NASCAR’s Next Generation: Q&A with Austin Hill

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Austin Hill doesn’t tweet that often, but his tweet on Nov. 16 was kind of a big deal for the 21-year-old driver.

It announced the birth of his and his wife’s first child, Lynnlee Ann Hill.

The announcement came months after a faulty test almost led them to believe they were not pregnant.

“We ended up getting a test because she thought she was,” Hill told NASCAR Talk in a phone interview. “She looked at it and said ‘Well, it’s negative.’ I was like, ‘alright.’ She walks out and I get to looking at it and I noticed that there was another line that looked a little faint and a little dull. I said ‘Ashlyn, you might want to look at this.’ We looked at it and that’s basically how we found out …We had a double take on it. ‘Oh, we’re having a baby.'”

Lynnlee’s father is a five-time winner in the K&N Pro Series East and a two-time member of NASCAR Next, a program that spotlights the sport’s emerging stars.

Hill, whose father owns a steel fabrication company called Division Five, is a first generation driver who has spent the last two years in the KNPSE racing for Bryan Hill but is hoping to continue his NASCAR dream in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NASCAR Talk: What has it meant to you to be part of NASCAR Next for two years in a row?

Austin Hill: It’s been really good. It seems like it’s helped me out a lot, getting to know people and when we go to the tracks or different places and been able to do events, talk to the fans and stuff like that, it seems like it gets your name out there a little bit better then if I was just trying to do it on my own. It helped me out a lot and then we’ve done a lot of media stuff and other types of stuff like that, talking to the owners. We got to meet a couple of the Sprint Cup drivers.

NT: You finished third in the points this year, up from fifth last year. How impressed are you by how well you’ve been doing able to perform that last two years?

Hill: Last year was kind of a learning year a little bit for us. Since we do things on our own and don’t run for a team and it’s family operated, last year me and the team were kind of getting acquainted to each other. Then this year we feel like we had a really good season. We’re almost like family, me and my guys that work on the car and the crew chief and everything. It seems like we know exactly what each other is trying to say when we’re at the race track. If I’m trying to tell him an area the car might be tight or loose in, the crew chief kind of knows basically in my tone of voice how much change I need to go faster. That’s been a real improvement for this year and we’ve had a couple of misfortunes.

NT: You will be back in the K&N Series next year?

Hill: No, we actually sold our K&N cars and I think next year, it’s not set in stone or anything, everything is kind of up in the air, but we’re trying to run 10 Truck races possibly. That’s kind of on our mind but we don’t know if we’re going to do it ourselves or if we’re going to do it for somebody else. We’re trying to find the sponsorship so we can go racing in the truck series for 10 race or possibly, hopefully more.

NT: What’s your learning experience been like in the six Truck races you’ve been in?

Hill: I think the biggest thing as getting used to the radial tire versus the bias ply you have in the K&N car. Once I got used to that I was pretty comfortable in the truck and knew what changes I needed and wanted to be done to make the truck better. We’re definitely looking forward to next year, trying to get with a little bit better team. We were with a mediocre team and are trying to get either with a better one or do it ourselves and see if the outcomes come a little bit better because we had some misfortunes on pit road … Just as a group, when you’re renting a ride for one-off races, it makes it hard to just go in there and run good when you don’t know the crew chief really well and you don’t know the team really well. So hopefully we can keep our team together for next year and do something together.

NT: Of your five K&N wins, which one are you most proud of?

Hill: That year that we won that first Dover race we were only running five races and it was just the five big races … We ran five races total that year, and really weren’t even looking for a win, we were just looking for experience and just hopefully get a top 10, top-5 finish and we had a good seventh-place coming at Richmond and I was pretty happy about that. Then going into Dover, I really had no intention of winning that race because that was my first time ever at that track. It was the biggest track I’d ever been to. A 1-mile track, banked and it’s super fast. When we got out on the track it seemed like I just caught on really fast. When I caught on, we had a really good car and I was able to go out there and pick up the win.

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: Austin Hill, driver of the #20 A&D Welding/Don Rich Ford, practices for the K&N Pro Series East UNOH 100 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Austin Hill practices for the K&N Pro Series East UNOH 100 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2015. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NT: Do you come from a family of racers?

Hill: No, actually my dad has always liked to watch racing and his favorite driver is Jeff Gordon as well. He kind of got me watching it on the TV and we would watch the Sunday races together when I was little and it escalated from there. Got a quarter midget. Got into the Bandolero and Legends cars series and then ran some Late Models and then got into K&N. Now we’re just trying to get into the Truck and see how many races we can do next year.

NT: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Hill: I honestly hadn’t thought about that a whole lot cause we’ve always been travelling and racing every year and stuff like that. I probably have to say maybe climbing Mount Everest or something like that. Doing something daredevilish like jumping out of an airplane and skydiving. I’ve never really had fear in me so I’d like to do something crazy like that one day, that’s for sure.

NT: You don’t have fear in you?

Hill: I’ve never really seemed like it. Especially when it comes to racing. The speed of it doesn’t ever bother me, it never really has. From the first time I jumped in a quarter midget to the first time I jumped in Late Model or K&N car, it’s just like a different car, a bigger car. You just get out there and go and push it to the limit. It just seems like anything else that we do I don’t really ever any fear of it. The only thing I’m afraid of is snakes and spiders. That’s about it.

NT: Did you have a bad experience with a snake as a kid?

Hill: I do a lot of hunting nowadays, like in our offseason I hunt a lot. Sometimes I’ll go into the woods and walk up on a snake. One time I almost stepped on one and it about bit me. Ever since that day if I see one, I try and stay as far away as I can. Spiders, I just don’t like how spider look. They just look really nasty to me. I don’t want what it is about spiders. When I see a spider I want to stay away from them or kill it.

NT: What was the last song you got stuck in your head?

Hill: Probably “Hey Ya’ll” by Cole Swindell. I don’t know what it is about that song that gets me all pumped up about my day. It seems like I’m listening to that song more than any other song lately. I just like the beat of it. The lyrics to it. I like that song a lot.

NT: What phone app that’s not related to social media do you use the most?

Hill: Amazon. It seems like I’m buying stuff off of Amazon almost every day. I don’t know why. I might not even need it. I’ll start looking on Amazon and I’m like ‘I’m going to buy this.’

NT: What was the last thing you bought on Amazon?

Hill: I want to say some bottles for Lynnlee.

NT: I’m guessing you’ve been buying a lot of baby stuff off of Amazon.

Hill: I’ve been buying a lot of baby stuff. Sometimes I buy my Christmas stuff off of there. I hadn’t done that this year.

NT: Best Christmas gift you’ve ever received?

Hill: When I was a little younger, I always wanted a four-wheeler because I like stuff with speed. I ended up getting a 350 Grizzly four-wheeler for Christmas one day. that day, on Christmas, it was snowing. I was out running around on the four-wheeler. Me and my buddies were actually running on the four-wheelers together and one of my buddies wanted to drive it. I said, ‘alright, that’s fine.’ He was driving it and he ended up running it into a tree and ever since that day we hadn’t got it fixed. It still drives but the fender on it is all busted up. It’s still drivable and I left it down in Georgia for my family to use since I can’t really use it up here. But when I go down to Georgia I drive it through our woods and acres that we have.

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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.