By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Todd Gilliland. Gilliland is a 17-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, who drives both the No. 46 and No. 51 Pedigree Toyota Tundra.
Gilliland is also competing full-time in both the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series and West Series for Bill McAnally Racing. He currently sits 19 points behind Harrison Burton in the East Series standings and leads the standings in the West Series by 11 points over teammate Chris Eggleston.
Seth Eggert: What made you follow in the footsteps of your grandfather, Butch Gilliland, and father, David Gilliland?
Todd Gilliland: I think just being around it from a really young age that I just really developed a real love for it. I wanted to try it out for myself.
I think I went to my first race when I was two-weeks-old. I actually think it was Irwindale though.
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
TG: My first race that I competed in was at Pomona Speedway in a quarter midget. I was five years old, it had to be on my fifth birthday. I don’t remember the result, but I didn’t do very good though, I do know that.
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
TG: I think my Dad has been a real big mentor, but recently Kyle Busch has really taken me under his wing. Just being over there at Kyle Busch Motorsports is huge for me. With Kyle being a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, you know his information in correct. It just helps a lot to always get the information.
SE: What inspires you to compete?
TG: I think I like the competition the most. I’ve been growing up around all of these kids that I have been racing against since I was five. It’s just really cool to be competitive with them. Away from the racetrack we can hang out, but once we get there it’s all business and I think that’s really cool.
SE: You have won at several tracks in K&N Pro, is there a specific track that you would like to win at?
TG: For the K&N Pro Series this year, I would have to say Dover is going to be a really special one. I got to make my first Truck Series start there this year. That was my first time at the racetrack. Man, I just can’t wait to be back, it was so much fun. I’m looking forward to be competitive in that one.
SE: You won in your first career ARCA Racing Series start which came at Toledo. What does that win mean to you?
TG: Looking back at it now I didn’t realize how big of a win it was for me. Just being 15, I believe it was on my 15th birthday. Now we have some 15-year-olds coming over here to DGR to race Super Late Models, it’s crazy to think that I won an ARCA race on my 15th birthday.
SE: What was it like, driving for your father’s team, David Gilliland Racing?
TG: It was really cool. I mean, I feel like David Gilliland Racing is one of the best race teams, if not the best race team, in all of the race series that it competes in. I’m just really proud to have been here from the start obviously. Now to see it growing, having different drivers racing for it.
We’re still combined with Bill McAnally Racing. It’s just a really neat deal to be a part of.
SE: Is it intimidating to have the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch as your team owner?
TG: I think it was at first. But now, just knowing that he is really there just to help us out. I think that is more comfortable now than nerve-wracking for sure.
SE: How much do you lean on Kyle (Busch) and your teammates, Christopher Bell and Noah Gragson for advice?
TG: I lean on them quite a bit. Christopher Bell, he has been very, very competitive this year and recently Noah Gragson has earned two poles. Everyone over there knows what they’re doing. They’re always open to helping you out.
It is just really big for me to learn as quick as I can.
SE: You won the NASCAR K&N Pro West Series Championship last year. What does having a championship mean to you?
TG: It’s super cool. I think last year I was the youngest NASCAR Touring Series champion ever, so that was really special for me. You have to kind of put that behind you though.
We already knew what we were doing this year. You have just got to keep focusing and always look ahead. Enjoy what happens at the time while never losing focus on the ultimate goal.
SE: This year you are competing in both the East and the West Series. What would it mean to you if you were able to win both championships in the same year?
TG: That would be crazy. You see all of these people with success in the K&N Series, but that would be really, really cool to win both of them in one year. I know people have won both in the past, but in different seasons. I think it would really show how dominant and how great all of this equipment and all of our people are.
SE: How difficult is it to compete in both Series at the same time?
TG: It is pretty difficult. There is a lot of back and forth traveling. I think we have five cars that we race throughout the year. There is a lot of strain on everyone, on the crew. Logistically, it is a lot of miles back and forth. Everyone handles it really well.
We basically have two different shop teams on the West Coast and on the East Coast, and then all of the same people that go to the racetrack with us. One we get to the racetrack, it is the same group of people and the same deal East or West, but getting the cars to whatever coast is definitely the difficult part.
SE: You were voted the 2016 Racing Reference Rising Star of the Year last year. What does it mean to you to win an award like that?
TG: That was really cool. I wasn’t too familiar what was going on with it. Then I saw and read a few things about it towards the end of it. I was definitely trying to get as many votes as I could. Any award that you can win like that, that means a lot. It might not mean a lot to a Cup guy, but that’s why it wasn’t for Cup guys. I think that people my age really pay attention to social media and different things like that.
SE: How do you balance schoolwork and racing?
TG: I was lucky enough to be homeschooled last year. That was my first year starting it. It is tough to do the responsibilities of getting your schoolwork done before I can go out in the shop. Everyone kept me to it, the race team kept me to it, and it worked out well.
SE: It may be a year or two away, but have you looked at colleges and how you would balance college with racing?
TG: No. I’ve really have not looked at colleges too much. We’ll see how it goes and how racing goes by that time, and make the call then.
SE: What does the future hold for you, where will you be one year from now?
TG: I’m not too sure. I think that’s a good part about being 17-years-old. You can really take your time moving up and really make sure you’re ready for that next step when you do it. I’m not too sure what the future holds right now, but we’re just going to keep going out here and trying to be competitive and win some races. From there, everything will take care of itself.