Success stories are inevitably colored by that success. No matter how long or hard, every journey is viewed through the lens of eventual achievement: Long hours always pay off, sacrifices are always rewarded, and agonizingly difficult decisions are always wise.
Yet their success seems inevitable in hindsight. Mark Zuckerberg didn't know he would someday become the Mark Zuckerberg. Early on Kevin Plank didn't know he would someday become the Kevin Plank.
Reaching that level is an amazing accomplishment, but in his mind Ross is much closer to the start than the finish of his journey -- which makes that journey something we can all relate to (except for maybe the part about holding his leg down so he wouldn't lift in the corner the first time he ran at Texas Motor Speedway.)
What first got you interested in racing?
My dad had raced before I was born. He had fun going short track racing at local tracks. So one day we heard Mark Martin's son Matt was going to race at a nearby track. We went to watch and my dad said, "What do you think about all of this?"
I thought it was fast, and loud, and really, really cool. I wanted to be like Matt Martin.
So late in 2005 we went to a race with a truck my dad borrowed from a friend. It had been sitting at the guy's house, so my first time on the track there were pine needles blowing around inside the car.
After that offseason we bought a full, working race truck. It was relatively new and a good first truck to go racing with.
We ran it in a kid class called the Fast Kid Series. We won that series, and the next year we ran the same truck in the adult class.
So it was all about stepping up in class whenever you could?
Definitely. That's why we got into Late Model racing. You can buy something called a crate Late Model straight from a dealership. You don't have to build the motors, so it's a lot cheaper. A crate motor cost about $5,000 while a "built" motor can cost around $25,000.
We won the championship at level and kept trying to move up. I didn't want to get stuck in a series. We could have stayed in one and hopefully kept wining, but what's the point?
Even so, even when we were running Late Models we never imagined we would get farther than racing in Florida.
We all start with certain expectations that create mental boundaries, and it can be tough things to realize greater success is possible. What made you think you could keep moving up?
In 2010 we bought a Limited Late Model with a built motor. Then we won the World Series of Asphalt at New Smyrna in 2011.
That was huge. Going there I figured we could maybe, just maybe, win one race if one night we hit everything just right.
But then we won the opening night, and we won two more nights, we beat guys that had better equipment and had won at that track a lot... and it made me realize we could try to get a start in NASCAR.
My dad felt like I was good enough to go make a start in a NASCAR event, if just to do it one time and be able to say we did it.
Then we found out how much that would cost.
Racing, regardless of the level, starts with sponsors.
My dad has a successful farm, and up to that point we could go run one race or two races a month in trucks and Late Models and it was affordable. The amount we needed for NASCAR was eye-opening.
The first thing we did was go to the National Watermelon Promotion Board to help us pay for it. We grew watermelons and they had helped with our Late Model program, but that pretty small budget stuff. Melon 1, a distributor/broker, also helped in a huge way.
But still, we had to get a bunch of people together to try to make it happen. One night we put a blank truck on a computer screen and started filling it in with who we thought we could get to sponsor us. We were putting in names we thought would contribute $5,000 here, $2,500 there, maybe even $10,000... and we realized we didn't have enough room on the truck for all the names we needed.
So we figured we might be able to run one race, but after that we would be out of people and money.
It's like being in insurance sales. Once you run out of friends and family...
That struggle never really ends. We're running 33 races a year at nearly the highest level of the sport and our VP of Marketing is still always on the phone looking for sponsors.
We've come a long way in some respects, but racing still takes so much money. For my team to be competitive costs about $50,000 a race. While that might sound like a lot, it's economical compared to some of the teams we race against. And if you can't come up with that much, you do the best you can.
That's a real challenge because money makes cars go faster. The Roush organization, the Gibbs organization, Dale Jr.'s group... their budgets are more like $150,000 to $175,000 per race.
Unless I'm wrong, running that first race made you realize you could think even bigger.
Eventually we put together enough money to run five races.
I started out practice at the first race in 30th. I was slow. Guys were telling me to stay out of their way.
At the next practice we were running around 20th. Then we qualified in 15th. And we finished 10th, in our very first race. We kept getting better throughout the weekend, and that opened our eyes to the fact we could do it.
That partial season set us up for 2012, our first full season in a sponsored truck. We had met Stacy Compton at New Smyrna and he had two fully-funded trucks that year. A deal fell through and one of his drivers wasn't going to drive for him. Stacy said, "I have a team, the trucks are ready, we just need to go to the racetrack."
Then you took a big step up.
In 2013 we ran a partial season of 14 races with Brad Keselowski's truck team. My spotter in 2012 was T.J. Majors; he spots for Dale Jr. and Brad's truck team. He liked me, Brad was expanding his truck team from one truck to two, we were running in the top 10... so he got us together.
That whole experience was scary, though. We were meeting T.J. and Brad for dinner and my dad and I left two hours early even though it was only a 10-minute drive. So we're sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Mooresville, and I'm too nervous to eat... and finally T.J. tells Brad I should fill in for him when he can't run certain races... and Brad says okay, let's see what you can do.
Then I was finally able to eat.
Driving for Brad's team was in some ways an easy decision to make but in others a really hard on. I had a ride with another team, but moving to Brad Keselowski Racing (BKR) was a chance to step up and hopefully make a name for myself.
But opportunities always come with huge challenges.
Driving for BKR was different from anything I had ever seen. They had new trucks, Roush Yates motors... everything was pristine and clean and prepared. They had the resources, the time, and the money.
I definitely had a lot to learn. It took me half the year to figure out how to drive a truck that was that fast. I started out driving the way I used to, but you have to drive these differently. The suspension setups mean you have to get them to slam down to the ground to make them to go fast. You have to run a fast truck really hard to get it to work well; if you run too slow it's actually more likely you'll wreck.
I qualified first at Iowa, then again at Phoenix at the end of the year, we finished second in two races, finished in the top 5 several times... I definitely learned a lot.
I also lost some weight, and it wasn't from working out.
I think people assume professional athletes are incredibly wealthy, but racing has a bootstrapping element to it.
When I started driving for Brad I was actually living in an apartment at my old team's race shop. When I decided to leave that team I moved out and stayed in a hotel. Ron Hornaday found out I was staying at a hotel and offered me a room at his house; I showed up that night and stayed there for about four months.
I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with him and never had to pay for a thing. The only "rent" I had to pay was at Monday night poker. His number was 33 so $33 was the buy-in, and if you ran out of chips you could buy back in for $10.
I'm not very good at poker so I planned on spending $53 every night.
You left BKR at the end of that year?
By the end of that year we had started to run well. I had torn up some stuff early on but was doing well in the last six or seven races. I had chances to win. At the time I didn't think there was anything I could have done differently... looking back I possibly could have, but at the time I felt I did everything I could.
I didn't know I wasn't going to be back in the truck the next year until the second to last race of the year. By then most people are already set for the next year and that left me scrounging around in 2014 to race wherever I could. I filled in for drivers, ran a few races for a team, if a driver left a team the owner would use me to show they could run well so they could attract sponsors... and that led me to JD Motorsports, where I am now.
That year was really hard, but I definitely learned a lot about the business side of the sport. I also feel like I handle things better off the track now, too.
The learning curve at the highest levels of any pursuit can seem really steep. Was there a time when you felt like you were way over your head?
In some ways jumping up to the higher levels of the sport is like going from high school baseball to playing in the majors. This level of racing is like no other kind of racing anyone does growing up. The speed is so different.
The first time I went to Texas Motor Speedway was my fourth race in the Truck Series. Texas is a really fast 1.5 mile track. I had been to Kentucky, but that's a slower track because the banking isn't as steep and you have to lift in the corners.
I had heard that people run wide open at Texas. So the first time out on the track I was all set to run wide open... and I lifted. I just couldn't help it. I came in, told the team the truck was a little tight (meaning the front end doesn't want to turn at speed), they made some adjustments, and I went back out.
I thought, "Okay, now I need to run wide open." But when I got on the back stretch my right leg started shaking... so I took my hand and pushed my leg down to keep the gas pedal floored. I basically ran that lap with one hand on my leg.
That experience was just so different from anything I had known. Growing up in Late Models and trucks, the tracks were shorter so going into a turn you would lift off the gas and hit the brakes as hard as you could. At Texas, with that degree of banking, I had to find a way to convince myself the car would stick going wide open.
Racing is a sport but you compete with the same drivers week in, week out. How do you balance the need to do as well as possible with the need to at least in part get along with other people?
I don't think I'm a very popular guy in the garage. And I'm fine with that.
I race aggressively when my car allows me to. And even when we're not as fast as we'd like, there are ways to make up some spots.
One thing I do is focus on restarts. If I can pass three cars on a restart and hold them off for 30 laps, that's a plus. They may be better than me from lap 10 to 30, but if I can stay ahead of a few of them.... so I'm really aggressive on restarts.
Of course that doesn't work as well if we set up our car up for longer runs; at Michigan this year I ran my fastest lap coming to the white flag but on restarts I struggled because the tire pressures were set up for longer runs. I got next to a couple guys but I wasn't able to clear them.
Ultimately, I'm out there to race. I've had guys tell me I ran them too hard, I should have stayed behind them... my thing is why did I come all the way to, say, California to run behind you? I may have to be aggressive to get by you, but I'm confident I'm not going to wreck and you're not going to wreck.
I'm there to race. There are other other forms of racing that are more of a gentleman's sport, but this is not one.
If someone says, "Hey, you aren't making any friends around here," I say, "I already have enough friends. I'm good."
Say you tear up a car. What is the vibe like when you bring back a wrecked car?
It's not good.
My worst experience was my second truck race in 2011. The first race was great, I brought the truck back with no scratches.
The next race was at Bristol. I'd never been there before. We were on a long run near the end of practice. You're allowed to finish your lap when practice is over. I saw the caution light and thought it would be a good chance to go into turn 3 a little hot to see how that felt... and I slid up, spun out, and hit the wall and wrecked the truck.
I somehow made it to the garage and pull up and I pulled up and saw the crew's faces. I felt really bad and I got mad at myself and started pounding on the steering wheel and the dash... and the crew chief came up and dropped the window net and I didn't see him and I hit him on the forehead with my left hand... and the in-car camera caught everything and the TV people played it over and over.
Since I was the only truck on the track everyone got to see me spin, wreck, punch the dash, accidentally hit my crew chief... I know it made me seem like a crazy kid, but I was mad because I wanted to do well and I was disappointed in myself.
I love what I do and I expect a lot out of myself. If I didn't, why would I be out there?