||Published May/June 2007
David Ragan discusses racing and challenges
facing today’s young drivers.
By Ed Kuhn
| David Ragan doesn’t remember much in life that’s been more important to him than motor sports, and that could be because he’s been driving a race car half his 21 years. Son of a former stock car racer and garage owner who delivered AAA roadside assistance along a stretch of Interstate 75 in Georgia, the young driver who has replaced veteran Mark Martin behind the wheel of the AAA-sponsored No. 6 Ford Fusion is living his dream.
Focused, articulate and enthusiastic, the 6-foot-1 Unadilla, Ga., native believes he’s reaping the payoff for years of hard work and is keenly aware of the opportunity that’s been presented to him. In the following interview, he talks about his early years in racing, what it takes to win in Nextel Cup competition and the state of racing today.
Q: How did you become interested in racing?
A: I grew up watching my father and family members race, and one thing led to another. I was 11 when I began racing, and convincing my mom to let me was one of the biggest hurdles. The main thing was convincing her it wouldn’t take precedence over other things in my life, which eventually it did.
Q: Do you remember your first race?
A: It was in 1997 in Atlanta in a car that’s basically a go-cart with a frame around it. I was running second, slapped the wall with four or five laps to go and thought I had totaled the car. The only thing damaged was a small $20 item on the right front wheel that was easily repaired.
Q: Had you not become a driver, what career would you have
A: That’s a difficult question to answer because the last 10 years of my life have been totally focused on racing, but I always thought I’d enjoy doing something in the sports field, perhaps coaching.
Q: What qualities does a winning Nextel Cup driver need?
A: A lot of passion, talent and ability to work as part of a team. Everyone at the top in this sport has talent or they wouldn’t be here. Winners are those who work hard and with their teams to eliminate mistakes, make the right calls and foster communication.
Q: Do you feel a little intimidated taking over the No. 6 Roush Racing car?
A: A little, but being associated with Roush Racing, having an experienced crew chief and going into the new season with a fresh group of guys adds to my confidence level. I know wishful thinking won’t cut it, and that it will be results that count. Mentally and physically I’m ready to go, and there are 42 other guys saying the same thing. That’s certainly going to make it exciting.
Q: How do the physical demands of Cup racing differ from the racing you do now?
A: Cup races obviously are double the length of the races I’m accustomed to running in the Craftsman Truck and Busch Series vehicles, so physically I’ll have to be a little more prepared to make the extra 200 or 300 miles and still be 100 percent at the end of the race.
Q: What do you do physically to stay in shape for racing?
A: With the level of competition today, drivers overall are in better shape than ever. We do everything we can, from the car to the driver to the engine, to get a little edge over the other guy. I work out a few days a week at the gym, especially in the off-season. I’ll hit it as often and as hard as I can depending on my schedule.
Q: Your dad was a AAA towing contractor. Do you have any AAA memories?
A: In the small town where we lived, my dad and uncle owned a bumper-to-bumper repair shop that was AAA-certified and provided 24-hour wrecker service. We worked a stretch of I-75 that ran through our town, so certainly I’ve got a lot of memories of late nights when my dad went out to make a call late at night. Providing AAA service was a big part of our lives.
Q: What is your driving philosophy?
A: It hasn’t always been the right one, but I’ve learned by listening to my father, Jack Roush, Mark Martin, and others, trying to benefit from their experiences.
You’ve got to gradually learn to run to the limit where you feel comfortable that you can race hard without tearing up your equipment. Then there will come a point in time when you have the experience and can go out and drive hard all 500 laps and still be in the running. Drive your own race and don’t do anything to hurt yourself. Stick to the game plan and 90 percent of the time you’ll come out ahead.
Q: What was your first reaction on learning you would drive for AAA?
A: I was excited. To be 21 years old and have the opportunity to drive for a sponsor like AAA, a sponsor I can relate to, that our team and sport can relate to, is a dream come true. There isn’t a better or more appropriate sponsor than AAA because that’s what AAA is about helping the motorist.
Q: Off the track, what do you hope to contribute to AAA in this relationship?
A: A few years ago, I was a young teen driver, and today I can see how I’ve matured on the roads. Hopefully, I can help shorten the maturity span for today’s young drivers by supporting and promoting teen driver safety and education programs sponsored by AAA. Fifteen years from now I might have kids and it will feel good to know that these AAA programs are available to educate and help provide them the tools they need to safely get behind the wheel of a car.
Q: What do you believe is the biggest problem facing teen drivers?
A: A lot of it is no respect for the car, and they don’t have the experience that a 25-year-old driver has. My dad often reminds me it’s a privilege to be out on the roads and be able to drive. It’s something you have to earn. It’s not just a given. You’re fortunate to be out there so you have to respect the rules and the laws and definitely don’t take anything for granted.
Q: How do you unwind?
A: I don’t unwind. We really don’t have time. After a race, we’re in another race to see who can get to the airport quickest and get home, then we race to see who can prepare their car fastest for the following week and get to the next track quickest. For 36 weeks, it seems we’re in that never-ending cycle of who can get ready the fastest for the race on Sunday. I stay pretty wound up, and part of it is the atmosphere surrounding the Nextel Cup races. It gets you pumped up. The crowd and the fact that you’re there competing with the best drivers in the world is exciting. Then you get into the car and experience the competition, trying to go hard every lap. At the end of the race you’re mentally and physically worn out, and you have a few days to talk about what you would have changed, but starting on Tuesday or Wednesday we’re reviewing film and going over notes, getting ready for the next weekend.
Q: It’s been reported that at least one young Nextel Cup driver prepares for races using video games to learn the racetrack. Do you?
A: I don’t do it a lot, although I think it could possibly help. I’d rather be at the race shop working with my crew. Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who got in on the video games. Maybe I’ll eventually change my attitude, but for the time being I don’t claim to be a gamer.
Q: How does it feel to be among the youngest drivers?
A: It makes me realize that people should never stop working toward their goals. I’ve had some amazing opportunities made possible by some very special people over the past five years. It’s just proof to me that miracles can happen and that I can’t take anything for granted because this is very special, to be at this stage in my career this early in my life. I’m very fortunate to be here. It is a rush for me, but it’s also something I’ve done for the past 10 years of my life and for the last five or six the only thing I’ve done. When I learned I would drive the No. 6 car, I didn’t think about how excited I was, I thought about what I’ve got to do to prepare myself to succeed. This is where I was headed, where I wanted to go. And when you get there you’ve got even more work to stay there and be on top.
Q: Are you superstitious?
A: Not really. I don’t do anything special and I don’t believe in bad luck. If I see a penny on the ground showing heads, I’ll grab it and put it in my left shoe. My dad does that for good luck. He might have 20 cents at any given time in his left shoe.
Q: What are some of the ways you can use racing to show young drivers the importance of taking care of their vehicles?
A: I was taught at a young age to respect my vehicle and the people I’m transporting. They expect you to have everything serviced and ready to go and that all relates to racing. We’ve got to maintain our race cars, and as a motorist it’s my job to make sure to check things such as tire pressure and oil levels. In racing, we understand that it’s the simple things that make the difference in performance and safety. That also applies to everyday driving. It is very important to have a good general knowledge of your car and that starts at a young age.
Q: What’s your favorite track?
A: Dover Delaware. It’s what we call a driver’s track and it’s also probably one of the best race tracks for spectators. My second favorite track is Pocono Speedway.
Q: Who is your hero as a driver?
A: I was too young to remember my dad and his style of racing, so I always pulled for Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin. I always wanted to see them up front winning races.
Q: Are you thinking about your first race at the Daytona International Speedway?
A: I always hoped to one day compete in the Daytona 500, but I didn’t know the opportunity would come this quickly. It will be pretty special, and a real competitive car will make it even more fun. Once the starter’s flag drops, some of the pressure will be off. I’ll be able to say to myself I made it and shift focus to getting the job done.
Q: Have you driven most Nextel Cup tracks?
A: Yes. Trucks and Busch Series cars also run on the cup tracks so between driving in some Busch races and racing trucks, I’ve run every track except the two road coursesSonoma and Watkins Glenand Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Q: As a young driver, what does it take to earn the respect of your peers?
A: You start by having respect for the more experienced drivers. Move over when necessary and let them know that you know they’re running faster than you. Another way is getting out there and racing them hard being aggressive. That’s how I’m going to go about doing things. If my car allows me to, and I feel like it’s time to go, I’m going to get up there and race them just like I would race anyone else.
Q: This is a dangerous sport. Do you think about it a lot?
A: I never think about it. The thought of getting injured has never crossed my mind. All I think about is going faster and trying to win. As a driver gets older he or she might have a lot more to worry about than just that racecar, but as a young man I don’t have anything to worry about, I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s all wide open. Driving to the edge, getting up on the wheel, digging hard and giving it all I’ve got, that’s what it’s all about.
Q: So the AAA No. 6 car is pretty special to you?
A: To me and everyone else at Roush Racing. The No. 6 car is one of the top five most recognizable cars in the garage, and it’s pretty special to be part of that. It’s also special to be a part of the Roush team, and I couldn’t have a better sponsor than AAA. I look up and wonder, why me, what have I done to deserve this. It’s a blessing and definitely the payoff for a lot of hard work and sacrifices over the last five or six years.
Q: What does it take to win?
A: Just about anyone can go out and drive a car at 150 or 160 mph, but that last 20-30 mph is when you’re really on the edge of being out of control. Winners are drivers who can run at that edge for 500 miles and not have a mistake. You can run at that edge for 400 miles, but if you back it into the fence on lap 499, you’ve accomplished nothing. You have to know where that edge is and not go over it.
Q: How has racing changed in your lifetime?
A: It’s become more political and the sport has been cleaned up a lot. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of people looked at NASCAR as a redneck sport predominantly in the Southeast. Today, it’s become more mainstream with obviously a lot more people and money involved. It’s lost some of its Southern flavor, and I believe the racing has gotten less exciting over the past 15 years. The hype and the superstar status of drivers helps build excitement, but nothing like the old days.
I recently watched a race from 1989 on Speed Channel network and several drivers were battling for the lead. They were driving three wide, and I thought it’s got to be down to the last four or five laps the way they’re driving. Then I noticed it was only about 150 laps into the race, and they were out there three-wide racing and battling hard. You don’t see that any more. A lot of racing is tamer today.
Ed Kuhn is editor of AAA Interchange magazine.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to Feb. 18 and the Daytona 500. Ragan went on to take the checkered flag as the fifth place finisher of the Daytona 500 and the top finishing Raybestos Rookie of the race.
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