Our weekly series of interviews continues: 12 questions with NASCAR drivers who aren't currently in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series. Since the Chase drivers already get plenty of publicity, we thought this would be a good way to get to know some of the non-Chase drivers a little better. This week: Rookie of the Year contender Kevin Conway of Front Row Motorsports.
What's the best race you've ever driven?
KC: Wow. That's tough. It would probably be a USAC midget race at South Boston. We swapped the lead with Chase Scott and Brad Noffsinger like 21 times, but we still managed to lead every lap. We kept swapping the lead, but every time we crossed the stripe, we were leading. It was like 21 lead changes in a 50-lap race. It was crazy!
And then the first West Series race I ever ran at California Speedway (in 2004). We dominated the entire race, but then we ran out of gas on the last lap and finished fifth. Clint Bowyer was on the pole and finished second, Ken Schrader ended up winning the race and David (Gilliland) finished one spot behind me. And now we're all racing together, so it's pretty wild.
Who is the most talented driver in NASCAR?
KC: Overall, it's hard to overlook what Jimmie Johnson has done. If you look back early in his career, he didn't experience as much success as a lot of other guys did. But you look at what he's done in stock cars – at short tracks, speedways, road courses – he's won everywhere.
But I think it'd be a tossup between Jimmie and Tony Stewart. A lot of people fail to realize Tony has won the Triple Crown in USAC, an IRL championship, Cup championships – that'll probably never be done again in the modern era.
What's the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph at the track?
KC: Usually it's after practice or after qualifying is the best time. Then you get to kind of interact and get to know the fans a little better when you're not preoccupied. I think it's cool, because everybody's got a story. And to get to know people's life stories is pretty cool. Not to sit down and have a three-hour deep discussion, but to be able to interact and get to know the fans from that standpoint. And that's usually best after your duties are kind of done at the track, so to speak. That's when you can really give them more of your time and not have your mind be somewhere else.
But at the same time, I usually try to make time whenever I can. Because that's the thing – I don't understand all the race fans sitting in hours and hours of traffic and doing the things that they do. I don't get it. I'm super stoked that they do that, because I wouldn't be sitting here if they didn't and if they weren't the best fans in all of professional sports. I have a lot of respect for all the fans, and it's cool that they do what they do.
What's something people may not know or understand about you?
KC: I think the biggest thing is just how hard I've had to work to get the opportunities that I've had. A lot of times people look and go, 'Oh, you've got a sponsor, you brought a sponsor. You're taking the place of a guy that deserves a ride.' And it's kind of like, man, that's not the case at all. A lot of times, people's perceptions are so far off from reality.
I've come up through the ranks just like a lot of the guys have. Unfortunately, now, talent alone won't get you very far in our sport. You have to have money to get the opportunities, but you have to have talent to capitalize on it. And you're seeing it over and over.
I'm just a normal, average guy who had a dream and has gone after it with a tremendous amount of tenacity and passion. I'm very, very lucky and fortunate to be able to create opportunities and have a lot of people help me along the way.
At the end of the day, racing is my entire life – it's all I do, eat, drink, breathe and sleep. I like to say that in some ways, the racing world is what the American dream is all about – you have a passion and you go after it, and no matter how many times you get knocked down, you just keep coming back after it.
What is the worst track on the NASCAR circuit?
KC: For me, it would probably have to be Pocono. I just struggled at that place, figuring it out. It's got some cool characteristics to it, but overall I just flat-out struggled. There's some very pretty scenery and stuff there, but if you're not into mountains and golf, there's not a whole lot there. I'm a very avid wakeboarder and snowboarder and action sports guy, and aside from maybe some mountain biking, there's not a whole lot going on up there.
But overall, it's just a place that I struggle. My favorite place is Darlington, which is a place that a lot of guys hate. It's weird. The biggest thing for me is just getting back to these tracks for the second time. Maybe Pocono won't be a place that I hate when we go back for the second time and I know where the bathrooms are and where to park.
I'm always the last one to the plane (after the race) and the guys are like, 'What took you so long? You were supposed to park here or there.' And I go, 'Well, nobody told me these things!'
If you were put in charge of NASCAR, what is one thing you'd change about the sport?
KC: In all honesty, I've never really thought about it. I think the biggest thing is it's become so difficult for the smaller teams to really compete. I don't know that there's a whole lot NASCAR can really do, because they've done a good job of creating a really small box for everybody to compete in, and motorsports globally has always been cubic dollars. Not that you can buy wins, but it continues to create increasing challenges for the smaller teams to compete. It's an easy thing to complain about and bring up, but it's not an easy thing to create a solution for.
One of the things I'd like to see, as a rookie coming in, is for them to alter the testing policy in some capacity. Just to allow a guy to come in and get some seat time at some tracks that are close to what we race at. I really like Jack Roush's plan of being able to use X-amount of vouchers to show up a day early at a track and test.
It makes it really tough to show up at these tracks for the first time. You have an hour-and-a-half to figure it out, which is 18 to 20 laps – max – and then you have to go qualify against the best in the world at a place you've never seen before except on a (simulator). You know? It's a little unrealistic expectation-wise sometimes.
Plus, I think having to go test at all these random tracks and trying to get the data applicable to the places we race, you actually spend more doing that then you would if you just went and tested at the places we run.
How long do you envision your driving career lasting?
KC: I want to race as long as I can be competitive, and I feel like I've got a lot to prove. I feel like we've been competitive with the equipment we have within our own race; we haven't been very competitive compared to the field. Every week, I run right with my teammates. Barring any mechanical failures, I think we've all been within three or four spots of each other every single week. My teammates have four or five years of experience at the Cup level on me. And that's kind of our barometer, because we're in basically the same equipment. So for us, it's making sure we're competitive within our race. I want to be in a race car as long as I'm being competitive and having fun.
When you get home from a long race weekend, what's the first thing you do?
KC: Play with my dog. I love my dog. I'm a big fan of my dog. I have a Goldendoodle. And then if at all possible, I try and find some time to go wakeboard – but it doesn't happen all that often, unfortunately.
And I love playing video games, I just never get to do them anymore. I've got a simulator that I do a lot of iRacing stuff with, and then I've got Xbox, Playstation 3, all that. You can usually find me playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty or Rainbox Six. I like 99 percent racing games, one percent shoot-em-up games.
Do you have any superstitions or race-day routines?
KC: I'm really weird as far as how I put everything on with my uniform. I have a very regimented routine in that. It's almost subconscious, but I've been that way since I was running sprint cars. I also like to get dressed a little bit early. Like I'll be in my firesuit and there will still be guys in their street clothes, but I just hate being rushed. So I just like to take that little extra time to be ready. I'd rather be sitting around in my firesuit than be thrashing around trying to get ready and get out to driver intros.
Who will win the Sprint Cup in 2015?
KC: I'm going to go way out on a limb and say Justin Allgaier. I like Justin a lot and think he's with a great organization. I think he's got the whole package of what it takes to be a champion.
Actually, I would hope it would be me, but if you're asking me to pick someone other than myself, I'd say Justin Allgaier. If I can pick anybody, I'd pick me.
Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?
KC: Ohhhh man. That's realllllly tough! (laughs) The one thing I have learned in my life, through the loss of my sister and my dad, is that there's a lot more to life than racing. So it's important to be a great person. I do think it's possible to be both, but you can't be a great person on the racetrack and be successful. In life you can be a great person, but in racing you have to be a great driver and separate the two.