Justin Allgaier couldn’t wait to tell his dad, Mike, something new he wanted to try.
Justin, who was 5, had just watched his 7-year-old friend, Joey Moughan, race a quarter midget. It was during a night out for Justin and his mother, Dorothy. As he watched other kids his age, including some who were friends, Justin recalls immediately thinking, “I’m in.”
Dorothy was non-committal, offering Justin a, we’ll see what we can do. But Moughan’s father offered Justin the chance to drive Joey’s car, just to see if he even liked it. Mike Allgaier was traveling that week but soon heard all about Justin wanting to get behind the wheel.
“I was going a million miles an hour about how I went to a quarter midget racetrack, and I fell in love with it and that I was going to race quarter midgets,” Allgaier told NBC Sports. “My dad kept saying, no, no, no.”
But Justin had the trump card.
“I said, ‘But mom said,’ and he’s like, ‘Put your mom on the phone,’” Allgaier explained. “I put mom on the phone, and she said, ‘Well I told him that maybe we can get a cheap car and just go putz around, see if he likes it.’ He was like, no. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it (right). I don’t want to just go in there and just do it for fun just because it’s something that you think might be cool.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Allgaier went on to become a five-time quarter midget champion by age 12. In 2008, he won the ARCA Racing Series championship with the family team. A year later, Allgaier embarked on his full-time NASCAR career in the Xfinity Series earning three wins. After a stint in Sprint Cup in 2014 and ’15, Allgaier returned to the Xfinity Series and is competing for the championship with JR Motorsports.
“My dad was very big on never wanting it to be his decision that I went racing,” Allgaier said. “He would give me every opportunity to do it at a level of what was competitive, but he said if there was something else you want to do, if there’s another sport you want to play, we’re going to do it. So I played baseball and soccer, all kinds of other sports, but nothing ever was near racing.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed
NBC Sports: In what way did you grow up around racing?
Allgaier: My parents had both been involved in racing a number of years even before I came along. My dad sold tools for a long time and then got into the parts business, actually built and sold a brand of racecar. Then they got into the tire industry and started selling racing tires. So for as long as I can remember I was wanting to be at the track with my dad at some level and my mom ran the offices around home, and she traveled a lot with him too, but she was kind of the one who held the fort down; I spent most of my time with my mom. She’s the one that got me started in racing. She’s the one that took me to the racetrack for the first time.
NBC Sports: During your ARCA career you worked on your cars, did that give you a greater appreciation of what it takes to be a driver?
Allgaier: I think so. Not only does it help you with your own stuff, but it helps you with the other competitors, putting yourself or others in a position that damages racecars. I’ve watched guys work until four or five in the morning; I’ve watched guys not sleep at all; I’ve watched guys, and myself included, do things that make you go, ‘Oh man, there’s no reason or a way that you should be able to accomplish that,’ and you did. The other part of it is, when you have a job on the racecar, even when you’re not the one driving it, your mindset goes to, I want that racecar to be the best and the safest that it can be for whoever is driving it. I always looked at it as somebody might drive this car, so I have to put my thoughts and efforts into if somebody else is going to drive it, and I think that’s a great learning tool. When you understand how parts work and how they get bolted together and why things fail, I think it gives you a better understanding when you’re in the racecar of how to diagnose certain problems.
My job was always if it fell inside the windows. So mounting a seat or doing all the electrical work or running the fans or doing any of that kind of stuff. I maybe didn’t necessarily have the major suspensions pieces as a part of my job, but at the same time, I was always out there watching them do it, trying to understand how to make things work and how to help them make my racecar better. That’s something that not everyone in our younger generation has currently and I think that a lot of guys that came before me, their only option was to work on their racecars. By the time I came around, it was probably 50/50, and now I would say it’s probably 90/10, and I think that’s a great tool for some of these young kids that want to make it in this sport. I think it’s a great way to learn your racecar and to also learn some valuable lessons in life that you can’t learn in school.
NBC Sports: A few years ago during a prerace feature you gave a tour of your hometown, including your parent’s house where they have a room of racing memorabilia. Do your parents still collect a lot of memorabilia and have they added to it?
Allgaier: Oh yeah, every chance they get they add to it. My mom is constantly reorganizing the room because the amount of stuff that she collects grows, so she has to reorganize the room just to fit everything in. And it’s not uncommon either for my mom to go to a charity auction that I’ve donated stuff to and she’ll buy it. My parents are very sentimental when it comes to not only my racing but just racing in general. My parents have a lot of memorabilia that isn’t mine, has nothing to do with me but is stuff that has meant things to them in the past. We were at the (Motor Racing Outreach) dinner, and my dad bought some die-cast cars; it was Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison, and he’s like, even though I spent more on these cars than their actual retail value, the stories that I have knowing these cars and the era means more to me than the car itself does.
I have almost every helmet that I raced with; there’s only a few that have gotten away that were out of my control. I have a majority of firesuits. I at least have one or more from every year that I raced from the time I was five up until now. When my parents are no longer able to be around and be here with us, I’m very fortunate that they documented a lot of where I’ve come from, and it’s cool to be able to go home and see all that and relive those moments.
NBC Sports: How did the ‘Little Gator’ nickname come about?
Allgaier: When my dad was born they told my grandfather, ‘Mr. Alligator you can come in and see your son now’ because everybody always wants to add a T and drop some letters and add some letters. Our last name is hard enough as it is, but people always think it says alligator. So my dad became gator, and for as long as I can remember going to the racetrack everybody knew my dad as gator, and there were a lot of people that had no idea my dad’s name was Mike. Like no clue; known him for 30 years and didn’t know his name was Mike. We were at the racetrack one time in the ARCA Series, and I was probably eight or nine, and I was walking along with my dad and one of the crew members stopped him and said, ‘This must be the little gator you always talk about racing.’ It kind of stuck. I’m not sure that being called little anything is necessarily the nickname you’d like to have, but I have a more respect for my dad than probably anybody in this world and so if I’m ‘Little Gator’ to him being ‘Gator’ I’m OK with it.
NBC Sports: There’s an artistic side to you when it comes to design, and you’ve mentioned stashing away pens and notebooks in your motorhome, so what are some things you’ve created?
Allgaier: My grandfather and my dad are both closet artists. My grandfather was very, very good at it and he was more into building things, and you never knew what he was going to build out of stuff that you wouldn’t expect. He used to build these little owl sculptures out of tree bark, just random stuff that was really cool. And my dad is a great artist he just doesn’t do anything with it. He always swears he isn’t very good, so he doesn’t do anything with it. So from an early age, I always had a lot of artistic people around me and being into cars I was always a huge fan of the cars up in the Northeast, like the big block modifieds and the tour modifieds. I always thought those cars looked really cool, so I would always sit in class and draw cars and draw paint schemes and numbers and helmets and firesuits. You name it, and I was drawing it.
When I was 12, my dad got tired of paying people to do graphics on our racecars, so he bought a vinyl machine, and he told me that I had to read the entire manual, which was like 10,000 pages, and that I had to do all of these things before I could run it. But once I did that I was going to do all my own graphics. From then on, up until I was fortunate enough to come to Charlotte to drive NASCAR, I did every racecar that I drove; I designed, cut, put them on the racecars, that was my job. So, I love it even to this day. I still try to get as much input as I can, whatever they’ll give me. Most of our teams now have people that do that, so I don’t get as much say as I would like, but at the same time, I’ve been very lucky to have an ability to do it. I’m not as good as it as I would like, but I still enjoy doing it.
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