By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, we took some time at Charlotte Motor Speedway to sit down with Noah Gragson, an 18-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver that drives the No. 18 Switch Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Gragson is competing for both the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship and Rookie of the Year honors.
Seth Eggert: How did you become interested in motorsports?
Noah Gragson: Well, I’m 18-years-old now, and I started when I was 13-years-old. I’m from Las Vegas, and motorsports is not popular out there. I always liked mountain-biking, snowboarding, skateboarding, and all that kind of stuff. I never had the opportunity to race a real car.
My Dad took me to an indoor go-kart track called Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas. I did that when I was 11 or 12-years old. I went out for my first race in that little go-kart, but it wasn’t the real deal. I went there for about a year constantly. Then I finally got the opportunity to drive a real race car, a bandolero, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring, a 3/8-mile track. I ran that for a year and won the championship.
SE: What was the result of your first race?
NG: Well, it is kind of a funny story. I was on my Spring Break, it was either seventh or eighth grade. We went out to the track on a Wednesday to practice the car, and the season started on that Friday because it was a double-header weekend, Friday and Saturday. We were just going out there to have fun, didn’t commit to racing that Friday or Saturday.
We were just going to feel it out, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. We went out there, and I had the time of my life. I knew from that second on that was what I wanted to do. After that we committed to running Friday and Saturday, and I finished third in my first race. I kept thinking the night before that, ‘What was it going to take to win the race?’
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
NG: I like to look up to Travis Pastrana. He is really good with his fans. He has a really big fan following. He takes time to talk to everyone and I really like that, so I try to model myself off of him. Off the race track, he is just very genuine and a really nice guy.
SE: What or who inspires or motivates you?
NG: The thing that inspires me to race, and the reason why I race is, everyone says they race because they like winning. I like putting in all that hard work and eventually getting into victory lane. Once you do win, I like seeing all of that hard work paying off and the team being so pumped up. To know that I succeeded with what I set out to do and having been challenged is definitely the biggest thing.
SE: What is it like competing in a NASCAR and completing high school at the same time?
NG: I just finished high school. My first two years of high school I did at a regular high school in Las Vegas. I was gone all the time, missing school. Then I started to do school online because I started traveling a lot. I did that for the last two years and have had really good grades.
I was managing school and then going to race on the weekends getting back late Sunday night, and then having to get my tutor’s house Monday morning. But just graduated about a month ago. Now I’m not having to go to school and then go to work in the morning.
SE: Do you plan to attend college and compete at the same time?
NG: I’m thinking about it. Right now I’m trying to focus on these summer months in the Truck Series just because we’re super busy. I might take the first semester off and take some online courses or I might just go right into it in the fall. I’m not sure yet.
SE: Is there a specific track that you would want to win at?
NG: For me, I am a ‘trophy racer’ as I like to call it. I like to win at the tracks that give really cool trophies. Eldora has a cool one, but the odds of me winning at Eldora and not running a dirt race before are probably slim to none.
I like running on road courses, going up to Canada. They always have a good fan following there. That would be really cool to win up there, as would my hometown of Las Vegas.
Bristol would be one of the best ones because they have a lot of trophies. There are two or three trophies you get if you win there. There’s the sword, the Bristol trophy, and the sponsor trophy.
SE: You are from Las Vegas, do you feel pressure to be as successful as other Las Vegas natives, like Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and Brendan Gaughan?
NG: I don’t feel pressure by it. I just hope that one day, I get to be in the same category as them. Brendan Gaughan, he is a veteran of the Xfinity Series and the Truck Series. Kurt and Kyle, they are series champions in the premier series. Hopefully I can make it up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and be able to compete with them on that high stage. You hear those names growing up, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Brendan Gaughan, and hopefully one day, I can be there and have little kids look up to me.
SE: What about driving for Kyle Busch? Is it intimidating for you to be driving for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion?
NG: I don’t think of it as intimidating, but there is definitely a lot of pressure that comes with it. Just because the organization, Kyle Busch Motorsports, is so successful. William Byron ran the full season last year and won six or seven races, which is unheard of and very unique for a rookie.
Coming in after a guy like that, it makes it difficult, I definitely have a lot of eyes on me. There’s a lot of pressure for me to win. Luckily I’m supported by a good team and my family is very supportive of me. I know we haven’t had the best start of the year but right now I’m just trying to get as much experience as possible. Hopefully those wins will come.
SE: Your seat was held last season by William Byron who set several records as a rookie, how do you handle the precedent he set?
NG: It’s definitely hard. I started a hashtag on my social media called, “No Bad Days” (#NoBadDays), and I was at a fundraiser for Martin Truex Jr., and they had some cancer-surviving kids there.
So, every day at the race track is really a privilege to be here. I know people would kill just to make laps here or at any of these race tracks. If I run 25th, it is #NoBadDay in the grand scheme of things. Even if I have a bad weekend, I just keep on digging.
SE: Recently, you got the opportunity to sit in an NHRA Top Fuel car, what was that experience like?
NG: That was insane. Those things have so much horsepower. I was blown away. It was unreal. I don’t even have words to describe just the feeling of sitting in that racecar and having that monstrous motor with 11,000 horsepower behind you, just roaring. And it was idling too. I could feel through my body, chest, it was just rattling my bones.
SE: Would you want to compete in another form of racing, even if it is just for one event?
NG: I would like to run anything, but I don’t know how good I’d be. Driving a Formula 1 car would be cool, driving a Trophy Truck would be cool. My buddy and driving coach Brandon McReynolds said, when we were at the NHRA test, “If they told you to suit up and get in, do you think you could do it,” and I was like, hell no.
SE: People are pointing towards drivers like yourself, as the possible next face(s) of NASCAR, how do you feel about that?
NG: I think it’s cool. NASCAR just announced the next NASCAR Next program, and I have a lot of buddies in that. My teammates Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton, and Zane Smith are in there. Being in that program last year was very humbling and a great experience. Last year they chose 11 drivers, and I was lucky enough to be one of those 11.
SE: What are your expectations for the future? One year from now?
NG: I have no clue. Right now, I’m just trying to focus on this weekend (Charlotte). Hopefully I will be running with these guys again, but I just have to go out there and perform, and be the best I can. I am just focusing in on one race at a time, and if I can do that and stay on track, then maybe I will be running with these guys next year.