NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek earned the nickname “Front Row Joe” for his ability to start races from the pole position – a feat he’s accomplished 28 times in NASCAR’s top two touring series. At age 49, the former Busch Series champion and two-time Most Popular Driver still races in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series for his own team, NEMCO Motorsports. As a team owner, he has fielded cars for many future NASCAR stars, including Kyle Busch, Ron Fellows, David Reutimann, Greg Biffle and others.
Joe is now sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience with up-and-coming racer John Hunter Nemechek, his 15-year-old son. Already boasting an impressive racing resume, John Hunter is focused on getting an education and learning all aspects of motorsports behind the scenes.
I had an opportunity to interview both Joe and John Hunter Nemechek at Octane Raceway in Phoenix, where they took part in a charity pit crew challenge and go-kart race to raise money for a local food bank. I asked both drivers – one a champion and one a rising star – to share their advice for young people considering a career in NASCAR racing.
Q. I’m doing this interview for CareerThoughts.com. It’s a website that helps young people pursue their passions – in this case, whether it’s racing or something related to racing – and how they can turn what they love into a career. You have had such a long and successful career in racing. How old were you when you started and when did you know that this was what you wanted to do for a living?
A. When I started, I think I was 11 or 12 years old. I saw a motocross race on TV and saw these guys jumping through the air on these motorcycles and I said, “I want to do that.” It took me a little while to convince my parents to give me a motorcycle but, once they did, it was on. We were full bore.
My first race was pretty disappointing. We were on a substandard bike compared to everybody else and I think my parents saw that. The next week, we went and got a different bike and then I won something like ten races in a row. I just stuck with it. I did a lot of motorcycle racing. A friend of mine that worked for our family business was going to an autocross and said, “Hey, you need to come over and do this.” I went with him and I actually outran him that day. That’s kind of how it all get started with the cars.
After that, we said, “Let’s build a car to go road racing,” but the season was over and I said, “I want to race!” We went to the local short track and they had a class there – mini-stocks – and I said, “Okay, let’s go see what we have to do to build one of those.” We built my first race car – it was a Pinto. We went to the junkyard, bought a car, came back, stripped it, gutted it, took the motor out, rebuilt the motor, put a roll cage in it and went racing.
I started having success and just kept on going from there and worked up the ladder. I had a lot of determination. You’ve got to really know what you want to do and what you want to get out of life. I love racing and love to do it and now my son is coming up doing it. I’m trying to educate him in the right way to do it also.
Q. NASCAR is so competitive now and it’s so hard, especially at the top levels, to break in. What percentage of ‘making it’ in NASCAR is talent and what percentage is luck or who you know?
A. Wow, there’s so much of all of it involved. You have to have talent and you have to be able to showcase that somehow. But, in order to do that, you have to have the financial backing to keep going. That’s such a tough part in today’s economic times – how do you find those dollars? It starts out with, “What can you afford to race?” and you’ve got to keep trying to build on that. That’s what my son is doing and part of his deal is, he has to learn to work on the cars and he has to learn how to do the marketing part of it to find money.
Q. As a team owner, if you were looking at a driver coming up, would you be more interested in someone who has focused solely on his racing career or someone who brings a lot of different qualities to the table?
A. They have to do good in everything. My son is 15 now, in 10th grade, and part of his deal is he has to maintain As and Bs in school; there are a lot of criteria that go along with him being able to race. You have to have the whole package. If you’re doing bad in school, who knows what will ever happen to you. I know, today, the big car owners are looking for talented racecar drivers, but they have to be smart, they have to know how to speak, they have to know how to act. There is a lot to it. It’s not just about driving the racecar.
Q. How did you react when John Hunter first told you he was interested in racing? Were you happy about it or concerned? Did you warn him of any pitfalls?
A. He’s grown up around racing. When he was a week old, we went to the track for his first race. In whatever he’s raced – from quarter midgets, he raced motocross for a while – he’s done well at. Once he got into cars – from small cars and Allison Legacy cars to Super Late Models – it’s just incredible watching him get out there. He races with Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth; he races with all the best guys and, most of the time, he can outrun them. It’s pretty impressive.
Q. In general, what advice do you have for young racers about pursuing their passion and turning it into a career? What things should they focus on?
A. You have to focus on it all, but, number one, when you’re in that racecar, you have to drive smart. If you tear your cars up all the time, you’re not going to be racing a lot. You have to be smart about everything you do and how you do it. Try to meet with potential sponsors and investors, people who can help you get to the next step. Then, when you move on from that step, don’t forget where you came from. Always remember those people, because at some point – just like I’ve been racing for so many years now – you come back and you meet those guys. I don’t want to say that my career is winding down, but the next generation is coming along. I still love it and I think I can still win races, given the right equipment. But you have to do things right and treat people well and just remember where you came from.
John Hunter Nemechek
Q. I’ve been talking to your dad about CareerThoughts.com and getting his advice for young people who are trying to figure out what they want to do in life. It sounds like you’re getting to do what you have a passion for: racing.
A. Yes, I am. Ever since I was little, just growing up around the racetrack and being around dad and all the racecars, it’s always what I wanted to do. I got the opportunity when I was little. I got my first go-kart and quarter midget when I was three years old and started racing when I was four, and I’ve been racing ever since. Whatever you want to do, if you just stick with it, you can accomplish it.
Q. Is your goal to make it to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and what do you think your biggest challenges and obstacles will be?
A. Yes, my goal is to make it to the Cup level and, right now, it’s finding money to keep moving up through the different series. Sponsorship is big right now and it’s hard to find with our economy. Part of my deal is that I have to find it, and it’s hard.
Q. Do you think it’s more important for you to focus solely on racing or to be a well-rounded person?
A. I would say to be a well-rounded person. School right now is my first priority. If the racing deal doesn’t work out – I hope it does, but if it doesn’t – I want something that I can fall back on by going to college and getting a degree.
Q. What series are you racing in right now and what will be the next step up for you?
A. I’m racing in the Allison Legacy Series and Super Late Models, which is ASA Midwest, CRA Super Series, and the PASS Series. I would like to run Super Late Models full time or run the full K&N season.
Q. What would you suggest for someone like you who is interested in racing, but maybe isn’t quite as experienced as you are and is hoping to become a better racer?
A. Just stick with it. The more experience you get, the better you’ll get. It’s all about how you learn and whether you can pick up things fast.
Q. Have you ever gotten discouraged and just wanted to quit? How did you get through that?
A. You just have to fight through it. God is my main support and looks over me and that’s about it.
Q. Aside from your dad, is there a driver that you really look up to?
A. All of the guys that have set records. I want to be the one that breaks those records.