Nice Guys Finish First - An interview with NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Published on Tue, 07/29/2014 - 8:09am

On paper, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is just the sort of guy you shouldn’t like. He’s way too young to be as successful as he is—26 years-old at the time of this interview. And he makes his living as a race car driver. Let that one soak in a minute: When Ricky gets asked the dreaded “So, what do you do?” question at parties, he wins—unless there happens to be a stray astronaut or test pilot in attendance. And even then…

To top it all off, Ricky’s in a relationship with Danica Patrick, one of the fastest—not to mention loveliest—women in the world. Still, all of this would still be acceptable if he had crooked teeth or a wonky eye or something. But he doesn’t, at least not according to my wife, who let me know in no uncertain terms—and with great enthusiasm, I might add—that Ricky has no deficiencies in the good looks department.

But after talking to Ricky for all of two seconds, you realize he’s the kind of guy that you want all of these things for—he’s the guy you’d want your sister to date. Soft-spoken and polite, Ricky talks about his family, working hard, and the importance of teammates, not of his many achievements.

The following is Ricky, the unabashed good guy who just happens to be really good at going fast, talking to us the day after the Quicken Loans 400 about racing, his 144-acre ranch near Charlotte, N.C., and the things still left to accomplish.    

You started racing go-karts when you were six—can you tell us how you got into racing?
Ricky: Yeah, I grew up going to the race track. My dad builds race car engines for a living—and he raced. I started going to the race track when I was about six-weeks old. My dad was racing, and my mom was going, so that’s how I got into it. I was … born into it.
Like a lot of racers, you just kinda go along with the lifestyle of your family, but it’s a lot of fun. I got my first dirt bike when I was four, and then started racing go-karts when I was six. It was just one of those things, I think… I don’t think there was any way out of getting into racing.
As every person in racing will tell you: Once you go in, you don’t normally come back out. You want to stay there and keep going to the race track—whether it’s working on the cars, driving them, or just being a fan. It’s all really fun.

Other than your father,  were there any other family members involved in racing?
I had an uncle who also raced sprint cars. He actually built sprint car chassis. So, my dad built engines, my uncle built chassis … my dad’s whole side of the family was into racing.

What’s your single most favorite thing about racing?
Probably just the competition. I know there’s competition in every sport, but the level of racing in the Sprint Cup Series is very competitive. There’s also a lot of teamwork. You’ve got to have a great team that provides great cars. Then, you’ve got to go out and drive.
I enjoy the team aspect of it: Working with a lot of people, different companies, sponsors, and partners that we have. There are just a lot of cool things about racing. When I was younger, I just liked getting out and driving anything with a motor and wheels on it. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed.

What’s your daily-driver?
My daily driver’s a Ford F-250 King Ranch.

For professional drivers, it seems like it’s a station wagon, SUV, or big truck…
Jack Roush and Ford gave me two Mustangs: One for winning Rookie of the Year in 2010, and one for winning the Championship in 2011. I keep those put-up in the garage—those are pretty special to me.

Tell us a little bit about growing up in Olive Branch, Mississippi: That’s a Memphis suburb, right? Were you a town kid or a country kid—was it urban or rural out that way?
Well, it was a little bit of both. I had friends that lived a little bit further south than me, and we could go down to their house and property and ride dirt bikes and have fun. At home, we were on two acres in a subdivision.
Early-on, before they built the house that I grew up in, my dad tried to talk my mom into buying some property further down in Mississippi instead of building the house right away. You know, maybe a shop with  living quarters in it. My mom didn’t go for that then, but now she wishes she would have. [Laughs]

She didn’t bite, huh?
She didn’t, but she knows my dad: If he said he’d build a house “later on,” it might not get done, ’cause racing takes priority.

Tell us a little bit about your property. Aren’t you near Charlotte, (N.C.)?
Yeah, I’m in Mooresville, North Carolina, not too far from Charlotte.
I rented from friends and then I lived with friends—I always looked for a piece of property. Growing up, dad and I were interested in having a piece of property where you could do your own thing: Ride dirt bikes, go shoot guns if you wanted, just be able to really enjoy yourself.
So I found a great piece of property not too far from town. One-hundred and forty-four acres, so I have a lot to keep-up, but I definitely enjoy it. I went into the shop this morning for our meeting and came back home and I’ve already spent two hours cutting grass. [Laughs] It’s just one of those things… You can come out here and get away from everything and just clean-up the property and do your own thing. I really enjoy it.

Any special features on the property that made you say ‘This is it’?
It’s surrounded by trees—I definitely like that about it. It had the nice house in the middle of the property. Probably 60 acres open, with no trees, so there’s a lot of room to build a dirt bike track. There’s a little pond—you could make that bigger. There’s a big arena on the property—it was set up for horses by the previous owners. I plan on putting a dirt go-kart track inside the arena. So there were several aspects about it that I liked.

Do you have any livestock or anything, or does your schedule not allow for that? Do you have horses?
Not right now—I don’t. I definitely would like to at some point, when I get more settled-in here. Now, I mainly focus on killing weeds and cutting grass—that’s about it. I’ve always wanted some Texas Longhorn cattle—if I could get some, that would be ideal.

What drew you to that location? Is your team in the Charlotte area?
That’s correct. I grew up and lived in Mississippi until 2006. I graduated high school and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana to race for Tony Stewart and his sprint car team in 2007. In 2008, I started driving at Roush Fenway Racing—Tony Stewart helped me get the ride.
I got over here in 2008. I think 90-percent of the shops are based around Charlotte. So, our shop’s in Concord, North Carolina—a twenty-minute drive for me. Hopefully, when my mom retires in a few years, I’ve got enough property that they can come up and build a house on it as well.  

Apart from taking care of your property, what do you do to keep busy during the off-season, or is there an off-season?
It is full-time. I do a lot of training—I go to CrossFit just about every day during the off-season. This past off-season I had just acquired this house, so I cut every single bush on this property—me and a couple of friends. We had a lot of clean-up to do ’cause it sat empty for awhile.
We’ll probably do some more trail work this coming off-season. In the winter, when things are kind of dead, it’s a little easier to make trails. I’ll also try to take a least one vacation and definitely go back home for a little bit—go see my mom and dad down in Mississippi. Things like that.
For me, I’m still always running down to the shop during the week for a couple of hours here and there, every other day or so, just checking-in on the guys. Seeing what they’re up to, see if they  need anything from me, talk about car setups—things like that. There’s always something to keep me busy—it’s twenty-four seven.    
Do you mind talking about Danica?
Yeah, no—that’s fine.

How difficult is it to race against your girlfriend? How do you guys deal with that?
For the most part, it’s been fairly easy. When we get in the cars, we treat each other like we treat any other driver out there. Obviously, with that being said, we’ve had a couple of run-ins, which are things that you’ll have with any other driver. You just kind of deal with it. Every driver … you’ll kind of talk it out and figure out who needed to do what differently. And then move on.

We go out and we race hard. Last year, I felt like I had a better year. This year, I feel like she’s having a better year. It’s good that one of us is having a good weekend when the other struggles—then at least we’re not both mad.

Is it kinda cool to be able to talk shop or do you leave that at the track and just hang out?
Normally, we’re just hanging out. We’ll talk a little bit about the race—obviously—’cause I’m not sitting there watching her race, and she’s not sitting there watching me. So, we talk about what happened throughout our race on the plane ride home or in the car ride to the airport.
But for the most part, we leave it at that. Being on two different teams, there’s really not much shop you can talk. You don’t want her team thinking that she’s giving me some information or my team thinking I give her information. So, we leave it at that.
We’ve got a new dog, Dallas … she takes up most of our time.

You’ve had a really illustrious career—your top rookie honors, the back-to-back championships—what’s your next goal?
Our next goal is to be successful in the Sprint Cup Series, making sure we’re doing everything that we can to make the change to run inside the top-ten each and every week. Obviously, we want to win races—we show up to win every week, it just doesn’t always happen that way.
I want to become a Sprint Cup champion, and that’s a really tough feat to do these days. But, like I said, it’s all about being with the right team and the right people and surrounding yourself with people who believe the same thing you do—and who believe in each other. So that’s something that I strive for and I really enjoy working towards. It just takes a lot of work.
If we can start winning races and be in contention to win a championship, that would be my next goal.

Is there any form of racing that you haven’t tried that you’d like to? Do you ever want to climb into a rally car or an F-1 car or anything? Does that enter into the picture?
It definitely does. Watching Kurt Busch this year, running in the Indy car, that looked like a lot of fun. Formula 1 cars—just the technology they have—they seem like they’d be really cool to experience.
Race car drivers—we want to race anything and everything we can. Rally cars would be a lot of fun, off-road trucks… I mean, if you haven’t driven it, most racers want to, it doesn’t matter what it is. [Laughs]
That’s just us being super competitive. And, like I said, enjoying the racing aspect of anything whether it be a bicycle down the road, or… It doesn’t matter—we love the competition.

Let’s fast-forward 30-years: Your pro racing career’s behind you—what are you doing? Are you racing vintage cars? Are you hauling the grandkids around in a hay wagon? Where do you see yourself?
I hope… Grandkids would be fun. I would say … hopefully, enjoying the property and working on it. Taking care of some animals and just enjoying what I’ve worked hard to accomplish. Sit back and kind of relive what we used to do and how we used to win—things like that.

Hopefully, there will be a lot of good things to talk about.

Ricky’s Playlist

“I’ve grown up listening to country. So, I was very sad that I did not get to see George Strait’s last concert at the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium. I was really upset that I couldn’t go.

“Garth Brooks is my all-time favorite. As far as current, I don’t know if you watch The Voice at all, but Jake Worthington, he was one of the top-three finalists—I think he finished second. He’s a really good singer, so I downloaded some of his music from the show.”