By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Gray Gaulding.
The 21-year-old drives the GGPure.com / The Country Network / Panini Trading Cards / JT Marine / Worldwide Safety Consulting / Two Men and a Truck / Walk-Ons.com / ABA of Illinois / Atlantic Contractors / East Stroudsburg University Chevrolet Camaro SS for Bobby Dotter’s SS-Green Light Racing.
Gaulding was the first driver on the outside, looking in for the Xfinity Series playoffs. The Colonial Heights, VA native turned heads several times throughout the season with top-10 finishes Dotter’s underfunded equipment.
Seth Eggert: How do you like to interact with the race fans?
Gray Gaulding: “For me, I’ve always tried to be myself. You know, when people meet me, and race fans get to see me. When they get to see the guy that I really am, not the guy at the racetrack. This business, when you’re in the limelight, you’re kind of put on a different pedestal.
“A lot of people kind of forget really who they are, not saying any names. It’s very common. For me it’s like just staying humble and interacting with fans, having fun with them, making them laugh. I think that’s just my important thing is I just try to stick by that.”
SE: How did you convince your parents to let you race? Was it difficult?
GG: “Well, I grew up in a race and family, like not professionally, but my dad and my grandfather, they raced everything you can think of. Jet skis, four wheelers, dirt bikes, I mean pretty much anything with wheels and a motor.
“When I was three years old, I got thrown on a dirt bike and it was like my first love. I fell in love with it and that’s all I thought about was racing and practicing. That was my passion. That’s what I love to do. When I told my parents that I wanted to try to be a professional when I was five, it’s kind of hard to take a five-year-old serious because our attention span is about five seconds long.”
“I was always so into racing when I wasn’t racing, I wanted to watch racing, I wanted to learn about it, read about it. I think that’s what drove me to get to where I am today.
“My parents sacrifice everything. They sacrifice a lot and for me to be able to be here now and enjoy it with them and with my friends and, and people that have gotten me here, it feels really good.”
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
GG: “Actually, the funny thing is my first race was right out (at the fifth-mile) here in a stock car when I was eight-years-old. I’ve been racing motorcycles and that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted it to be a Moto GP World Champion. That was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to be just like Nicky Hayden, which he was my idol growing up.
“My parents said, ‘you know, why don’t we try stock cars? Why don’t you try and go-karts and bandoleros out one time?’ So, I’m like, ‘all right, I’ll give it a shot.’
“Well, I showed up here for the first time, not knowing anybody. Not knowing the set up. We kind of threw it in the back of my dad’s truck. We bought it from some guy, two cars from some guy in Pennsylvania. And we showed up and I won my first race out of 40 cars.
“Back then when I was racing, not saying it’s not competitive now, but when I was racing it and you know, 2009, ’10, ’11, there was kids that were coming from all over the country to race bandoleros and legends. That track right out there, I just walked by and saw legend cars and bandoleros out there and it’s like I just get flashbacks of where it all began for me. “
SE: Would you say that Nicky Hayden is your mentor?
GG:“I put him more. He’s my hero. He was my hero. My mentors, honestly, my team owner has been a great mentor to me.
“Bobby Dotter, he’s a past driver. He’s been an owner for 20 plus years and I’ve really always looked to him even when I didn’t drive for him for advice. You know, ‘what should be my next move? How do I keep this going?’
“Even when things were bad, I always had a great relationship with Bobby as far as, I didn’t have a sponsor, I didn’t have any ride, and he always was there for me to say, ‘Hey, you know, this is what you should do and here’s my advice.’ I would definitely put Bobby Dotter on the top of my list is as far as my go-to, my one call away mentor.”
SE: What inspires you to compete?
GG:“Competition is one. That’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, if we’re competing, I want to beat you. It just doesn’t matter if we’re running a foot race or we’re racing cars at 200 miles an hour. I have a will to win. I have a passion for the feeling of winning. When you win, you get this feeling that is like nothing in the world. The competition, man, it’s just, is what drives me every single weekend.”
SE: Do you have any superstitions around the racetrack?
GG: “I really don’t. I mean, you hear stories about like green and $50 bills and peanuts and all that. I’m not a really big into that.
“I will say if things go right for me for weeks at a time, I’ll put everything on the right, my right-hand glove first, my right shoe on, my right pants. I just always done that. And I feel like if I keep up the same routine, things will still go smoothly.”
SE: Is there a specific track that you would want to win at?
GG:“I would probably say Bristol. Everybody wants to win at Bristol. I mean, obviously Daytona and the Brickyard, but ever since I was a kid, Bristol was my favorite racetrack to watch on TV. I always told myself I want to win there one day. Hopefully I get the chance.
“We had a great finish this year, finishing sixth in Xfinity race. It just fits my driving style. I think for me, the glory of winning at Bristol, under the lights, that right there is what any NASCAR driver wants to feel right there.”
SE: You’ve driven for some of the biggest teams in the sport, Kyle Busch Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, and some of the smallest teams. Was it a humbling experience to go from one end of the spectrum to the other?
GG: “It’s definitely humbling. It’s unfortunate because the experience that I’ve gained in the last two years. I went to Cup as soon as I turned 18 and it probably wasn’t the smartest move, but I can’t say it was a bad move because I had no other option.
“I had to go do that, in order to stay around and to prove to people that I did deserve to be here. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind cutting my teeth and claw my way. I’ve had to do that my whole life.
“When you race for Roush Fenway and you race for Kyle Busch, I only had a couple of tries. I ran well. A couple things didn’t really go our way, but I feel like if I could ever get in a full season or a 10, 15, 20-race opportunity, I could go win for those type teams.
“But, when those deals fell through because of funding and money, it really humbled me to say, ‘if this is what I want to do, I’m going to have to go run my way and run for small teams and basically pay my dues.’ And that’s what I did.
“I’m having the best year of my career. I’ve never ran a full-time year in the top three NASCAR series. This year I’ve had a chance with a small team, we missed playoffs by one spot, finished second. We’ve had some serious, serious, runs this year to prove that not only myself, but then the guys I’m surrounded around wanting just as bad as I do.”
SE: The runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season is the best finish for any of Bobby Dotter’s Xfinity teams. Does an accomplishment like that feel like a victory?
GG: “Oh, definitely. I’m really happy with second, but I really wanted to win. I was so close to winning and in this sport it’s just so hard to win. To finish second though, at the end of the day, to look back on where my career has gone, I didn’t even know I was going to be driving this season.
“Last winter, I didn’t even know where my career was going. And Bobby Dotter and his team just took me in and then they worked their tails off to give me good racecars every week. In those moments is what all the hard work and all the heartache and the ups and downs, it all pays off.
“When I saw Bobby after the race, he was in tears. He’s not really a guy that kind of shows his emotions. When you see how happy he is and how happy every single person that was around me, that’s what means more to me than the second-place finish. I hope we got a lot more of those to come.”
SE: Did you ever find it intimidating to have Kyle Busch or Jack Roush as a team owner?
GG: “No, definitely not. Kyle and I still have a great relationship. We’d BS and talk pretty much every week. When I see him if he’s running an Xfinity race, I always catch up.
“He’s just a good guy and a lot of people don’t get to see him behind the scenes, but he’s just a racer. That’s why I respect him so much because he’s a racer and then obviously Jack Roush, what he’s been able to do in this sport for 32 years is pretty remarkable. So, to kind of have that on my resume is pretty cool.
“But I always wanted to race for a team that is willing to put their neck out on the line for me. Not saying those teams wouldn’t, but with the little funding I had this year, Bobby Dotter was able to make it all work. I don’t know how he made it work but he made it work.
“When you work with the bigger teams, they’re not really willing because they have 10, 15 drivers willing to write the check and why gamble on one guy when you know you have a certain amount of money coming in or another driver. I get it. It’s a business. To be able to say I drove for those types of people and have the relationship does go a long way for me.”
SE: You made the jump up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with limited experience. If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, would you still take that opportunity?
GG: “Absolutely. Racing Cup for the last two years, I feel, that’s what’s molded me into the driver I am. When you’re racing against the best drivers in the world, every Sunday, whether you’re getting lapped six, 10 times, you’re still on the track with them, and you’re still learning from them.
“I ran for a smaller organization that was kind of going down at that point and time. I wouldn’t change it for nothing because I built a lot of great relationships. My crew chief and his guys, I’ve worked with these guys before and I just wouldn’t change it.
“I feel like it’s really made me the guy I am today. Going through the week to week feeling and also the uncertainty. It makes me appreciate what I have today.”
SE: While the BK Racing debacle was ongoing, you were driving for the team, how were you able to keep your focus with everything that was happening behind the scenes?
GG: “It was tough. It’s tough as a driver and as a person, but it is a business. Things like this happen, it’s pretty similar to other sports, NBA, NFL, teams trading players or getting rid of coaches. It’s a performance-based business, but it also has a lot to do with money.
“I kind of saw the writing on the wall, but the thing is I didn’t have anything else. I had to stick around and just prove myself and drive as hard as I could to get a job. And luckily it worked out Jay Robinson after BK Racing shutdown called me up and he was willing to pay me to drive.
“I was willing to drive for free because I didn’t want to be sitting on the couch. Those opportunities opened up other doors that have gotten me to this point. Everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t change a thing by running for those guys.”
SE: You recently surpassed 100 NASCAR National Series starts, does it feel like you’ve been around for that long?
GG: “No, it doesn’t. It’s kind of crazy how fast it’s gone being a driver in NASCAR and have a hundred starts across the three series, it’s a pretty cool thing because I grew up racing. I always knew if I got there, I can make it, because I had the confidence in my ability.
“One in a million really make it coming from a family. We didn’t have family money, we didn’t have all that kind of stuff. I really had to do it a different way. To look back on my journey so far, it’s been an honor. It’s been amazing to just to have the relationships I have in this sport.
“This sport has brought me so much joy and I don’t want to do anything else. I want to stay here for a long time.”
SE: You were once billed as ‘the next Jeff Gordon,’ or ‘the next Joey Logano.’ Did those kinds of predictions put any added pressure on you?
GG:“Yeah, a little bit. It did. It really did. But I like the pressure. I like when, you know, is there three seconds on the clock and you got to shoot the shot. I want to be the guy shooting the shot. That’s just how I’ve always been.
“I want to take the game or the race upon my own hands to go out and get it done. And if I don’t get it done, I can’t say I didn’t give my hardest, give my best. It adds a lot of pressure. Especially, you know, when I came in this sport at 14, 15, 16-years-old and having those rumors and those things going around, it changes you a lot.
“You kind of overthink things and you don’t really kind of focus on really what’s going on and what’s important. I might’ve got lost in that a little bit, but I still enjoyed it though. I enjoy the press. I enjoy the limelight and the talk, that’s right up my alley. I don’t mind it too much.”
SE: Do you plan on returning to Bobby Dotter’s team next year?
GG: Definitely. That’s plan. With the program we have work in and what we’ve been able to do just this season, we’ve got a lot of partners out there that we’re trying to work out for next season.
“Everything has to make sense. We’re always looking for other partners. You can never have too many people or too many sponsors because this business is just really, really hard.
“With the relationships that I built up I’m going to them and this off season to say, ‘I’d love to have ECR engines. If you guys can gamble and write the check and give this team a real shot.’ And I say we don’t have a real shot now, but it’s a whole lot harder.
“We’re fighting the uphill battle every week because we don’t have all the motor, the tires, and things like that. But we still make the best of it. I think if we had the right equipment and all the tires and maybe bought some new cars, I think we can be a serious playoff threat next season.”