David Ragan has been racing in NASCAR since 2004 and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything bad about this driver. I don’t know why anyone would; David Ragan is one of the nicest people in NASCAR.
The 32-year-old Ragan enters his 12th full-time season with a quiet confidence and a sense that he and Front Row Motorsports are on the verge of big things. I don’t think anyone would make them championship contenders this season, but one may not want to sleep on Ragan and Front Row pulling off an upset, especially at Daytona.
Just look at their history and you can see that Ragan and FRM could do that. Ragan’s two wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series have come on restrictor plate tracks, first winning at Daytona in July 2011 when he was driving at Roush/Fenway Racing.
But it was Ragan’s second victory at Talladega in 2013 that really gave Front Row Motorsports and owner Bob Jenkins his moment of glory. Starting out as a small team and struggling to even qualify for races 10 years ago, Front Row Motorsports kept trying to survive and never giving up. After Ragan was released by Roush/Fenway and joined FRM in 2012, the team had some growing pains, but you could tell it was a great fit. And in Ragan’s second season with the team, he and teammate David Gilliland powered through and won at Talladega.
After substituting for Kyle Busch when he broke his leg in 2015 and driving for other teams, Ragan came back to Front Row Motorsports in 2017 and now in his second season in his most current stint with the team, nothing would please Ragan more than showing the big teams what this team is capable of.
David Ragan talked to us over the phone as we talked about trying to beat the big boys of NASCAR, his dinner with some fans in Las Vegas and his thoughts on NASCAR’s new rule changes that are meant to help teams like FRM.
Phillip Bupp: It seems that you’ve been involved in racing your entire life. I know my dad remembers seeing your father Ken race at Talladega in the 80s and it seems like you’ve grown up around the racetrack. As a kid, was motorsports always what you wanted to do and did you have a plan just in case that didn’t work out?
David Ragan: You know, I’ve always loved racing and motorsports. I grew up around the racetrack and my father and uncle had an automotive supply company where they had a machine shop and sold some parts and pieces to local racers. So I enjoyed keeping and working on race cars, going to the races and enjoyed driving them. I started racing when I was 12 and it was something that me and my family did and I really had a good time doing that.
I never really dreamed about “I’m going to make it to be a NASCAR racer, I want to go win Daytona.” I did later in my teenage years but when I first started racing, I just enjoyed being at the racetrack and doing what I did. So I guess I didn’t think about it that much when I first started as a young kid but as I got older, I realized that if I kept working hard and caught a few lucky breaks here and there, I could make it. It’s been a fun journey and a hard one at times, but that’s something that I always thought about and been on my mind for a long time.
PB: It kind of just came about over time?
Ragan: Yeah, and that’s something that, in this sport, it’s very hard to make it to where you’re a full-time driver and you can make a living off of it. There’s only a small percentage of people in the world that can say they’re a race car driver and that’s where they make their living.
A lot of people are weekend race car drivers or they race on a Friday or Saturday night as a hobby, but I was realistic in knowing that wasn’t a guarantee. That I had to have some other skills and other interests that it might not work out being able to make a paycheck from just driving a race car. But I’m glad that it did and like I said, it’s been a fun but a hard journey.
PB: I recently read a Jeff Gluck article about him having dinner in Las Vegas with some fans and you and your spotter Rocky Ryan unexpectedly showed up. I know NASCAR drivers are some of the best at being accessible to their fans, but that was kind of like above and beyond the call of duty.
Ragan: Yeah, I saw the opportunity where Jeff and some of his followers were going out to eat and we’re going to be in Las Vegas for the [preseason tire] test so I enjoy doing some stuff like that. It’s fun to interact with fans and different people in our industry away from the race track and in some more social settings. I don’t always have a lot of time on race weekends so it was a cool opportunity; we had a lot of fun and met some great fans from the Las Vegas area and had a fun night.
— 1000Bulbs.com (@1000Bulbs) January 19, 2018
PB: What was your favorite part of the dinner?
Ragan: Probably just getting to hear the stories of some of the fans. How they got involved in NASCAR, what their interests are, what their background is, what racetracks they’ve been to. Those were some of the interesting takeaways from just getting to know the fans and their background.
PB: You’re driving for Front Row Motorsports and while the team may not have as many resources as some of the bigger teams, you both have found success, especially winning at Talladega. And it seems like year after year, you guys do seem to improve and get closer to those top teams. How is it that you’re able to get more out of your car than others who may have more resources than you and sometimes be the David who beats Goliath?
Ragan: Well, I think that the Front Row Motorsports process is very much planned and detailed that we really have to make the most of our budget, our resources, our employees’ capabilities. There’s things on other teams that I think they do take for granted, and that they may overlook sometimes. So we have to be very attentional on the process and how hard we work.
And Front Row Motorsports has really grown over the years and I think when you look at it from a big picture perspective, teams that we’re battling against like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush/Fenway Racing, they’ve all been around this sport for 20, 30 years and they’ve established a really deep foundation and roots that go back many, many years with regards to relationships with manufacturers, sponsors and employees.
Front Row’s a baby, we’ve only been around for eight, nine full-time seasons. And it takes a long time to establish those roots in a sport where there’s no spending cap and you can hire anyone you would like to. You can pay any salary you want and it’s hard to break into the sport, but Bob Jenkins has done a really good job with being methodical in his decisions in growing the team and he’s taking little baby steps each year. And I think that’s paying off.
A lot of teams have come and gone since Front Row Motorsports started eight or nine years ago and I think in another eight or nine years, you’re going to see a few of the other teams we know of today probably won’t be around anymore. And I think that a team like Front Row will take their place into the next 10 to 15 years.
PB: While there isn’t a spending cap, there are new rules this season involving fewer pit crew members, fewer people traveling in order to save some money. And also create a little more parity among the teams. Being on a smaller team, have you noticed a positive effect as a result of those changes or is it still too early to tell?
Ragan: It’s still too early to tell. At the end of the day, I think that those are such small changes that they won’t make any difference. The big teams can still spend the money wherever they want and NASCAR does a good job of trying to regulate some of those rules and procedures, but money is the key. You have an unlimited budget and you can go hire who you want to hire and there’s no budget on simulation and employee salary and going to the wind tunnel.
NASCAR did a no-testing policy several years ago. Well, the larger teams and every team just allocates that money to other projects. So all the rules in the world, except for a spending cap, they’re really not going to make a big difference. I don’t really think you’ll see any difference in the middle class teams versus the premier teams.
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) February 8, 2018
PB: Has the team prepared for adjusted to having one fewer crew member over the wall this year?
Ragan: Yeah, they’ve been doing a lot of practice and a lot of work and there will be some different strategies I think going into Daytona on how to approach [pit stops]. But yeah, they’ve been working hard and I think it’s going to slow the pit stops down maybe a second or two but they’re still going to do a good job on pit road. You might see a few more loose tires flying around, maybe a few more penalties.
But I think overall, I don’t really know why that rule was put into effect. I don’t really understand, I don’t agree with that rule, I don’t think it’s the right rule but again, it’s just another opportunity where teams will adjust. They’ll spend that money in other areas and they’ll adjust and work around it.
PB: Restrictor plate tracks are such a different beast compared to the other races on the schedule. Daytona and Talladega can be a great equalizer for many teams but at the same time, you kind of need the right driver in there in order to be successful. Having won at Daytona [with Roush/Fenway Racing] and Talladega, how different is it to race at those tracks compared to some of the intermediate, short tracks or even the road courses?
Ragan: Yeah I mean every track is very different and I think that’s what makes our sport so great. We go to a road course one week, a short track the next and then Talladega the next. So you have to have a little different mindset obviously the cars are prepared a little different.
But the speedway racing is intense. You’re bumper-to-bumper, side-by-side for 500 miles and often you see one person’s mistake really takes out a lot of the field. So you have to be extra careful and really pay attention to who you’re racing around, try to have the right strategy at the right time, track position is important. Fast cars are still able to find their way to the front, it’s just a little different than at some of the other tracks.
PB: Do you need to have, not so much a different skillset, but are certain skills valued over the other at restrictor plate tracks?
Ragan: I think that the skills that a NASCAR driver has is applicable to all the tracks. You have to have good hand-eye coordination, really trust your competitors all around you, know who you’re racing with, have good car control but just being able to handle the flow of the race and, it’s something that always changes. What worked five years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to work today because the track has changed, the tires have changed, the race car changed. The horsepower changes in the way they draft and fuel economy and strategy, so it’s always moving and that’s what keeps it fun too.
PB: You have a new teammate this year, Michael McDowell has come aboard. Have you and Michael discussed strategy for the upcoming season or given each other tips to make yourselves better?
Ragan: Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time with each other. Michael’s a good motivator, he’s a hard worker. I think he’s got a lot of drive to be a race-winning driver in this sport so he’s going to be a good teammate to push me on and off the racetrack. He’s going to bring some good skills that I think we need at Front Row Motorsports to push our entire company.
So I like people like Michael who has a good work ethic and I’m a good friend with him off the racetrack, those are always good friendships and teammates to have. And I look forward to hitting the racetrack with Michael and drafting and working a little bit with each other. It should be fun.
PB: Considering your success and Front Row’s success on restrictor plate tracks, how confident are you and the team entering Daytona this year? What would be your goal for the 500 as well as for the rest of the season?
Ragan: I think our goal for the 500 is just to contend at some point. We know at that race, you shuffle in the front, you shuffle in the back, you have a lot of different strategies throughout 500 miles and I think we’ll have enough speed with our Ford that we can contend and lead some laps during the race. We just want to be there at the end, I think we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to race hard and we’re going to race for some stage points.
But at the end of the day, we want to have a car that is intact and able to contend for the win in those final 20, 25 laps. That’s what we’ll race for the entire week of Speedweeks is trying to set ourselves up and prepare to make the best decision we can in those final 15 or 20 laps. It’s a crapshoot sometimes when they throw the green flag on what your fate is going to be that Sunday but all you can do is race hard and try to put yourself in good situations.
PB: Final question, I asked this question to some of the MENCS Championship contenders late last season just to see how each one thought and I figured I could ask a similar question. If you were to win the Daytona 500 this year, after thanking all your sponsors, who is going to be the first person you thank?
Ragan: Probably my family, maybe God for giving me the strength and the knowledge and the opportunity to go race. Your team is so important, sponsors are important, you’re going to get in a few of them. But you can’t do any of this without the Lord, your family and your supporting crew with all your employees.