By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver Matt Tifft. Tifft is a 21-year-old NASCAR Xfinity Series driver. He drives the No. 19 National Brain Tumor Society, Tunity, Surface Sunscreen, SiriusXM, Wastebits Toyota Camry. Tifft is campaigning for the 2017 Xfinity Series Championship as well as Rookie of the Year honors.
Seth Eggert: How did you become interested in motorsports?
Matt Tifft: My Dad, he was always around it. When I was about five-years-old, he owned a dirt late model in Michigan, his friend drove. So, I would go up there.
I went to my first NASCAR race in 2003, and then I was hooked on it. I got to do a ride along at Nashville Superspeedway. When I was 10-years-old, I just knew that this was something I wanted to do. When I was 11, I convinced my Mom to let me try out a go-kart, which was tough. But, I convinced her to do that.
When I was about 12, we started racing go-karts around Ohio and Pennsylvania.
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
MT: I remember that it was at Barberton Speedway in Ohio. I don’t really remember where I finished that one. We had duct-taped numbers, I remember that though.
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
MT: That is a good question because I don’t know if I have one. Obviously, I’ve been able to bounce stuff off of my teammates. I’ve worked a little bit this year with Carl Edwards, but now he’s stepped away from the track. But, I don’t know if I’ve ever had one main person that I’ve been mentored under consistently.
SE: What inspires you to compete?
MT: I’m thinking that as a racecar driver that we’re just born with that inside of us. It’s that we are always just trying to beat the next guy in front of us. You want to be the best, you want to do well. Obviously, there’s times in which you can’t be the best car out there but you’re always trying to get to that point. It’s so intense inside these cars and it’s so intense with what we do.
You always want to do well and you are always trying to push the envelope to be able to do what the car is capable of, and hopefully a little bit past that too.
SE: Is it intimidating to have former champions, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, as well as Daytona 500 Winner Denny Hamlin, as teammates?
MT: Well it’s not intimidating. I think it’s that those guys are just experienced and it’s a matter of being able to figure out the right questions to ask them because they know so much about these cars. When you get a little bit of experience at these tracks and be able to ask them things about these places, it’s easier for them to talk to you.
If you’re just completely fresh going into a place, they can give you an overview, but it’s hard to know what you got until you get on there with one of these cars. I’m still learning as I’m going. But, they’re still just people that have been very successful with what they’ve done in racing.
SE: Would you say the same about driving for owners such as Joe Gibbs and Ken Schrader?
MT: Ken Schrader and Joe Gibbs, those are two different personalities for sure. Yeah, those guys, they demand a lot of respect for what they’ve done in NASCAR. Coach (Gibbs) has been great for my career and for what I’ve been able to do over the past couple of years with JGR and now being able to do this full-time.
Schrader was instrumental at the beginning of it when I first started doing stockcar stuff. He recommended me over here. Those are two really great guys in our sport. I’m sure if you talk to them you know they’re two very different people, but they’ve both been great for my career.
SE: Is there a specific track that you want to win at the most in the Xfinity Series?
MT: Any of them. When you’re looking for your first win, you don’t care where it comes from. You just want to get your first win.
SE: Last year you were sidelined by a brain tumor. How has that changed your outlook in NASCAR and on life?
MT: I think it’s just that you realize how much you miss it when you’re out of the car. I realized how much I loved racing and wanted to be a part of this. When you’re taken out of it, sitting on the sidelines wishing you could be there, at times you feel fine. Like, alright, stick me back in the car, I’m okay, and you still haven’t gotten the clearance to go back, it sucks. From a racing standpoint, I missed it.
For a life standpoint, my step-grandma passed away from a brain tumor. I got to know a lot of people who were affected by it. You got to figure out that people had it a lot worse than I did. I got lucky. That’s why we’re doing so much more now with May being brain tumor awareness month and having the National Brain Tumor Society on the car at Charlotte.
SE: Was there a point in which you thought that you may not be able to return?
MT: Well, of course in the back of my head it was there. There wasn’t a ‘when,’ for a little while it was an ‘if.’ It turned into a ‘when’ eventually. It was definitely a tough time. I always kept in mind that I was going to get back in and that things were going to be okay. I just had to keep thinking that way.
SE: How were you able to stay positive throughout your ordeal and your recovery?
MT: Like I said, I got to know so many people who had terminal cases and who had situations where there’s pediatric patients going through the same thing. No kid deserves to go through that type of thing.
At first it sucked, but as I went on and got support and people started telling stories, I realized it was a big thing that people didn’t really know how to talk about. It’s not as well known compared to a lot of other diseases even though it is the number one pediatric cancer killing disease in America. It’s passed Leukemia, so it’s crazy how widespread it is, but how little coverage it gets.
I think giving a voice and outlet for awareness and the families affected by it is what makes me passionate to still be advocating for it today.
SE: What have you learned from the Cup drivers who have competed in the Xfinity Series this year?
MT: Well with Kyle (Busch), there’s always restarts. I think everybody could tell you that. But I think the biggest thing is that those guys are very good at knowing what they want in their cars and they know a specific feel that they want to get. They’re also very good about when their car isn’t very good and they know how to handle that, how to get their car better throughout the run, or just be able to maintain.
That’s something that I have been struggling with since we switched to the lower downforce this year, just being able to maintain speed, and to be able to continue that through a run. Last year it was a little bit easier to do that. This year, without a little bit of help on the mechanical side, it’s hard to keep that up.
The other thing is that those guys are not afraid to move around at all. I’ve really had to learn how to run the top at some of these places. I’m not the best at it yet. I don’t totally know how to make speed and be great at it yet. It takes some time but I’m getting better at it. I’m by far better than I was at it last year.
SE: What was the NASCAR Next program experience like for you?
MT: I think the NEXT program was good in the fact that so many drivers have come out of there. They gave me a lot of tools like to who to talk to in NASCAR, the marketing people, and everything in there and how they can help you. You can learn to use the inner workings of the NASCAR system, and how to deal with media, the press, and everything around the race weekend that you wouldn’t think about as a racecar driver.
SE: What does the future hold for you, where will you be one year from now?
MT: A year from now I’d like to be in the same series. I don’t need to be going up to Cup yet. I’ve still got a ways to go before I get there. Ideally, I’d like to be competing and winning races. This year is a big step in learning a lot and being able to run consistently. We’re getting to that point now, but next year, to be able to step up and be able to be running consistently in the top three, top five and be a race winning and championship contender would be huge. And that’s not to say that it can’t happen towards the end of this year. I’d just like to start off from that point next year.