Interview by Marley Sherwood
Congrats on being crowned 2017 IndyCar Series champion at 26 years old. Let’s toast to never giving up and being the youngest champion in over a decade.
It’s just crazy. You know, it’s funny to look back because I never thought this would happen when I was 13. That’s when I started racing go-karts. I loved racing, but I also played baseball and basketball like a normal kid would in the Nashville suburbs. I never thought racing would turn into anything, so when I look back on that time and see now what has transpired… for me it’s kind of nutty.
What was it about the last season that made you so successful and ultimately get you that champion title?
I think for me, it was a slow progression on the professional side. You work really hard just to get hired as a professional race car driver. I don’t think people realize how in the sport of racing that is really difficult to do. In any sport, it is difficult to become a professional but there are added complexities because it is not like baseball, basketball or hockey where you can play in high school and can hope to get scholarships and keep improving and moving up levels. With racing, you don’t have that accessibility to it.
How do you even begin to go down that path of becoming a professional driver?
You have to go find your go-kart tracks and a good league to race in, a good championship to run in, you need money to do it, sponsors and more. There are also no guarantees, there is no guarantee you will get hired one day. You have to keep going up in these levels and it just gets more and more expensive.
At what point did you feel like you were on your way to success?
For me, the hard part was getting to the professional level. When I finally reached the professional level, it was a slow build to the top team. I wasn’t drafted into the best team in IndyCar. It was a small team, small group, not a ton of experience and we struggled. I really struggled in my first couple of years in IndyCar. I really think the difficulty of having to struggle and figure things out by myself, not having everything laid out in front of me is what lead to this season and becoming a champion. When I did get hired by Team Penske — which is considered like the Yankees in baseball — I felt like I was really ready to capitalize on it.
Since you had to go out on your own and find your tracks, set aside the time outside of school and your normal life to make that a priority, how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a race car driver?
My mom was not very supportive initially. She did not want me to race. There is a danger aspect to it and she was not a fan of that side of it. My dad was always a big race fan and probably the biggest IndyCar fan you will meet. He didn’t really let me try it until I was 13 and it took a lot of pleading. I was already playing baseball and basketball and, selfishly, I think he wanted me to pursue those, or become a lawyer or something! But when I was 13, I finally tried it out and we started to figure out the sport and the different levels. Like any industry, you start diving into how it all worked and what we needed to do become a professional one day. We just kept rolling with it and it somehow worked out.
There are many drivers like the Andrettis, Rahals and Luyendyks who were born into the lifestyle, grew up in the business and had dads who were racing. And then, there are the drivers who had no experience before achieving professional status and just a passion to drive. How do you see the different backgrounds playing out?
It is tough you know. The Andrettis and the Rahals… they have this expectation already put on them. I didn’t have that which is nice on the professional side when I was at the younger levels, but it also made it that much harder to get here. There are positives and negatives to it.
What is it like working for Roger Penske?
Driving for Roger is really the pinnacle. If you want to become a professional race car driver one day — whether NASCAR or IndyCar — driving for Roger and Team Penske is the goal. I always use the example of the Yankees. It is such an iconic brand and a team that has been so successful and so similar in a lot of ways. They are two different sports, but very similar in the way they developed and capitalized on their sport. With Team Penske, they have won 16 Indianapolis 500s— more than any other team owner has in the history of the sport. As a driver, you hope to get to this level, but you don’t really ever envision it happening. I just wanted to race. I didn’t care what team, but I never thought being a part of Team Penske was even possible. When you get to that level, you really notice why they have done what they have done.
What is Roger Penske’s leadership style like?
They really preach a great mentality that we are a part of a team, we are all working together. Nobody is bigger than the team. There are four of us driving on the IndyCar side and we all work together to try and get the best out of it for each other. It doesn’t matter which car wins; we just need to make sure one of us wins. When we attack it from that mentality, it lifts all of us up. I think that really is what makes us go forward. The way the team works together and how everyone gets along and coexists, that is really the secret to what drives Team Penske forward.
Is it nerve-wracking to be called into his office?
Not anymore, ha! Yes and no. I still get nervous whenever I have to speak with Roger, one on one. It is really strange, I have had times where Roger has called me when he is 40,000 feet in the air on a plane headed to England. Those are moments when I think, “Wow. What is happening?” The magnitude of Roger Penske and what he has going on from a corporate standpoint, the guy is incredible. He is an incredible person, he has more energy than anyone I have ever met, more enthusiasm, more fire and competitiveness than anyone you will meet. He has been around for 50 years in the sport, and to still maintain his stature for all these years… that is what is so impressive. So, yes, I still get nervous talking to Roger Penske, but now a year in I feel so much more confident and I feel more a part of the team. Especially this year after winning the IndyCar Championship, I feel more comfortable and more like I belong. When I first came in, I didn’t feel like I belonged on the team. I thought, “What am I doing here?” It is amazing what a little bit of success can do, just being a part of the team and helping them move forward. It feels amazing.
Team Penske drivers look like badasses. You can immediately tell who is a Penske driver. Penske drivers are always so polished and sharp. Is that a team requirement?
Ha! They call it “Penske Perfect.” Roger likes everything perfect. If you walk into the shop, there are 100,000 Italian tiles lining the shop floor, and they are all perfect. You look down each row and each tile is perfect. The attention to detail at Team Penske is something they are known for, and you can see it within the drivers as well. We are supposed to be buttoned up and polished. Roger likes us to represent his team well. We also represent a lot of brands. With Roger, a requirement is not just to drive the car well, but to also be knowledgeable on the business side. He teaches us well; he leads by example.
Do you have a favorite track?
Indianapolis is easy. I mean, everyone loves Indianapolis for many reasons. Race day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is unlike anything else. I always tell people, if you have to see one sporting event live, it’s the Indy 500. There is nothing like it: there are 350,000 plus people there, the ceremonies, the buildup to the race. It is really impressive. Outside of Indy, I love Road America in Wisconsin. The course itself is beautiful. It is a long-flowing track, so you get to really open up the legs of the IndyCar there. You can really feel the capabilities of the car with the fast speeds and curves there, so I love that one too.
Do you have a pre-race ritual?
I love to take a nap before races. Normally I have my best racing days when I am about to fall asleep when I get into the car. It is super strange, I used to worry about it.
So, no pump-up jams? You literally just chill out?
Yeah, I am definitely the opposite. I love to mellow out before the race, which is so weird. I used to seriously think it was hurting my performance, but now I think it actually helps.
I can see how you might want to be mellow before the adrenaline of going 200 mph hits.
When I am about to fall asleep at the wheel, I race my best.
What do you want 2018 to hold for you?
Racers are always funny. When it comes to our sport we are very greedy. It’s never enough. If you are going to race in 17 races, you want to win all 17 races. It is very cliché and in the movies they say, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” I think it is funny, but true. As drivers, we are incredibly selfish when it comes to winning. So yeah, I always go into the season wanting to win every single race. Hopefully one day that would come true.
Has anyone ever done that?
I don’t think it has happened in IndyCar.
You heard it here first.
Yes, documented on “A Drink With!”
Racing is not a sport where you are interacting with your fans while performing. Why do you think it is so important to interact with your fans off the track?
You know, that is really tough. I think IndyCar in general has been trying to make it as positive as possible for our fans. It is very different than the dynamic you would have at a basketball game. If you’re lucky enough to sit courtside at an NBA game you can really feel the energy of the players. I try to tell people if you are going to attend an IndyCar race, sometimes the best time is at a street course. It is like an NBA game if you can get right up to that fence. You will be able to feel the capabilities of that race car and see what the drivers are doing. The best thing we can do in any sport is show our personalities, quirks and be relatable. Being relatable to our fans is probably the No. 1 thing. I know when I look at other athletes, I always idolize excellence. At the same time, I always love someone relatable to me. It can be tough sometimes to put yourself out there.
Why is IndyCar so special in regard to the athletes’ relationships with fans?
IndyCar has done a phenomenal job with autograph sessions. We always have an hour session during race weekends. A lot of other series don’t have [that]. Fans get an opportunity to see every driver who is racing that weekend and get an autograph and talk to them. You will never get that at an NBA game or a hockey game. You can actually hang out in the paddock, which is where all teams are located at. You can see all of the teams’ trucks, how they work on the cars and all the drivers are hanging around, even the team owners. You can’t do that at any other sporting events. You can’t go watch the Yankees and hang out in the locker room before the first pitch. I think the openness this series has is a huge deal; fans have an unparalleled access to the sport.
Is it hard to race your friends, especially when they might pull a dirty move on the track?
It’s tough. I actually really struggle with it. I don’t know how the other guys do it. I think a lot of the other drivers get very close. I am friends with a lot of the drivers. We have a lot of great guys and gals on the circuit that you get to know. It really is a great group. It is easy to become friends with your competition. I am friends with everyone but some of the drivers take it the extra step and hang out a lot off the track. For me, it’s too much. I don’t want to alienate myself from those guys but it really is such a competitive environment. With such limited seats, it is a difficult dynamic. Some guys are better with it, they are friends off the track and tough competitors on the track, fair enough. If you can do that, no problem. For me, I have to keep it a bit separate.
You can definitely tell there are some bromances going on. I find myself wondering if someone will be mad at another driver for making a certain move to better himself, even though their best friends.
I see some guys race each other differently because of their friendships, which I have never been a fan of. I see it is a weakness I do not want to have. I race everyone the same. I will race people very hard. Even if we are friends, I will race you very hard. That is what I try to remove from that situation.
It’s a tradition to drink milk as the Indy 500 winner in Victory Lane. What kind of milk will you drink?
Whole milk, all the way!
My younger brother tells my parents all the time that if they would have kept our go-kart when we were younger, he would be an IndyCar driver today. What age do you think is a good age to start racing if you want to become a driver?
I started when I was 13, which is considered a bit late. I started playing baseball when I was 4 or 5, so that right there is a lot younger than when I started racing. Most people do start racing when they are 5 or 6. I thought 13 was perfect for me. I was old enough to know what was going on and start with go-karts and then I could progress to cars. I think anything before 12 or 13 is too early. You also run the risk of burning out when you start super young, you might be over it by 13. I was pretty happy with the route I went about it. I think if you are still 15-16, you’re still good. But I think 25 might be late. I will never say impossible, but definitely a little late.
If you could have drink with anyone, who would it be?
I am going to say Christopher Nolan. I am such a big fan of his movies. If you want to talk about a great director, it is Christopher Nolan. I would love to have a drink with him to ask all about his filming process. To be under him as a film student, that would be unreal. I am really big into content creation, and with film Christopher Nolan is my favorite director. He would be No. 1 without a doubt.
Photography by Lauren Duski at Barista Parlor.
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