NASCAR’s Next Generation: A Q&A with Noah Gragson

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Not too long ago, Noah Gragson “didn’t respect” NASCAR.

For the obvious reasons.

“I thought it was just a bunch of guys going in left-hand circles,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “I didn’t think it was hard.”

Raised in Las Vegas, Gragson was an “extreme sports guy” who admired the likes of Travis Pastrana, taking up mountain biking, skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing. Now, the 18-year-old Gragson is trying to make a name for himself in NASCAR, just as Pastrana attempted in 2012 and 2013 in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

Noah Gragson poses next to his car with the trophy for winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Tucson Speedway on May 2, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

His conversion began when his dad, Scott Gragson, took him to an indoor go-karting facility.

“I fell in love with it the first time out on the track,” said Noah Gragson, who go-karted for more than a year. At 13, an opportunity from a business partner of his dad’s led to test in a Bandolero car at the 3/8th-mile Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I didn’t know if I was going to like it, what it was going to be like,” Gragson said. “The season started that Friday, it was my spring break, so we went out there on the Wednesday. It was a blast.

“I found what I wanted to do. I finished third in my first race, and man, I was hooked for life. My dad always calls it ‘the most expensive mistake he’s made.'”

That mistake has led to Gragson being named to the NASCAR Next program in just his fourth year of racing, his second in NASCAR. The “action sports guy” has three K&N series wins. While competing for Jefferson Pitts Racing, Gragson is the first driver to attempt to race full-time in both the East and West series.

In doing so, he has one win in the East series (at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut). In the West, he has two runner-up results, including to former NASCAR Next member and Sprint Cup rookie Chase Elliott at Sonoma Raceway.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: What did you learn from driving against Chase Elliott at Sonoma that you can’t pick up from TV?

Gragson: I just learned that he’s really experienced. He’s been racing these stock cars for I don’t know how many years, but at least five, so he really knows the tires and how much falloff they’re going to have and he had a lot of experience there in the Cup car. I learned a little bit off him with his line and kind of what he was doing. He’s really smart. He played his cards right. It’s a 64-lap race and he was just sitting there riding, saving his tires for I’d say 80, 90 percent of it and we got some cautions there at the end and he was really good all weekend, but he had the most tire there at the end. I kind of burnt my stuff up a little bit.

NBC Sports: Looking at your Twitter profile, what does ‘some call me Nacho mean’?

Gragson: That’s my nickname, I got it in Spanish class in third grade … we had to come up with Spanish names and Nacho just stuck. I went to a surf camp that summer and everyone had nicknames there so that was Nacho there. I guess that just stuck. Every time I go down to the beach in California, everyone knows me as Nacho down there.

NBC Sports: What school did you go to if you were taking Spanish in third grade?

Gragson: I went to a private school here in Las Vegas near my house. I went there from third grade to sixth grade. In sixth grade, it wasn’t really working out where I was, I didn’t really like it. So I went to a boarding school called Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California. I went there by choice (from seventh-eighth grade), it was really cool. I liked it a lot. It was right on the beach in California, I got to surf everyday. It was a military structured school, but it’s not like in the movies or anything like you’re thinking. We’re not doing push ups 24/7 and going to bed in school. It was a good deal for me, and I matured a lot there.

NBC Sports: You also call yourself an ‘amateur snow cone eater.’ What’s your favorite snow cone flavor?

Gragson: I’d have to go with blue raspberry, you cannot go wrong with blue raspberry on any kind of candy. There’s a really good snow cone place here in Las Vegas, I’m actually with my buddy right now and we’re going to go there later, it’s called The Frozen Frog. I’ll tell you the key to a good snow cone. The key to a good snow cone is the compound of ice, it’s got to be really, really fine. The place I go to in Las Vegas, it’s the real deal. It’ll have you hooked.

NBC Sports: Of the 55 accounts you follow on Twitter, which is your favorite?

Gragson: I like the guy named @nascarcasm. He’s pretty funny. He’s hilarious. I followed @TheOrangeCone, but he tweets way too much for me, so I had to mute him on there.

NBC Sports: If you were in a Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which song would you choose to be introduced with?

Gragson: Oh, we were talking about that actually today, me and my buddy. That’s so ironic. I would do “Friends in Low Places” (by Garth Brooks).

NBC Sports: You tweeted a few times this morning about the passing of Bryan Clauson. How well did you know him?

Gragson: I never met the guy, I don’t really know much about him. My teammate, Gracin Raz, he likes him a lot, Bryan Clauson, so I started becoming familiar with Bryan and just hearing Gracin talk about it. I realized he was doing a deal this year, a tour called “Chase to 200.” That’s 200 races in one year, which is insane, unreal. I’ve done 35 or 36 races this year and it feels like I’ve done a million, so he’s racing pretty much every night, or was I should say unfortunately. We’re all competing against each other on the race track, but when something happens like that we all come together. It’s definitely in our hearts and everyone is thinking about him. He’s in our prayers. It’s just an unfortunate deal. He’s a total wheelman, really good race car driver from what I’ve seen and never really seen anyone say a bad thing about him.

NBC Sports: Have you ever lost someone you knew in a racing accident?

Gragson: I haven’t lost anyone I know that races. But the guy who got me started in the Bandolero stuff, we rented out Bandolero from, he crew chiefed and everything, his name was Jim O’Hanley. It was February 2015 , he passed away. The news broke to me, I was racing down in Tucson, Arizona, for like my fourth Super Late Model start or whatnot, a pretty big race, like $10,000 to win. I was sitting up in the stands and I was on Snapchat. And a girl who races in Las Vegas Snapchatted me and said ‘Hey, did you hear that Jim O’Hanley passed away ?’and I was like ‘Oh, no.’ And it was right before my race, not even 20 minutes before my race. I just went into shock. I never really get emotional about that stuff. I was really close to Jim and he was a really good guy. He really got me my start in my racing career. Without him I wouldn’t be in the position I am right now.

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Ty Majeski