aspects of the sport.
And they were all on board and so helpful in the planning process, and we brought out 100 Indianapolis public schools high school girls and they kind of “toured” the careers. So Cara Adams, who is the chief engineer at Firestone, came and spoke with them. Jessica Mace, who is a mechanic at Andretti, also came. We had lunch at Firestone, thanks to Lisa Boggs, who is the Director of Motorsports for Bridgestone Americas. And Danica stopped by.
So we just had these really powerful, influential, magnetizing women speak to these girls — a lot of them underprivileged — and it was so energizing to see the way their eyes opened up and they were just drawn to motorsports. It was fun watching these 100 girls fall in love with motorsports in the way I did when I was younger.
That’s so cool. And you’re going to do a similar event coming up?
Yeah. So this year we’re doing pretty much the same thing again. We’ve expanded to a few other public and private schools in the Indianapolis area, which is really exciting to be able to offer this to more girls throughout the Indianapolis area.
And instead of doing a tour of the speedway, they’re actually going to build model race cars this year with the help of engineering students from IUPUI. So I think what’s really cool about that is, they will see how your career can progress. You go to school — you’re an engineering student, for example — and then the professional women will pop in throughout the day. So they’ll see the student who grows into the professional woman and be able to see themselves in these different roles throughout the day, and the day will culminate in them racing these cars across those famous yard of bricks. Not on the track — that will be a little bit busy — but the yard of bricks extends past the pagoda (in the fan zone).
Let’s back up for a minute and talk about why this is needed. Historically, it seems like motorsports has been a boys club and it feels like this industry overall has been pretty slow to adapt and catch up to other areas in society. Do you agree with that, and do you think there’s a particular reason why that has been the case?
I do feel like that do a certain extent. I’m working on some statistics and some history about women in racing and it’s so hard to believe that women weren’t even allowed in the pits in Indianapolis until 1971. Like, what?
They weren’t even allowed in the pits?
They weren’t even allowed in the pits until 1971! Since that day we have not had a lead engineer, mechanic, or a driver go to victory lane at IMS. It’s 2019. It’s about time that happens.
This season in IndyCar, we don’t even have a female lead engineer on a race team. To kind of put these numbers in perspective, only eight women in IndyCar work on the competition side of things. When I say competition, I mean directly affecting the car. One of the most progressive teams I can think of right out of the box is Scott Dixon’s team. He has two female engineers, Kate Gundlach and Danielle Shepherd, and I like to say that it’s no mistake that he won the championship last year. They have these two really smart, powerful women on his stand.
And to talk about that number eight again, that doesn’t even fill up one full-sized team. So the goal for Fuel the Female is to just make this a normal thing so that we don’t even have to have this conversation anymore. If growing Fuel the Female eventually puts Fuel the Female out of business, so be it. We are a 501(c)(3) so we’re not necessarily a business, but if I don’t have to have Fuel the Female anymore, I’d say it was a success.
Absolutely, yes. And the thing is, obviously women are interested in motorsports. You see plenty of women who want to work in the sport though PR, broadcasting, stuff like that — but they’re not on the competition side as you mentioned. So clearly, there’s some progress to be made and there’s people who would like to do that if their career path happened differently.
Yeah, there’s a substantial divide in what women do in motorsports. There is no problem with women on the communication side; I think we have flooded that area of the business. But there’s definitely a lack of female influence on the technical side and I think there’s where we can really focus our energy.
I could endlessly rattle off numbers of what happens to girls as they grow. By age 6, they believe that STEM is “not for them” or something they can’t achieve. So you have to get to these girls early on to help them realize that this is something they can do. I think with Fuel the Female, by showing them there are these successful women in leadership positions within STEM careers, the numbers are incredible with girls who know women who have succeeded in STEM. So by showing them the success in this unique position, I think we’re really going to help grow the presence of women in motorsports.
How late in a young woman’s life can she go down this career path? Does it have to be decided by at some point in high school? Can it be as late as college? Or is it something that happens even earlier than that?
It definitely happens in your formative stage. You’re communications, Jeff, so at what age did you decide you were bad at math? (Laughs)
Pretty darn early.
For me, it was like middle school, when I started getting into the trigonometry and the geometry and I’m thinking, “What the heck? It’s like I’m reading a completely different language.” So the earlier we get to these girls, the better, because it’s about that middle school age where they’re getting into the hardest math and science that they’re deciding, “This is too hard for me, I’ll just let the guys do it.” And for some reason the way men’s brains develop, they’re generally better at those types of subjects. But that’s not to say that women and girls can’t do it, too.
So yes, getting to the girls earlier is better, but we can get to them as late as high school. Obviously when you start getting into college then you’re talking about changing majors and not having that background information. But in high school they’re still doing the entry level geometry and trigonometry and physics and chemistry, and we can still get to them and change their minds and tell them, “You can do this and you can be good at it.”
Do you feel like in the IndyCar world, women are accepted by the men in the competition paddock? Do they have obstacles? Are people still looking at them like, “What are you doing here? You’re a woman. I’m not used to seeing woman here?” Or is it accepted now?
That’s a hard question because I think everyone’s experience is different. I’ve heard stories of girls saying they know they have to work 10 times harder than the men, but I also think some of that is that they know the history of women in the sport so they feel like they have to work 10 times harder than the men.
I think IndyCar is in a really unique position where we have such a diverse paddock. We’ve got people from Europe, from South America, from Canada where we’re used to these different cultures and we’re used to dealing with different people, so I feel like it benefits us in a sense that women aren’t as out of place because we have dealt with all these different cultures and we’re used to being exposed to that type of thing.
But I’ve also heard stories of some of the female mechanics where it’s little passive aggressive. Things like they’ve never been offered a female shirt and or female pants — where in a team uniform, if you have to wear that and you’re a smaller female, you’re drowning in your clothes. I don’t think we don’t have any of those cases anymore, but that is just within the last few years that some of these women weren’t even offered clothes that fit them.
You mentioned last year seemed like almost to be the year of the female. Just from my own personal experience, I’m more aware now that in general, people tend to hire other people that look like them. And so in order for really change to happen, there has to be more women in these roles so they can hire more women. How realistic do you think it is that you can help make gains in this area?
I think it’s extremely realistic. I just met with Lyn St. James — who like I said earlier, I was part of her driver development program and she stayed very active in my life — and she’s on the board of directors for Fuel the Female. We were just talking about our one-to-three-year goals and our three-to-five-year goals.
In three to five years, we hope that 10,000 girls have been affected by Fuel the Female in a positive way and we can just simply grow the presence of women in motorsports. Because if we get girls in the pipeline early, so they come to our education program and they’re exposed to STEM, they experience that day where they’ve built a race car out of these recycled parts and they raced it across the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they’re hooked.
And then they go to school and then they think, “OK, if I want to do that then I really have to study my geometry, I really have to study my biology,” or whatever. Then they go to college and they can get a scholarship to help them continue their career and then they get a mentorship from Cara Adams or Kate Gundlach or Andrea Mueller (from Team Penske), whoever, then we’ve got these girls in the pipeline and they’re encouraging their friends to do it. And I think in no time flat, we don’t have to have this conversation anymore.
You mentioned that you want to impact and affect so many more people in the near future. Where do you see it going beyond IMS? Can you picture it in NASCAR or at all sorts of venues?
Yes. So IMS and IndyCar are what we started with because that’s my wheelhouse. That’s where I’m working right now, and IMS has been so generous to help us with facilities and stuff like that. But we want to grow to NASCAR and NHRA and SCCA, all of the different series across United States, motorsports venues across the United States. Because if we only stay in Indianapolis, we’re only affecting a couple thousand girls, and in order for this to really change, we’ve got to affect that 10,000 number that I talked about.
To me, that’s not an option if that happens or not. It’s going to happen, and we’ve got to make it work. And we can only do that by people who are willing to back this sort of organization. So I hope that we can start making partnerships with motorsports venues across the country and people across the country who are also passionate about this.
This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Race fan Matthew Todd, who made a miracle recovery from a traumatic brain injury suffered one year ago this week. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Matthew, can you start by taking us through your injury and how it all happened?
My life changed forever in April of 2018. I was holding a door for a lady and took a few steps away from the door after she was in and a displacement caught my right foot. It caused me to stumble. I just fell down to the right — I put my right arm out, my elbow, to catch myself as I was falling forward — and something caught the right side of my head.
On the way down, instead of just having a bump on my head, the object that caught my head was in the perfect spot and it tore the cranial artery that we all have on the right side of our head. It ruptured the artery.
I remember falling. I remember holding the door and taking a few steps. Everybody slips and falls from time to time, I guess. But it’s usually as not as tragic as this was. It’s injured me for the rest of my life.
But I can say — in addition to being the worst injury I’ve ever had — outside of having my daughter, Harper Ruth, this is the greatest blessing God has ever given me. That brings us to the reason why we’re having a conversation today.
What happened next? I assume you were immediately transported to the hospital?
They gave me my first helicopter ride and unfortunately I don’t remember a darn thing about it. I’d never been on a helicopter before, but I was that day. They got me into Durham at Duke University Medical Center and operated on me immediately. But I was incapacitated from the time I fell and made contact with the displacement that tore my artery. I was put on life support.
The procedure was supposed to last two hours. About 90 minutes into it, representatives met with my mother and had her sign some paperwork. They informed her that “From the neck down, your son is very healthy. He has healthy organs.” They said, “He is an organ donor, right?” She said, “He has the heart on his license. He is an organ donor.” They said, “Great. We can use his organs and the other form you signed is to give you the rights to his body.”
That statement there, when I would share this with my friends and family, that’s something that would make me cry. I would get emotional right there. I can’t imagine what my mom went through in that moment.
Statistically, with this injury, the large majority do not live. And if they do live, they have extreme disability for the rest of their life as far as their bodily function, cognitive skills, motor skills — the works. And I was very fortunate.
But they were still operating on me. They got through the procedure. God blessed me with the fact my brain did not swell. They were very worried about the 12 hours immediately following the cranial surgery. They opened up the right side of my head. I had 93 staples in my head. And my brain didn’t swell, so they were able to put me in a private room in the ICU. They estimated I’d be there in the ICU anywhere from 30 days to several weeks. Then I’d go to another floor in the hospital and remain there for the foreseeable future.
During this time, you told me you are absolutely positive you experienced a taste of the afterlife. And unfortunately we don’t have enough time to go into all of it today, but you described being on a vessel, experiencing vivid colors you’ve never seen in real life and seeing loved ones who had passed away.
I went straight into an area of complete peace. I was in no pain. I was not bothered by anything, just an unconditional euphoria of peacefulness. I’ve never been through a near-death experience, but this was something that was just incredible to me.
It takes 40 to 45 minutes to tell the entire story, but I saw relatives, I saw friends, they were healthy and happy and they looked better than I ever saw them here.
And then I’m walking through these doors into a light. There’s no sense of falling, fear, nothing. And as soon as I go through that light, I’m sitting straight up in my bed at the hospital. Like a bolt of lightning through my back. It felt like the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker corps had all hit me at once.
You said it was about three days from the time of the accident to the time you woke up. I know they told your family there was a chance you’d never to be able to walk or talk, and if you did, it would be weeks or months before you spoke with any coherency once you came out of your coma. And so there were a lot of people around when you suddenly came to.
The news was bad. Everybody literally at that time was waiting until I was going to pass away. Like maybe a day or two and there’s going to be a funeral.
I woke up. There was a lot of people coming in and checking me or seeing me. All I was doing was talking to family and friends the best I could. I couldn’t remember anything for sure. At that time, I remembered my daughter and my dog, Blue.
Over time, things started coming back to me, but not in great detail. But it didn’t matter. I was completely in an emotion of subtle happiness. I had been through a traumatic brain injury and I was just peaceful at that time. My brain was not flowing, it was not working properly.
You mentioned they sent you home shockingly early — less than a week after the accident — because you were able to pass some cognitive tests. But obviously you had a lot of restrictions on what you could do as you were in the very early processes of recovery.
I got back home on a Monday afternoon. I laid down on the bed in my room and after about 10 minutes of laying there, I had no idea where I was. I had no idea what house I was in. I had no idea it was my house. That’s how far away I was from everything until my cognitive function allowed me to start processing memories.
Still to this day, I look at pictures of my daughter over the course of her five years and wonder when she took her first steps, what were her first words. Those are things I can’t nail down right now.
I have very good detail on some things. I’ve been reliving the days in the hospital often, but there’s lots of things over the course of my 37 years I can’t recall in detail. I rely on my family and friends to help piece me in, and also going to a place and looking around.
The reason I mentioned the house and not remembering was all of my signed diecasts. I started collecting diecasts several years ago — not a lot of them — but I enjoyed the driver to sign it in silver on the windshield. My first Father’s Day gift was a Jeff Gordon signed Gen 7 car that I got. NASCAR is an absolute wonderful sport in general.
I don’t recall watching television that week. I don’t recall doing much of anything. I had no sense of hunger. I could not process hot and cold temperatures. That following Saturday, I cut on my television. The TV was on, and I go to turn a channel and the DVR was recording.
The first question is, “What’s a DVR?” and “What is this?” Mom said, “Matthew, that’s a race.” I’m like, “Well what race is it?” She’s like, “That’s a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.” And they were racing as I recall at Richmond. I’m not 100 percent, but I believe they were in Richmond. And I didn’t even know I was looking at a NASCAR race. But Mom explained to me I was a large fan of the sport and I have been since I was 3 years old.
So you had no idea you were a NASCAR fan?
I had no idea what I liked and didn’t like. Down to food, music, sports, hobbies — all that stuff.
The NASCAR stuff, through following that sport, that was able to bring me a lot of happiness and the memories that came back to me. I had time on my hands, and I enjoyed watching the shows, the races and everything I could about it.
But it also started waking up the memories I had in that particular thing I enjoyed — racing. Constantly you read a name or a car, number, team, whatever it may be. It just wakes something up.
Every race I’ve been to, I can’t remember them all now. I used to be able to. I used to be able to tell you who won the races. Some I can, some I can’t. The details of specific memories come back in full force or I’m only going to get a piece of them or none at all.
It’s hard to picture that. But it sounds like NASCAR essentially played a role in helping you retrieve those memories.
Imagine the hard drive of your computer being wiped clean and then all the memories flowing back in. Sometimes early on, it was very slow and then it picked up very quickly to where every day, I could be doing anything and a memory from a random time in my life will come back to me.
As far as the racing, I went through everything in my house. I remember seeing the yellow bib that had a No. 18 on it. That brought back the memory of visiting Joe Gibbs Racing several years ago. I had gotten a bib for my daughter, Harper. Of course, she loves M&Ms. Whenever a race is on, she’s always looking for that No. 18.
I cannot tell you how much happiness it brings me when a memory comes back in something I have a great and positive passion about. One of the best memories that has come back to me was I was looking at the No. 24, but I was seeing the name “William Byron” under it. And I was like, “That doesn’t match to me. This is not what I’m recalling.” And then Jeff Gordon’s name — I don’t know if I read it or what — but that comes along, I pull out the diecast and see, “OK, that was Jeff Gordon’s car.” I piece together that he’s retired. And then — bam! — the first race I ever went to comes to mind, and that was the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 (which was Gordon’s first win).
Looking at the diecast, following (NASCAR reporters), things build up the more time you spend on it. Just like the exercises I have to do for my pathologist.
Wow, that’s so cool. Well I want to shift gears a bit here and talk about what perspective you’ve gained from this experience and having a second chance at life. One of the things I’ve noticed from following your tweets is you often tweet about the word “Real” and capitalize the R. Why is that?
“Real” is one of the most important words I have. Real people, real knowledge, real experiences. That’s what matters. Fake stuff is a waste of our time. People who are not honest are a waste of our time. Enjoying a sunset or a sunrise, that’s a real experience. I cling to what is real.
Back when this happened, I could not read a book or follow a movie because I couldn’t remember page to page what was going on. In a movie, I’d watch it begin and then 20 or 30 minutes later, I couldn’t follow the course of the story being told on the screen. But I’ve healed through that.
You mentioned it bothers you when people judge others, which is something you said you no longer do after the accident.
Back when this happened, your car — how new or old it is — didn’t matter. Your house — how big or small it is — didn’t matter. Your clothes — how stylish or not stylish they are — didn’t matter. Your job didn’t matter. I just worried if people were healthy and happy.
The judgment of where someone eats or sleeps or how they earn their living, none of that at all mattered to me. And to this day, I care about someone’s health and happiness — I do not look at the stature of a person by the material things they have or the amount of money they have. I only care if they’re healthy and happy.
Going to a restaurant, I’ll never ever again go to a restaurant again and worry about, “I’ve got to get that piece of prime rib” or “I’ve got to eat the chicken soft tacos here.” All I care about is who I am with and what kind of real experience or real conversation or real enjoyment we’re going to have.
You also mentioned before the accident, you were as guilty as the rest of us as speeding through life and not taking the chance to enjoy it. I see from your tweets now that you really take the time to savor life’s small moments, even watching rain hitting the driveway.
I used to go 100 miles an hour and get everything I could get done and pack the most into every single day. And now that I’ve had this time to be forced to slow down, stop, pay attention to what’s going on around you, the beauty of the world around us is just amazing to me.
I was sitting in a garage and watching raindrops fall on a concrete driveway that I’ve known most of my life and I had never noticed the reflection of the sunshine off the raindrops when they hit the ground. They looked like diamonds dancing. I would sit outside for several hours and listen to the birds chirp, feel the breeze, watch the sun come up. Just absorb every bit of the natural beauty this world provides us. Seeing a good sunset, looking at the stars, seeing the moon — those things put me in a condition of awe. I’m in awe over those things.
Stuff that when you’re busy day to day, you’re working, you’re going here, there, you’re raising a child, you’re doing the best you can — you don’t stop. You know the old saying “Stop and smell the roses.” I encourage everybody to just appreciate having air to breathe, food to eat, clothes to wear, a car to drive, a job to go to. Or if they’re retired or unable to work, make something of the time you have.
I walk around today knowing the afterlife, to me, heaven is very real, but we have to make the most of our time here. We’re all on a clock. We don’t know when that clock is going to stop and we do not control it. So it’s better to not waste your brain energy and be uptight, mean, mad all the time. It’s better to be kind — and above that honest, genuine, real.
If you don’t like something, you don’t like something. If somebody you care about wants to know why you don’t like something, feel free to tell them. Do what makes you happy. That’s not a get out of jail free card to do whatever you want, but be kind. If you like double cheeseburgers, eat double cheeseburgers. Don’t eat them to the point where you’re going to gain too much weight and have a heart attack, but enjoy it. Somebody likes the hot dogs at Martinsville? Gobble them up. Enjoy the hot dogs at Martinsville.
Walked Blue early this morning and heard the honk from a skein of geese behind us. They were parallel to Hwy I-85 flying due north. Warm weather is in our threshold. The small and the simple create the most astonishing of moments.
Speaking of Martinsville and going back to racing for a moment, you said you no longer have a favorite driver and never will again. Not because you don’t like the drivers, but you said your appreciation for what they do dwarfs any rooting interest. Do I have that correct?
I can appreciate what these people did in that industry that brought happiness to millions of fans. That’s what it all boils down to, right? Why do people enjoy playing golf or computer games or cooking? They do it for happiness. They do it for solitude. They do it to slow their mind down and enjoy some peace.
That’s a good reminder for those of us who work in NASCAR as to what it brings people. On another note, you said a big positive of Twitter was helping to rediscover your interest in racing. But it also bothers you after your experience.
I’m very saddened by the fact it seems social media has become a cesspool of opinions. And we all have those opinions. But just because someone’s opinion is different than yours doesn’t make them a bad person. It doesn’t mean the world is going to end. It just means they think a different way than you do about one particular topic.
You go to a restaurant. I might order the hot dog. You might order the cheeseburger. Guess what? We’re of a differing opinion about the menu. But we’re still going to enjoy ourselves and have a great conversation.
On a final note here, if you could give people advice on one thing they could do differently to appreciate life a little more in light of your experience, what would it be?
You don’t wake up every day and look at every single problem or issue a person may have. Just focus on the small things you can do. Work on the small things, and then once you do enough of those, you may see a big change in the large things. You’ve got to keep your focus on what’s important. But enjoy what you like to enjoy and be respectful of someone enjoying something that might be different from you.
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: Truck Series driver/owner Robby Lyons. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A lot of NASCAR fans are familiar with the Dale Jr. concussion story and his saga, but you have your own story. And one thing we’ve learned through the Dale Jr. experience is that every situation is different. So what was your experience and how did this all start for you?
Every experience is different and in the same way, every concussion is different. That’s one thing I wasn’t aware of — and I think that’s why so many of them go undiagnosed or people don’t even know what’s wrong with them, just because there are so many different symptoms. Someone can have one symptom and none of the others, but it’s still a concussion.
I started racing dirt bikes when I was five years old, and I raced motocross and Supercross for 18 years. The whole reason I got out of dirt bike racing was from the injuries. There’s a quote, I think it was Ricky Carmichael who said, “With age comes the cage.” So of course, me and my parents were like, “Maybe we should just go down that route.” I think the amount of money we spent on hospital bills those first 18 years probably could have funded somebody’s entire Cup career.
I didn’t really take the head injuries as serious until last year. I knew it was serious because that’s what some doctors told me before I quit racing motocross: “If you hit your head hard again, you’re going to be messed up for the rest of your life.” And of course I’m like, “Well every doctor’s supposed to say that, because they don’t want to see you messed up.”
But I’ll actually backtrack even further than that. In 2017, when I was racing Super Late Models, I had a wreck at one of my local short tracks at Florida. It was only a quarter mile, but this guy that I’d been holding up for awhile got impatient and decided to just clobber me going into a corner. We went back and watched my GoPro video and it’s like, “Holy cow, that was a hard hit.” It was during July, so it was really, really hot. The helmet blower quit, I didn’t have anything to drink in there, it was a 100-lap race and I thought at the end of it that I had heat stroke or heat exhaustion. My dad ended up having to pull me out of the car after the race, and he was like, “You weren’t even there.” (The general reaction) was like, “Wow, you need to work out more.”
Then I got my deal with Premium Motorsports with Jay Robinson and my roommate, Garrett Smithley, he kind of introduced me to them. I made my first Truck start at Phoenix at the end of 2017 and raced Homestead, and made a deal to run the first four races of 2018. When we got to Martinsville (last March), I think we got about halfway through that race and there was a wreck in front of me. Cody Coughlin got into the back of me, and I spun into the back of Cory Roper’s truck. He had stopped, and so I kind of slid broadside into his truck, and it ripped the whole right side of my truck open like a can. I remember Michael (Waltrip) up in the booth saying, “That looks like a truck that’s been to Martinsville.”
So toward the end of the race, I was feeling all right; more so disappointed. Then the motor went and brought out the final caution five laps from the end.
When I got out, they were like, “You feeling OK?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m a little dizzy, but I think it’s from the carbon monoxide.” But it was 26 degrees outside and I could see out my right side door, so I thought, “Eh, maybe it’s not.” So I didn’t go to the care center. I should have.
Obviously it’s a long time off between Martinsville and back then Texas was the next race. It was really weird — as time went on, I started feeling weirder and weirder and kind of overthinking stuff. It was like my anxiety was getting crazy.
I’ve kind of always had issues with anxiety and my mood changing. I’m an introvert, so it’s odd that this is the business I chose to be a part of. So I a lot of it I just chalked up to, “This is just typical me, just having to take some time to chill” — because it had been a frustrating start to the year.
But as it went on, I started having sleeping issues. Leading up to getting pulled out of the Truck at Texas last year, which was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I had gone 92 hours with only four hours of sleep.
Whoa, no way.
I knew it was a problem. Like I would try to sleep, and I would lay down and feel like I was having a heart attack. So I just had to get up. A lot of the nights, I just stared at the ceiling for who knows how many hours and just lost track of time.
The day I was supposed to leave for Texas, I went to walk out to go to my truck in the driveway and I just collapsed in the yard in front of our house. I picked up my phone, called my dad and I’m like, “I can’t race this weekend.” Actually, I think I said, “I can’t get to the airport.” And he’s like, “Well you’re definitely not going to be able to drive a race car around at 190 miles an hour then.” He was right. My passion is so strong, I might have tried it, so it’s probably good that divine forces knocked me down in the driveway.
My parents actually got a flight back to Kannapolis in North Carolina and they picked me up and drove me down to Florida and I took some time off. I went to the doctor and they said it was all kinds of things. “Oh it’s this, oh it’s that, try this medication, try this.” I started exercising more, resting a lot.
Because people were still thinking it was heat stroke or something or heat-related and you were still just recovering from that?
Yeah, basically, and a lot of them thought it was stress because I don’t have an agent or PR or anything like that or somebody to help me look for sponsorship. That was something that was tough on me at first; it’s a whole new world. Late Model racing is one thing, but when you’re doing it all yourself, it can get really overwhelming at times, especially if you’re not all there healthy like I was. So it was easy for me to get overwhelmed very quickly. My dad could tell you, we had plenty of arguments during that time, and later on I found out a lot of them I didn’t even remember having.
I started getting better, just on my own, and then I raced at Kentucky. That was late August, and that was my first race back — so I missed half the season. That whole time I was kind of getting my head straight, I wasn’t really looking for sponsors or anything like that, so I knew that I needed to focus on me more than anything.
Toward the end of the year, Premium had different ideas for where they wanted to go, they wanted to focus more on their Cup team. Me and my dad had a conversation about, whether it would be less stressful if we just had our own equipment and we could control how we performed and we could get out there and compete and not have to worry about contracts and all the inner workings that we don’t really know about yet.
So we called our good friends Jeff and Chad Finley. I drove Late Models for Chad back in 2015, and we had saw that they had run their truck at Gateway and finished sixth their first race and went to Bristol and made the last round of qualifying. We thought we’d definitely like to see what they’ve got going on, and of course they’ve got Bruce Cook, his track record speaks for itself with the owner’s championship with Kevin Harvick’s team, and he won races with Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, and he was leading this whole operation. So we’re like, “This seems like a really awesome deal. Let’s look into it.”
We had bought a couple trucks, one of them was Josh Reaume’s superspeedway truck. It was a good truck, and we got a couple from Brad Keselowski’s old truck team, and we finished out the year.
Then we ran Talladega. I was racing for the lead with six laps to go and ended up in a wreck again on the backstretch there on the last lap. Shocking, I know — that never happens. (Laughs) But then we ran at Homestead and I ended up cutting a tire down and hit the wall.
On the way down to Homestead, I had a buddy of mine, Brenden Koehler, riding with me. He’s looking to get involved in PR stuff and he’s actually living with me and Garrett now. I actually met him on iRacing. But on the way down to Homestead, we listened to Dale Jr.’s book (Racing to the Finish) on audiobook.
I remember we were about halfway through it and I had noticed every single time something was said that kind of reminded Brenden of things he had seen in me, he would turn and look at me. I’d be like, “Why are you looking at me, man?” But I knew exactly what was going on.
You’re hearing this and you knew. It was speaking to you.
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s just like that gut feeling and it’s just like, “Oh man.” I felt like I could have written that book. Minus the stuff in the beginning — obviously his story’s even crazier a lot of times, how he got to where he was and just the things he’s been through.
But you know, when it came down to our experience in racing and the head injury part, it all made sense. From the Late Model deal in 2017 to the truck stuff to what had happened earlier that year and the deal before Texas, I’m like, “This all makes sense.” Dale literally was having the same stuff happen to him.
So up to that point, nobody had said this might be concussion-related, all this stuff you’re going through? Until you listened to that, it didn’t click for you?
It didn’t. I can’t tell you how many nights I lost sleep thinking, “Am I just crazy?” Not when I’m driving cars really fast with walls around me — that’s pretty crazy — but like another kind of crazy. Since I heard Dale talk as passionately as he did about it, I feel the same way. February was the donate your brain month and I pledged my brain to science as well. I know that’s something that Dale Jr. did because CTE and post-concussion syndrome, all those things, you can’t diagnose it until after you’re gone. I know that having that ability to look at a brain that’s been through trauma is going to be key to developing the technology in the future to be able to help other people. Something I never want to see happen is somebody go through what I went through.
There were so many times when I was like, “Is it even worth going forward?” And not even in racing — but life. I was in a rough, rough place, and when you don’t know why, you just feel crazy. So in some sense, I would say his book saved my life. And it’s kind of helped me be able to cope with what happened. Because I went through that. I can’t imagine his sense of joy that his book has helped so many people.
My roommate Brenden, he looked over me in the car and said, “I think you need to go to Dr. Collins.” And in my mind I’m like, “There’s no way I can go see him. He’s kind of like a Hollywood figure” — that type of thing in my mind.
Yeah, you’re thinking that’s who the big rich celebrities go to.
Yeah, of course. And I’ve never felt like I’m anything other than a normal person. I walk into this garage sometimes and still feel out of place, like, “Oh my God, that’s Matt Crafton. I’ve watched him race before.” And even guys that will come up and talk to you, you like stare for a second, you’re like, “Wait, me?” You’re looking over your shoulder. “No, you.” So I felt even more like it, like he’s not going to accept me as a patient.
But we ended up calling Dr. Collins and talked to his secretary up there and she’s like, “We’re kind of a month behind making appointments, but yeah, come see us. We’re going to do these tests and then you can see Dr. Collins and see what he thinks.”
And he actually helped develop the ImPACT test, which after we’re in a wreck, we have to go to the care center and they make us do a segment of that test and everybody has to have a baseline test.
So I went up to Pittsburgh — it was late December — and first thing they had me do was take the ImPACT test. He told me my scores were dramatically off from where my baseline was. And obviously I didn’t go to the care center that day in Martinsville and there was no way for them to check.
So here’s me encouraging other drivers, if they’re reading, to go to the care center if you hit anything. Just go. Because you’re not in your right state of mind when that happens and you might feel nothing at the time.
But you feel like if you had gone, the test would have shown something that day at Martinsville?
I feel like it could have. We ran before the Cup race that day (due to the snowout), and I sat up in the stands at Martinsville and watched all 500 laps of the Cup race, which largely went caution-free besides the stage cautions. And there’s a part that Dale talks about in his book when he was in Martinsville standing on top of the haulers watching cars go around and he had to get out of there. It was driving him insane and he felt like he was getting sick or having a panic attack or something. And as that race went on, I got dizzier and dizzier and got a headache and actually I had my buddy drive my truck home. So that’s what I’m saying. It was like, “Man, this book, I felt like I could write it.”
I don’t know if the test would have changed anything then — it might have, it might not have — but the whole fact of the matter is, everything that I went through up in Pittsburgh was basically the same thing. For those who read the book…have you read it?
I have, actually.
It’s crazy how simple he makes concussions sound when in reality they’re kind of the most complicated thing that can happen to somebody, especially being an invisible problem, mostly. It all depends on the information that you give them. And I think a lot of the times I held off on giving information because I was worried about somebody thinking I was crazy. So I’m like, “You know what? That’s just me, and I’m just going to deal with that myself.” And it gets to a point where you can only deal it with yourself for so long.
So I ended up going up to Pittsburgh and went there four times. They gave me a list of exercises to do. A lot of them are really weird, like holding a string with a whole bunch of beads on it from your nose outwards and you have to focus your eyes on each bead and then back.
One was just tossing a tennis ball behind you to somebody. The first time I did that in the hallway up in Pittsburgh, I fell over after doing it three or four times. By the last appointment there, he was like, “How’s the tennis ball thing going?” I was like, “I did it 40 times without stopping.” He’s like, “All right, now we’re going to have you do it while walking backwards.” I was like, “Aw man, you can’t do that.” (Laughs)
But another interesting thing, my peripheral vision used to be terrible. I mean, from when I started racing Legend cars, one of my issues was being afraid of the wall. When I would come off the corner, I would always hold it like a car length or a half car length off the wall — and of course that’s pinching the corner, so that doesn’t make sense. So I actually learned how to drive based on sound. Because of the way the engine noise bounces off the wall, I can tell how far I am from the wall.
My friends used to mess with me because they knew I had bad peripheral vision, so they would like throw paper airplanes at my head. Obviously I couldn’t see it coming. But the other day, one of my roommates was waving at me and I turned and looked at them. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, your peripheral vision’s a lot better.”
Wow, no kidding?
It’s insane. I used to sit with my door open in my room out to the living room and they would all just make faces at me and stuff and I’d never see them. So heads up if anybody plans on tricking me now — I can see them.
But it’s just been crazy. Life’s been a lot better. Totally did a 180. I wish I hadn’t dealt with it for so long, but if I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to be here saying the things I’m saying and saying I beat it. I just hope anybody that is feeling that way, if you’ve hit your head even once and you’re going through these things, just go talk to somebody.
So somebody reading this may not realize the symptoms of a concussion, as you didn’t. They may think something is wrong with them or they’re going crazy, but it could be all related to this and you don’t know until you go see Dr. Collins. And you said it was affordable, it turned out?
It was. I went there expecting to spend my life savings, which isn’t really that much because I have race cars. (Laughs) But I went up there expecting that. And at the end of the day, you see a lot of doctors there. I saw three doctors regularly when I went up there, and it’s kind of like a day trip, so obviously you’ve got to pay for airfare if you’re not from around there. But you see three doctors and they take almost an entire day to see you. There’s a physical therapist that makes you do physical exercises — they call it exertion therapy — where you run on a treadmill or toss a medicine ball around and all while doing visual exercises. Then you see Dr. Collins and his assistant. It’s a lot of time that they take out of their day to help and, you know, it was just a couple hundred dollars. And that was without insurance that was recognized in Pennsylvania. But yeah, don’t let that deter you from going, because they’ll work with you for sure.
That’s really cool. So have you talked to Dale about this experience?
Dr. Collins told me, “Whatever you do, find Dale’s number from somebody.” At first he was like, “I’ll give you his number,” but then he was like, “I probably shouldn’t do that.” So I haven’t yet. I’ve been trying to run into him, but a lot of people plan on running into him. I know that when the time and place is right I’ll talk to him. But if he reads this, I can’t thank him enough. And I know there’s a lot of other people out there that would say the same thing. Dr. Collins told me ever since Junior’s book came out, he’s had other people and other drivers even that raced in NASCAR and IndyCar go to him and say, “I think this is going on with me,” and it turns out that it was. And obviously HIPPA laws say that he can’t say who. But I can’t imagine the sense of pride and joy he has that he has changed so many people’s lives through something that is really awful.
Mental illness I think is something in this country that just deserves so much more attention and coverage, especially in stuff that’s caused by traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Collins’ office is at the UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Pittsburgh Penguins actually train up there. Hockey is legit crazy. I have my Tampa Bay Lightning hat on right now. But funny story, the first day I walked in there, I had this same hat on, and I didn’t realize that we’re going to the Lemieux Training Center, and I’m like, “Oh crap. I should probably take my hat off.” (Laughs) But it ended up being a lot of fun, we mess with each other a lot.
You indicated that your peripheral vision is better now and you’re feeling a lot better. But overall, where would you put yourself in your recovery process now?
My last appointment up there was in February and we had made my goal to be able to race Daytona. And he told me, “You’re going you have to bust your you-know-what if you want to get to Daytona and race.” Daytona is my home track being from Florida, and it was tough. I had to commit a lot and my friends and family helped me a lot, but (the appointment) was the weekend before the Shootout and I was so nervous walking in there because I kind of felt like I hadn’t done my best. But I felt so much better and I knew things were getting better and I could toss a ball 40 times walking backwards, so why not? Sounds easy enough. And he said I could go race.
When I walked in there the first day, I was expecting to be told, “You can’t race anymore — ever again.” And not only that, but, “You’re never going to be normal again.” Those are the thoughts that go through your head all the time before I got better. Just constantly like, “This is never going to get better, it’s going to get worse.” So I kind of put off going to see people because I didn’t want to be told that. Ignorance is bliss, right? But I couldn’t be happier that I did.
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.