By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Tyler Ankrum. He drives the No. 17 May’s Hawaii / Modern Meat Co. Toyota Tundra for David Gilliland Racing – Crosley Group.
Ankrum won the 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Championship with DGR – Crosley. The San Bernardino, CA native won four races and earned nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in the 14-race season.
In the Truck Series Points Standings, Ankrum is 16thafter he waited to turn 18-years-old earlier this year. Currently, he is 207-points behind points leader Grant Enfinger, and 131-points behind the cutoff, held by Todd Gilliland. Ankrum is also competing for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
Seth Eggert:How did you become interested in motorsports?
Tyler Ankrum:“Well, my dad raced ¼ Midgets as a kid in his early teens. My Grandparents couldn’t afford to move him up when it came to Sprint Cars or Midgets. So, they went the golf route. Dad became a golfer.
“When I was about six years old, I was sitting on my grandmother’s lap, just flipping through old family photos and I saw a picture of a ¼ Midget. I pretty much just said that I want one. After asking for two years on my eighth Christmas, I got my very first ¼ Midget.
“My very first ¼ Midget race was on my ninth birthday. From there on out we bought more racecars, bought more motors, and we moved from ¼ Midgets to Midgets to Late Models. David Gilliland actually helped me get started in Late Models. I had become good friends with Todd (Gilliland) through the ¼ Midget ranks.”
SE: Did you and Todd had similar career paths?
TA: “Todd went the Late Model route because that’s what his dad knew, and I went the Midget route because that’s what my dad knew. With my dad knowing nothing about a stockcar, it was just natural for us.
“We had the Gilliland’s over for a New Year’s party and David asked me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I definitely didn’t want to become my dad, somebody who worked in a meat plant.
“I said the most logical answer at the time, because he was still a Cup driver at the time, ‘what do you mean David? I want to do what you do.’ David helped us get started off with Late Models driving for him. Got us a crew chief, a car, then we went our own separate ways on good terms.
“We had different ideas as to how I should have went and where David wanted to take the team. From there dad and I started our own Late Model team, went to Supers for about two years.”
SE: How did you get back to DGR after you and your father started your own team?
TA: “Then we were shopping for a K&N ride because we were only looking to do a part-time season. David heard we were looking for a K&N ride and he didn’t have anything yet. He called dad, and we were actually shopping with MDM at the time. We went down to DGR that afternoon and had seven races signed.
“Started off the season strong, I ended up getting the points lead, then we won. After that, we got to go full-time. We scrounged up all of the money we could, went full-time, four wins and a championship later, found myself in the same exact position, only looking to do a part-time deal in the truck. Then, boom, we’re full-time.
“It’s been a ride so far. I’m blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had.”
SE: How did you convince your parents to let you race? Was it difficult?
TA: “For my parents, it was just the financial side. Our family business is Modern Meat Company. It’s been around for 60, 70 years now. My dad was just an employee of Modern Meat at the time and we didn’t have the money to even go ¼ Midget racing.
“When my grandfather retired, and my dad bought the company We were able to do it.
“My mom was working at the time, dad was working at the time, and there wasn’t time in their schedules. I was still going to elementary school, playing sports, trying to find my own way. I actually wanted to become a bull rider before racing.
“People don’t understand that about me and my grandpa. He had a ranch and I spent every day on the ranch. We rode horses, roped steer. That was the Ankrum family thing every Saturday night. He had a few bucking bulls, and it was my dream to become a bull rider.
“That was my first love. I did end up riding one. Then mom heard and she wasn’t happy about it and wasn’t having a cowboy for a son. So, I ended up picking something else.”
SE:Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
TA: “My first race, it was ‘Senior Rookie.’ They were these tiny one-cylinder six or seven horsepower ¼ Midgets. They weighed 190 lbs. I was running third when a car spun out in front of me. I veered to the right and hit the wall. It bent the front panhard bar and front steering rod.
“But, the body panels on ¼ Midgets are all connected by dzus fasteners, so a screw driver here and there. Within two caution laps, I had my panhard bars and steering rods fixed. We went back out and ended up winning the race because all of the fast cars had wrecked out.
“We actually won so much my rookie year that everyone thought we were cheating. It’s funny, my final year of ¼ Midgets, I won all four championships. In USAC ¼ Midgets, the tour, the most you can run is four. Everyone thought we were cheating sons of guns.
“Our motors and chassis got torn down every week. When you get your motor torn down every week you have to come back with a brand-new motor. No one understood that if you keep tearing our motors down that we’d have to come back with brand-new motors.
“It was more of a hobby back then. We were just trying to find our way. Once we got into Late Models, Super Late Models, and K&N it starts becoming a profession. Back in the ¼ Midget days, after we raced, we all got our scooters and our footballs and raced again.”
SE:Who would you consider your mentor?
TA:“My number one mentor my entire life has been my dad. He wasn’t a racer growing up. He did it quite a bit on the ¼ Midget side, but he’s not like David Gilliland or Jeff Burton that Harrison (Burton) and Todd have. Their dads were Cup drivers so they have all of that knowledge and experience, knowing exactly what to do and what avenues to go down.
“They themselves went down those same avenues and know exactly what they did wrong. My dad and I have been figuring it out along the way, and of course we’ve made a lot of mistakes whether it was hiring people, going to the wrong racetracks, buying the wrong chassis, just not knowing the right people.
“We know the right people now, but it took us four or five years to figure it out. I’m nine years into my racing career. Having all of the experience my dad and I have now, he can pick up on anything.
“He grew up working on cars. It’s not like we were gun shy as to how the mechanics of cars work. It’s all generally close to the same. My dad can sit there and listen to my crew chief, (Kevin) ‘Bono’ Manion and I talk about the truck and he understands it.
“His drive to be the best drives me because he’s helped me get to the Truck Series, get funding, and funding for himself.”
SE:What inspires you to compete?
TA: “That’s a tough question. My inspiration for where I’ve wanted to compete is to leave a mark somewhere. I think that’s what drives us all at the end of the day. It never feels good to be the guy that no one talks about. I didn’t like it when we were running Late Models somewhere and I wasn’t one of the favorites or wasn’t viewed as fast.
“I always wanted to be the guy that everyone stopped to watch go around the track and go like, ‘dang, that guy is fast today.’ We did that in the K&N car, my last year of Super Late Model racing, and I want to do that in the truck.
“I want to leave my mark. I want to be the guy that 20 years from now whether I’m Cup racing or painting fences in Mooresville, that you look up on YouTube or Netflix that my name is on there. Even if it is a crash compilation, it’s still leaving your mark, even if it’s not a good thing to have.
“I just want to leave a good legacy of what I want to accomplish or want to be.”
SE: Do you have any superstitions or pre-race rituals around the racetrack?
TA: “I don’t. I used to believe in those sorts of things like listen to music or not even talk about racing at all. When I was racing Late Models, Midgets, I was terrible at qualifying. I always compared it to golf because the first shot off the tee box is always the hardest, you’ve got the most amount of people watching you.
“When I was qualifying, I was so nervous because everyone was watching one car go around the racetrack. I wouldn’t even think about the car. I’d think about football or even girls just to get my mind off of it because I was so nervous. I would do anything just to relax myself.
“With all of the success we had in K&N, the last year in Late Models, and the success we’ve had so far this year, I’ve gained so much confidence. That stuff doesn’t bother me anymore. I still get nervous, but it’s a different kind of nervous. Not a nervousness to perform, but it’s like butterflies, a rollercoaster drop.”
SE: Is there a specific track that you would want to win at?
TA: “I’d love to win at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas this year is one of the big money races. To get a cowboy hat, one of the Texas rifles would be awesome, so I’m shooting for Texas.
“I’d love to win here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, even though it isn’t one of the bonus races this year with a high purse. The Charlotte race, outside of Daytona and Homestead, is arguably the biggest race of the year because it’s in Charlotte.
“It surrounds the Coke 600 and All-Star weekends. There’s a lot of buzz in town right now, high fan attendance. It’s just one of those races where if you run good, it’ll leave a mark, boost your resume and career.”
SE: How frustrating was it to sit on the sidelines and watch others compete in your truck due to the age restrictions?
TA: “It was pretty frustrating because you just want to get out there and drive. You just don’t want to stop. Having off weekends for me is like, ‘what do I do?’ Even though the trucks on race on Fridays, you still theoretically have an off weekend because you have Saturday and Sunday off.
“You kind of have ‘race day hangovers,’ detox on Saturday, get everything back together on Sunday. For me, Sundays mean yardwork and schoolwork. My week pretty much starts Sunday, not Monday.
“For me it was just not having anything to do. I would get home on Friday and be like, ‘wow, I have time to do homework and not have anything to do Sunday.’ Or I have all of the time to do my yardwork and could go on the lake Saturday or Sunday.
“Things like that, it’s really frustrating to see somebody else in your truck.”
SE: Have you gotten advice from Todd Gilliland or Justin Haley who were in similar situations in years past?
TA: “I went to a Food City event with Justin and we were talking about it. He said you’re going to have this pressure to win and don’t worry about it. It’ll happen on its own, even if it doesn’t happen this year, could happen next year. It’s about getting experience, running well, earning respect.
“Todd said pretty much the same thing. He’s got that added pressure because he’s in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck. He started even later (in the season) than I did.”
SE: Do you think the age restriction puts you in a disadvantage?
TA: “Yes and no. All it is, is experience. The technology we have today, the communication, the manufacturers, teams, is so high that we drivers come to the racetrack ready to go. The only thing from there on out that hinders us is the experience to know how to race.
“I feel like I did well at Texas and Kansas racing. Kansas was a little rough because we didn’t have the right transmission in the truck. At Texas we had a top-five truck, but a competitor tried sucking me around, getting on my door. We didn’t finish quite as good as I thought. We’ve had some strong runs.”
SE: How much confidence did your NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Championship give you heading into your first ‘full’ Truck Series season?
TA:“It gave me a lot of confidence because for me, it gave someone something to talk about coming into the Truck Series. Coming to the Truck Series with nothing on your resume it’s even harder to make a mark, find sponsorship.
“For me, coming to the Truck Series with the K&N Championship and the wins that I have it was easier because it gave me some more recognition. It made my life a little easier because I don’t always have to explain who I am. I’m not Jimmie Johnson status, people are still figuring out who I am.
“Martinsville, Texas, no one knew who I was. People looked at me in a firesuit and were like, ‘who is this guy? He’s in a firesuit, he must be a driver.’ Kansas, Dover, people were like, ‘I know who you are.’
SE: With no full-time teammates, and your other teammates being rookies, who do you lean on for advice at the track?
TA: “Mainly David Gilliland, he’s at every truck race. He helps a lot. Having a team owner like him who always has solid information you can just hang onto and trust. Ultimately at the end of the day, for his trucks to run good, it means a lot.
“At the end of the day, what he’s doing at DGR is a business, more than a race team or anything else. Having him there is awesome. He’s always right, which kind of irritates me. Having that experience on the box is something that a lot of teams don’t have.
“KBM has that, but Kyle isn’t always there. David is always there. He’s been instrumental in my learning curve.”
SE: How do you feel about full-time Cup and Xfinity drivers like Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain competing in the Truck Series?
TA: “I think it’s good. I just wish there were more of them honestly. I wish it was the way it was back in the day when you had Biffle, one of the Hendrick guys, Bowyer, Keselowski, Busch, Leffler, even Mike and Steven Wallace, Vickers, etc.
“I liked it back in 2008, 2009 when you had 10-15 guys coming down to Nationwide (now-Xfinity), Trucks because you could get more out of it. I don’t think people liked seeing it when it was two or three guys coming down and putting on a clinic.
“I think having more Cup guys would be awesome. It’s good to have, to race hard around them. It gives you confidence when you can race around them and they know who you are.”
SE: Being from California, do you feel any added pressure to rise to the same level of other Califronia natives, such as Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick?
TA: “No because I don’t want to be Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick. I want to be Tyler Ankrum. Do I want to compete with those guys and want to beat them, yes. Do I want to be a seven-time champion, yes. But, those guys are from a different time, era, even though they are still involved in today’s racing.
“They’ve been in it long enough to see all of these changes. It’s just a different type of racing, not that it’s changed. The spirit, will to win, is the same, it hasn’t changed. Only thing that’s changed are the names of the drivers and the cars. I definitely want to be amongst them one day, but you are always going to be who you are. Try to be who you are and not someone else.”
SE: How difficult was it (has it been) for you to complete your high school education while also racing full-time?
TA: “It’s very difficult. There is no balance. It’s all school and no racing or all racing and no school, all school and all racing, or vice versa. It’s difficult because I have a very hard time paying attention in class. I’d much rather be at the race shop or racetrack.
“I had to maintain good grades because for one, my mom would ‘kill me,’ then I couldn’t race. I’ve gained a lot of friends along the way in high school, especially when I moved here to N.C. from Bakersfield, CA.”
SE: Are you planning on attending college while racing full-time? Where?
TA: “I think so, I don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think I just want to take a year off, see where racing goes. Put all of my focus towards racing and nothing else. We’ll see, I’m not sure yet.
“Honestly, if I do go to college, what I’d want to do is two years community, get all of my remediation classes out of the way. After two years when I’m done with community college, I can look at my racing either it’s going on up, or I’m getting ready to fly. Do I keep racing or do something else.”
SE: What does the future hold for you, where will you be one year from now?
TA: “A year from now, what I would like to happen, have a full-time sponsor, be a full-time driver. I’m not in any hurry to move up through the ranks. It’s very foolish to do that. You don’t gain enough experience doing that.
“Hopefully run for a championship and win one. A year after that, Xfinity. Almost follow a ‘college format.’ Four of five years, and then you’re in the Cup Series.”