NASCAR’s Next Generation: Jesse Little

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Jesse Little won’t be watching the latest scary movies this Halloween season.

“I’m not a fan of horror movies at all. I’m terrified,” said Little, the son of former Sprint Cup driver Chad Little. “My girlfriend and I watched the ‘Insidious’ movie that came out, I think, last year and I left. I’ll be honest, I got out of the theater and left, I was so terrified.”

Little’s girlfriend wouldn’t follow for five more minutes.

The 18-year-old driver shared this with NASCAR Talk while he prepared for last weekend’s K&N Pro Series East season finale at Dover International Speedway. Dover also gave Little his scariest moment as a driver.

During his first K&N practice session on the 1-mile track in 2012, Little was attempting to merge into traffic after two cars had passed him.

“I was relating myself to them and knowing where I was losing speed at and the first time I ever really went up to speed the car got a little loose,” Little said. “I didn’t even try to save it, I just slammed on the brakes and chased it all the way up the track. At the time I remember thinking, ‘wow, I guess this is why they call it ‘the Monster.'”

The following Q&A with Little, who is a part of the NASCAR Next program that spotlights the sport’s emerging stars, has been edited and condensed.

NASCAR TALK: Do you remember what you were doing when you got the call about being part of NASCAR Next?

JESSE LITTLE: Yeah, I was at school. I had just gotten out of calculus and was walking to my gym class and Jessica, who is in charge of the program, texted me and said, ‘Do you have a minute?’ Luckily my gym class teacher was pretty lenient and said, ‘Yeah, go ahead’ and I walked out of the building for a second and took the call. Came back in with a big smile on my face and a big sigh of relief.

Note: Little graduated from Banby High School in Claremont, N.C., in the spring and will begin attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in January.

NT: What degree are you looking to pursue?

JL: Definitely something on the business side. Finance, economics. Something in that category. Right now I’m looking at international business.

NT: What drew you to that? 

JL: My dad went to college in Washington state and graduated in business administration and I just enjoy it. Seeing all the opportunities it’s given him after his driving career, it’s something I certainly feel is a good field to go into to get a good knowledge base and background. At the same time, I love traveling. I was fortunate enough to go to Europe after I graduated high school. We traveled around France and Italy for two weeks and just fell in love with it. It’s something I’m passionate about and excited for at the same time.

Jesse Little drives his KNPSE car at Richmond International Raceway. His No. 97 is the same number used by his father, Chad Little, during the later years of his Sprint Cup career. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Jesse Little drives his K&N car at Richmond International Raceway. His No. 97 is the same number used by his father, Chad Little, during the later years of his Sprint Cup career. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

NT: In Europe, if you would tell someone that you were a NASCAR driver, would they recognize what that was?

JL: It’s funny you say that, because one of the waitresses at one of the restaurants we ate at in Rome was actually a NASCAR fan. The touring series over there has the NASCAR (Whelen) Euro series. She was a pretty heavy follower of that. She rattled off a couple of names of some of the active drivers in that series. I told her ‘I race very similar cars in America’ and she got a kick out of that. It was pretty neat to see such a strong American-based sport is also popular over there.

NT: Going back to the college thing, is that something your dad really wanted you to do or do you see that as your back-up plan or is it your main plan?

JL: A little bit of both. My dad definitely puts a heavy emphasis on education and I see why. I’ve grown up and kind of realized that best-case scenario I might be able to make a career out of racing, but the chances are kind of not really in my favor, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it my career. But if not, I want to have a good background to fall back on and continue to have a successful life, and I think college is the easiest path for me to do that. Plus, I want the education and I want to do everything I can to further myself.

NT: Ryan Newman has an engineering degree but I don’t think it’s commonplace to find NASCAR drivers who have made it that far with college degrees. How many drivers do you know that have degrees or how many drivers do you know say they wished they’d gotten their degrees?

JL: I know a lot more that are in that second category, for sure. It’s a tough thing to say, if I do land a full-time ride and I’m able to win races and make a good, successful career out of this, then I might look back and say that was a waste of four years, but I highly doubt that. It’s something that I want and am passionate about. I love racing, but at the same time I know I’m not going to be doing it forever, so why not have something that’s a successful thing to fall back on?

NT: What’s your earliest memory of racing?

JL: I was five or six years old, I remember My dad had just retired and had gone to work for NASCAR. I remember he took me to the Charlotte race. I unfortunately don’t have any memories of him racing. I was so young, he retired I think in 2004 or 2003. A couple of years after that, I remember going to (Charlotte) and pretty much everybody we ran into or walked by said ‘Hey Chad, how’s it going?’ and talked to him. I remember seeing how cool it was that everybody knew my dad and everybody was talking to my dad. The older I got the more I wanted that, the more I wanted to follow in his footsteps and have what he had and make a career out of it.

NT: After two full seasons in the K&N East Series, how do you mentally navigate a season where, without any full-time ride, you’re not guaranteed a race every week?

JL: I work in the shop every single day. Since I graduated in the spring, I’m down at our shop every day, 7 to 5, and being around it so much and building the cars, putting together and understanding the suspension and what adjustment makes the car do this and understanding all that, I think, gives me an edge to not being in the seat every week. I feel when I go to a K&N race, I’m really able to fine-tune the car even though I haven’t raced for a month before because I know when we adjusted this in the shop it changed the wedge this way. I’m able to focus on those little things, and I think it helps me a lot. Especially in relaying it to the crew chief.

NT: Earlier you said chances aren’t really in your favor of having a very long racing career. Is that something you’ve come to terms with recently, or is that something you recognized a long time ago?

JL: A little bit of both. (It) was always in the back of my mind a long time ago, but here recently I’ve really noticed, OK, not having the financial backing of some of the other drivers, it’s going to be really difficult to transition to that next level and be successful. But I think it’s something I can make up for with my talent, and I hope to meet the right people. That’s what it’s going to come down to, having somebody that believes in me and gives me a shot. To do that, I’ve got to prove that I’m capable of it.

 

 

Previous Q&A’s:

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.