Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Brian Vickers of Red Bull Racing. Vickers spoke with us last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
BV: Jimmie Johnson.
SBN: Really? Why do you say that?
BV: The guy has won five championships – almost won seven or eight – and people still give him a hard time. You know what I mean? It seems like for all of his accomplishments, I don't think he gets the credit he deserves sometimes. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't.
He's only a couple away from Dale Earnhardt Sr., and everybody thinks (Earnhardt) is the greatest thing that ever happened to a race car. And he was incredible. But no one puts those two in the same category. And Jimmie has won the third-most...ever.
SBN: What's a race in your career that you feel you should have won but didn't and it still bugs you?
BV: I'd say Charlotte Motor Speedway. We were incredibly fast...
SBN: Which year?
BV: Yeah, well, we've led a lot of laps at Charlotte over the years and we still haven't won there yet. There was one year (2009) where we led most of the race, and the rain came right after a pit cycle and we ended up fifth when we should have won. There were a couple races when we lost a tire – one time we had the tire completely come off, and we had been the fastest by a longshot and was just driving away from the field.
SBN: If you could make your own four-car Sprint Cup team – you and three other guys – who would you want to team up with? You can't pick your current teammate.
BV: Jeff (Gordon), Jimmie (Johnson)...you know, my very first team was a pretty rock star team: Jeff, Jimmie and Terry Labonte. That was pretty awesome. It really was.
SBN: When you were growing up, what driver did you want to model yourself after?
BV: I always looked at Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt was always a hero of mine as well growing up – I always had a lot of respect and admiration for him – but I think because of the generational gap, I didn't look up to Earnhardt and say, 'I want to be like him.' It was probably more Gordon because he was young, and when you're a young kid, you look to someone you can relate to. And Jeff was that guy.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport?
BV: You know, I had some pretty good ones over the years. When I used to always travel with Jeff, I had never seen a guy in such a hurry to get out of the racetrack. I'm not like that. Jimmie and I were talking about that the other day. Jimmie and I, when we finish a race, we'll talk with our crew for a bit, take a shower, take our time; we're in no rush to get home and do nothing. But there were some years there when we all traveled together with Jeff, and it was like a mission to get out of the racetrack absolutely as quickly as possible.
Indianapolis, for whatever reason, the police gave us some pretty wild escorts out of there. I'm talking over curbs, through the dirt, just flying. Like they had something to prove. Which is great, we welcome it. That's what we do for a living – drive cars.
I've never had a police escort where I felt like the officers put anyone in danger, where I was like, 'Oh my God, we're going to hurt somebody.' But I've definitely had some more aggressive drivers than others. I appreciate any time I get an escort, but there's nothing worse than getting one and you just sit in traffic. It's like, 'Well, I could have done this.'
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
BV: The people I'd want to meet are mostly dead.
SBN: That's OK. Let's hear 'em.
BV: Einstein, I'd like to sit down and have a beer with him. Ronald Reagan, I'd like to have met him. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin. I think that would have been interesting. I love reading about history and some of those books about the founding fathers.
One of my favorite books is The 5000 Year Leap, which is basically talking about the foundation and formation of the United States of America. It's about the founding fathers and what they were really about, what their values really were, what they really believed.
Today, people want to believe what they want to believe about the founding fathers. They try to say, 'Well, this is what they really meant.' Well, no it's not. You can read what they really mean, you know what I mean? (Laughs) If you want to say, 'Well, I think it should be this,' that's fine. But don't say, 'This is what they really meant,' because that's history. We have their letters, we have their statements, we have their quotes. We know what they wrote.
Apply common sense, and you can pretty clearly understand what they meant by freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, that kind of thing. It's just interesting to me sometimes how people interpret things however they want to interpret them, no matter how clear it can be. You know, our Constitution is pretty clear. There's not much margin (for interpretation). I've just always been fascinated by the founding fathers, so I'd pick one of those guys to have a few beers with.
SBN: Last year, Jamie McMurray won a few big races and missed the Chase; Jeff Gordon made the Chase but didn't win any races. Which type of season would you rather have?
BV: Let me ask you one question. Not to overthink this, but is the option, 'No wins and you win the championship' or just 'No wins and you make the Chase?'
SBN: It's just making the Chase, no championship.
BV: OK, well if you don't win the championship, I'd rather take the wins. I'd rather win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 and not make the Chase than to make the Chase and not win a race or the championship.
Now, if I could make the Chase without a win and win the championship, I'd take that.
SBN: Everybody wants to win. But where does your motivation to win come from?
BV: I'm just a very competitive person, I think. It's inherent in my personality, multiplied by the way I was raised, I suppose. It makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing I was the best that day. It's not really to prove anything to anyone.
I get just as worked up over a game of Yahtzee as I can about a race. When I sit around and play poker or gin, I want to win just as bad. If when I played other games or other sports I didn't care as much about winning, then maybe I'd say (my motivation) was about something else. But winning a debate or winning a game of gin means just as much to me.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from standing here talking to when you're inside the car?
BV: I don't think any at all.
SBN: Not at all?
BV: Nope. I think it's very similar. For me, I'd say my personality is pretty even-keeled. It takes a lot for me to get mad. But when I get mad, I get really mad.
SBN: If you could switch lives with a different athlete, who would you want to be?
BV: My first thought is a golfer. You know, the particular golfer I would pick is probably not the one to pick right now.
SBN: Several people have had that problem this year.
BV: Yeah. You know, if I could be in his position as an athlete with their abilities but with me as a person and my personality – and ethical and moral code – I would say probably Tiger Woods. You could pick some other incredible golfers, too – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Bobby Jones.
I think the answer to your question should be really more about why the sport than necessarily the person. And what I appreciate about golf is that in almost any other sport you play, you really can't be competitive but for so long. It's a pretty small window. And within that window, your life is completely dictated by the schedule of that sport.
If you're a football player, you go to every game. If you're a racer, you go to every race and every test and your life is completely controlled and dictated by the schedule the sanctioning body sets. But not in golf.
They pick and choose when they want to play – and it doesn't affect how they finish in the championship. They can miss a tournament because their wife is pregnant or she just had a baby. If they play 10 in a row and they're tired, they can just go on vacation. They don't have to play every week.
Also, they can play competitively into their 60s and still do well. They've got a senior tour they can go on and still compete at a high level.
And in the business world, if that's something you're interested in, golf is just as important as anything. Most deals are done on the golf course. Everybody wants to play golf. If you're the President of the United States, you want to go tee it up. It's a game you can play throughout your life, you play with a lot of interesting people and everybody wants to play with you because you're the best golfer in the world.
You can play your whole life and you get to pick and choose when you want to play. I mean, that sounds pretty awesome. (Laughs) I mean, really! Think about it. Coming from our sport or football or baseball, you pretty much have to do what they tell you and when they tell you to do it, and you only have a small window to do it in.
SBN: OK, this next question is going to be kind of awkward. What I've been asking people this year is, 'If you could take a year away from the sport and go do whatever you wanted, then come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you want to do it?' That question is modeled after what you went through, but without the health problems.
So the question to you is: Having already done that, would you have wanted to go back and do it again? Health problems aside, of course.
BV: I wouldn't want to do it again right now, because I've already done it. But had none of that happened, I'd say yes.
It happened at a good time, too. I think sometimes in the middle of your career, if you have the opportunity to take six months or a year off, I would do it. And I think it would be an enjoyable experience. You'd come back refreshed and ready to go for another 10 years.
Looking back from that standpoint, it was a great experience. It wasn't the same, though, because I didn't have it all planned. I spent a lot of time in the hospital, it wasn't really a vacation for a large part of it. And even when it was a vacation, I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, because I was on blood thinners.
So it was kind of a blessing and a curse. I had an opportunity to take some time off, but I couldn't really do what I wanted to do. I couldn't go skydiving and snow skiing and a lot of the activities I enjoy. But having the time off was a great experience. I felt like I came back refreshed, more appreciative of what I'm able to do.
It's interesting, though. You say, 'Take a year off,' but I don't know that I'd take a year off without racing. I'd just take a year off from this – I'd take a year off from racing 38 times a year. And I'd go run a handful of rally races, a handful of sports car races, maybe go run some races in Europe, run a V8 Supercar race in Australia.
I love racing. I started riding Moto GP bikes there for awhile and I loved that. That was the most fun I'd had on a motorized vehicle in a long time. Putting your knee on the ground going over 100 mph is just a rush.
So when I say I'd take a year off, I would do it, but I wouldn't just stop racing. I'd just take a year off from a full-time Sprint Cup schedule.
SBN: When you eventually quit racing, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?
BV: I'd like my legacy to be that I raced hard, competed with the best, won races, won championships...and retired before I embarrassed myself.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather have it wrapped up after Phoenix or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap of the season at Homestead?
BV: Turn 4 at Homestead. You know you're going to win, right? You're going to appreciate it either way, but if you have to dig for it until the very last lap, you're probably going to appreciate it more.
Although I would say if you had clinched it coming into Homestead, you could just party the whole weekend. (Laughs)