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NASCAR Next: TED Talks, Barbie Dolls and Jaws: Q&A with Julia Landauer

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Julia Landauer first experienced the thrill of racing in a go-kart at the age of 10 on a “very cold November day” at Oakland Valley Race Park, a track in Cuddebackville, New York, about two hours north of her home in Manhattan.

The trek from the concrete jungle to an asphalt road course was the result of her father and mother, an anesthesiologist and a lawyer, wanting their children to have an activity to share with each other.

“They also really wanted something that girls could do against boys,” Landauer told NBC Sports. “I grew up watching Formula One and sports car racing.”

Landauer, now 25,  “loved it right away.”

“My parents liked that it meant from an early age … their young kids were given the responsibility of interacting with adults and articulating feedback and needed to deal with victories and losses,” says Landauer. “So really good life skills that everyone needs was a huge motivator for getting us into go-karts. I’m not sure they totally expected me to want to continue.”

But Landauer did continue, winning the Skip Barber Eastern Regional Series at the age of 14 and the Limited Sportsman track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015. This year, after being selected to the current NASCAR Next class, she become the highest finishing female driver in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West history, placing fourth with Bill McAnally Racing.

In the middle of all that, she graduated from Stanford University, began a career in public speaking (including giving a TEDx Talk at Stanford in 2014) and got voted off the island in “Survivor: Caramoan.”

On Saturday, she won the Driver Achievement Award at NASCAR’s Night of Champions Touring Awards.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed:

NBC Sports: In your first days of college, when you’d have those cheesy ice-breaker games to introduce yourself in class, how would the students at Stanford react to you saying you were a race car driver?

Landauer: Most people found it really, really cool. It was very different from what a lot of people were used to. Lot of people didn’t know a whole lot about racing, but once you start explaining the physical driving part and how it is very athletic, and then you describe the business side and the sponsorship space and how you create a brand and build partners and everything, I think people have a really great understanding of how it is to start up — the way I approach racing is as a startup, which is obviously huge in the Bay Area. It was a different flavor. And because I was at Stanford, we’re taught to reach for the stars and do everything we can. So the fact I want to use my degree to go NASCAR racing wasn’t all that far-fetched in terms of a global dream.

NBC Sports: What is the hardest part about public speaking?

Landauer: It’s a different type of adrenaline, but it’s still adrenaline. It’s so satisfying when you make an audience laugh. I don’t think of myself as a funny person, I don’t crack jokes but when I can make them laugh with some combination of my stage presence and what I’m saying and how I say it, that’s really cool. I think the hardest thing for me is making sure I’m providing really good value to the client. You can be a speaker and kind of give your speech over and over again. For a number of groups it will work, the same talk for different groups. But if someone wants to bring me in and they have a more unique audience or different angle they’re going for, I want to give them what’s most valuable to them. That’s better for them, that’s better for me. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone as to what I’m speaking about is big and that can be hard, and I’m definitely a harsh critique of myself and I want to make sure I’m working as hard as I should be.

NBC Sports: How did you find out you were going to be a part of this year’s NASCAR Next class?

Landauer: Sometime before May I got a call from NASCAR and they said they were excited to tell me I was a part of NASCAR Next. And it was really cool because I started working with NASCAR and understanding that I am such a great brand and personality to have in racing, I’m so different and I do a lot of stuff off track to try to amplify that. So to know that NASCAR saw that as well and that now we’d be more actively working together to really maximize the potential of the Julia NASCAR situation was just really exciting.

NBC Sports: What’s it like for you being aware that you’re an important brand?

Landauer: It’s great. Knowing that the work that I’ve done, the preparation that my family and I have done for 14 years now has value and creates excitement for other people is just fuel to the fire for making it bigger and better. It’s positive reinforcement that some capacity of what I’m doing is right and I just keeping running with it.

NBC Sports: What happened to the Formula One dream?

Landauer: It was interesting because I started in road courses, won the Skip Barber championship, did Formula BMW. Then after that I had seen that one of my competitors in go-karts – we were both at a national Skip Barber race – we (had been) pretty equal in go-karts. Then the Skip Barber race was in the rain and he just smoked everybody and I was like ‘Why the hell did he smoke everybody? He didn’t get that much better since go-karting.’ Then I found out that he had done some oval racing and so originally I wanted to make my road course skills better by going out and doing oval racing for a little bit and getting that car control.

Then once I did that I kind of fell in love with oval racing. I think now it’s still the case in terms of technically driving a race track, I like road courses better, I think there’s a lot more to them in that sense. But when it comes to racing, head-to-head competition, it’s hard to beat oval racing and just being so close to all the cars all the time, there are only four corners so everything has to be perfect. Sometime it’s frustrating because I think the car needs to be that much more perfect in oval racing than road course racing. It was just a natural progression. But part of it also goes back to understanding as someone who is not a trust fund kid who is trying to build up a brand in racing, NASCAR is definitely a bigger market in the U.S.

NBC Sports: Who were your racing idols growing up?

Landauer: Michael Schumacher was definitely a racing idol. But then after I got more into NASCAR, Mark Martin was a hero. He followed me on Twitter and I was just like ‘Best day ever’ and I was totally fangirling. Then also Paul Newman, throwing it back. He as a person is a huge hero to me. Just how he lived his life. And Lyn St. James, she’s been a mentor of mine since I was 13. These past two years we’ve been talking a whole lot more. Every one one of those has something different to offer that I aspired to.

NBC Sports: What is it like to play as yourself in “NASCAR Heat Evolution”?

Landauer: I have to admit, I actually haven’t played it yet. I have never been a big video game person but I am going to be getting over to NASCAR sooner rather than later to be able to play it. It is super cool, but if I had grown up playing video games it may have had a different effect and I’d be a little bit more urgent to go play. For me what was really cool was seeing the screenshot that someone had taken and seeing my name was right next to Bobby Labonte. I was like “wooooah! We are making it.”

NBC Sports: What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever gotten?

Landauer: It’s down to two things. Either the My Size Barbie I got when I was 4, that was pretty phenomenal. It was as tall as I was and you can dance with it. Either that or my junior year of college, my parents gifted me a Euro trip with my friends who were studying abroad. We went to Spain, Prague in the Czech Republic and Vienna. That would probably be better than the Barbie. When you’re 4 and you get a Barbie that’s bigger than you are, that’s pretty incredible, too.

NBC Sports: What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?

Landauer: I’ve definitely peed myself laughing before. It was probably Thanksgiving two years ago and just had some family friends who came over, my Godfather and his kid and stuff. I don’t know what it was, but the combination of the wine and whatever was being said, there was more than one of us that leaked a little bit and needed to run to the bathroom.

NBC Sports: If you could sit down with Danica Patrick and talk about one thing, what would it be?

Landauer: I would want to talk about the dynamic of a track. I’ve had my experiences of trying to get the respect of my team, my competitors. Just what’s that like? On the Cup level, I know what it’s like on the development series. She’s obviously a huge brand. So I’d like to know what the 360-degree view of life as a mega NASCAR star is like both on and off the track.

NBC Sports: If you were racing in the Cup Series night race at Bristol, what song would you choose to be introduced with? I’ll give you time to look.

Landauer: I have to go by my most played songs … No, those are not pump up songs at all … One second, I’m almost there … I don’t listen to music before I go racing. I don’t really listen to race music the entirety of the race weekend. That’s just such a great question … I’m a folksy kind of song listener. Like more alternative indie stuff.

NBC Sports: If it helps, the song I would probably choose is the Star Wars theme song.

Landauer: That’s great. This might be a cliché but I’m a big (fan) of the “Jaws” song. It’s just like ‘you’re about to die,’ that’s how I feel when I hear that. The creep on you (part of the song). It would be during the latter part of that song, with the instrumentation. But I’d want people to know they’re about to die … I’ve had the theme song on my iPod for a very long time. It starts off really quietly then it’s all fake big sharks and blood and everything.

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David Ragan to make first Truck start since 2006 at Atlanta

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David Ragan is coming back and going home at the same time.

The Unadilla, Georgia native, who stepped down from full-time racing after last season, will drive in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Ragan’s home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, on Saturday, June 6.

The 34-year-old Ragan will drive the No. 17 Ford for DGR-Crosley in his 30th career Truck Series start and his first since 2006.

David Ragan will make his first Truck Series start since 2006 in the June 6 race at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I’m really looking forward to racing one of DGR-Crosley’s F-150’s at Atlanta,” Ragan said in a media release. “We were originally going to run the truck at Richmond Raceway in April, but since that race was postponed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I wanted to return to my home state of Georgia with Select Blinds for this race.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced in the Truck Series. Atlanta has always been one of my favorite tracks since it’s my home track.”

Blake Bainbridge will serve as Ragan’s crew chief. The Atlanta race was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since stepping away from full-time racing, Ragan has made just one start in 2020, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing.

Ragan currently works in a development role with Ford Performance, where, according to the media release, “he assists teams with simulator work and has a hand in developing the NextGen car that will come into play in 2022.”

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NASCAR schedule for Cup, Xfinity races at Bristol

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NASCAR has put Charlotte in its rearview mirror and moves next to Bristol Motor Speedway.

One significant change to the schedule has already occurred. The Xfinity Series race originally slated for Saturday has been moved to Monday due to travel and setup challenges.

Here is the schedule for Saturday through Monday at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday, May 30

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7 – 9 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unloaded)

Sunday, May 31

7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments

3:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

3:30 p.m. – Cup Series race, 500 laps/266.5 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit track

Monday, June 1

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

5 – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

6:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

7 p.m. – Xfinity race, 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Winners and losers after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte

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WINNERS

Chase ElliottAfter losing the Coca-Cola 600 when he pitted from the lead before the overtime restart, Elliott scored the victory Thursday night at Charlotte. “I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again,” Elliott said after his seventh career Cup victory.

Denny Hamlin Crew chief serving the first race of a four-race suspension and Hamlin was starting 29th in a 310-mile race. No problem. He worked his way through the field, helped by his pit crew, and finished second.

Ryan Blaney He left Charlotte with a pair of third-place finishes in the two races. Many would take that.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Fourth-place finish is his second top-five result of the season in his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing.

LOSERS

Alex BowmanWon the second stage and had a fast car. Saw his night come undone when he hit the wall while running second. He had to pit for repairs and finished 31st.

Kyle BuschCut tire while racing in traffic sent him to the pits under green and he lost two laps. He never recovered, finishing 29th.

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Should Pocono Raceway maintain its June 27-28 Cup doubleheader weekend dates, it appears likely it would be without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”