Amy Henderson · Wednesday May 30, 2012
Travis Kvapil is one of several drivers in the NASCAR ranks to race his way from the short tracks of the Midwest to the upper echelons of NASCAR. The 2003 Camping World Truck Series champion is a veteran presence with the upstart BK Racing team this year, and his input is vital to his team and that of young teammate Landon Cassill as they work to succeed in the pressure cooker that is Sprint Cup. With almost 200 Cup starts under his belt (he’ll eclipse that milestone later this year), Kvapil understands what it takes to succeed in a changing sport, using the work ethic and racing lessons he learned as a young racer on the Midwestern short tracks. The 36-year-old driver took some time at Charlotte to sit down with the Frontstretch’s Amy Henderson to discuss his past, present, and future as his team works to move forward in the Cup ranks.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com: Your deal with BK Racing was kind of an eleventh-hour partnership that came together quickly. Can you talk about how it all came about?
Travis Kvapil: Well, I guess for most of the offseason I felt like I was going to stay with Front Row. I felt like things were kind of building there for the last couple of seasons. Then, towards Christmastime, I kind of realized that wasn’t going to be the case, it wasn’t going to work out. So I started calling other teams about opportunities and seeing what options were available for me, and talking to a couple of the owners here at BK, it sounded like there could be an opportunity. But they were still pretty early in their process of figuring out and actually getting the deal done with Red Bull to purchase the cars and the points and the equipment and everything. So before they were really wanting to have serious conversations with any drivers, they wanted to get their deal done and actually have a race team. So, I guess it was really close to the end of January when it sounded like everything was coming together. Probably the last week in January, I met with the ownership group. I think they were looking at a handful of guys, and ultimately I ended up kind of getting a partial deal.
They had a deal with David Reutimann to run ten races, that for the Danica races they would provide him a race car. Basically I was to fill in the rest of those 26 races. Then, as it got going, we really started to click really well together, had some decent runs, took care of the equipment, got along with the guy really well, and it’s kind of looking like it’s going to be more of a full-time thing for me than just a 26-race deal. I guess, with all that being said, that February 1st is when this team really opened its doors and started to work on racecars. So we definitely got a late start. We’re not as prepared as we could be or should be, there was a month there where we were just kind of showing up. We didn’t have any seven-post time; we didn’t have any pull-down rig time. We were just coming to the racetrack and kind of doing it old-school. Here recently, we’re a little more prepared. Toyota has helped us out with some support. We’re progressing. We realize that we still have a long way to go, but we’re pretty proud of what we’ve gotten done in the last three months.
Henderson: It seems like the team is really committed to success, which is somewhat of a rarity today; you don’t get a lot of new teams coming in who have been able to run the distance and be successful. You’ve had fast cars, but how hard is it? You have the equipment from Red Bull, but how hard is it for a new team in NASCAR?
Kvapil: It’s really hard. Yeah, we have good racecars, but they were good racecars a year ago. Other teams that we’re competing against are building new equipment. They’re progressing; they’re in the wind tunnel, they’re building new equipment all the time where we’ve got cars that are a year old. That’s just what we have right now. We don’t really have a chance to develop, move forward, advance the program. So for now, we’re just trying to build a solid foundation, take care of our racecars, get them solidly in the top 35 and then evaluate what areas we need to work on. I think some engineering support, obviously manufacturer support is key in Cup racing, and our agreement with Toyota is progressing, and they’re helping us out more recently. It’s just going to take time. There are a few teams that are in front of us overall in the point standings that we should be able to compete with. We’re not quite there. The guys that are behind us in points, we feel like we should be ahead of them. It’s just going to take time to get a good solid foundation and start progressing weekly. Hopefully by the second half of the year we’ll be a consistent top 20 team; that’s really what our goals are this year.
Henderson: You’re a veteran in NASCAR, while your teammate, Landon Cassill, is a young guy. How much teamwork is there? Do you run similar setups? Are you a mentor for him?
Kvapil: We definitely share all of the information. We have meetings during practice and during the week to talk about what we’re bringing to the track and then while we’re at the track we talk about what we’re doing, what we’re changing, which direction we’re going in. So it’s definitely an open note book for the two teams. A lot of times, we do run similar setups, but each driver has their own feel. As far as experience, I’m really impressed with Landon. He does a great job for it only being his second year. He has good speed; he has a great feel for the race car. His input is very accurate. Really, the mentoring role doesn’t seem to have much of an effect. He knows what he needs. He’s got race experience in the Nationwide Series, he ran the Cup Series last year, and he does a good job. For as young as he is and the limited experience he has, he does a great job. I feel like the sky is the limit for him. He definitely has the talent and the ability to go fast. With some experience, I think he can be a consistent frontrunner.
Henderson: You talked about being behind because of not having time with the seven-post rig, not having time in the wind tunnel. How important is that technology today, and how much has it changed the sport since you’ve been involved?
Kvapil: It’s very important. Especially all the development that goes on back at the shop, with the engineers. The big teams are constantly building new equipment and spending hours in the wind tunnel, or on the seven-post weeks in advance of an event. If you look at the rules changes NASCAR has made in the last couple of weeks, we’ve not been able to go to the wind tunnel and really see what that did to the racecars. We just have to kind of get a feel for it when we get on the racetrack and adjust from there, where the bigger teams, they get that data and have a better idea how to overcome that change than NASCAR made. I feel like we’re always going to be a little bit behind the front-running, premier teams, but we know that. We’re a small team with 40 employees. Right now we just kind of have the cars and equipment we’ve got, and we’re just trying to make the most of it, take care of it, and build for the future.
Henderson: With that said, how much of the success of a team is still in the driver’s hands?
Kvapil: Well, being stuck on a small team, I feel like the drivers have a lot of say in things, even like the setup of the cars, changes during the race. My crew chief, Todd Anderson is a first-year crew chief, so he’s learning as we go. So it definitely takes everybody going 100%. I spend a lot of time at the shop, talking with Todd about setups and trends on how each track presents itself in the past. I think drivers have a critical role as every other member of the team does. With the big teams, they show up and the engineering and crew chiefs say ‘this is the best setup on the seven-post and this is what we’re going to run,’ and for us it’s more on past experience and really, seat-of-the-pants feel.
Henderson: You’re from Wisconsin, which has really been a racing hotbed. A lot of guys have come from there, and Jimmie Johnson even moved there when he wanted to get into oval racing. What makes it that way?
Kvapil: The thing about Wisconsin short track racing is that you can run one car four or five nights a week with very few differences in the rules packages Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. There are a bunch of short tracks around the Midwest. And I think there’s just a good work ethic, too. My family definitely was an average family. We weren’t wealthy by any means. My dad owned a body shop, and we worked on the cars day and night. We were just very committed to working on the cars; we enjoyed it. So, I think a good work ethic and being able to run a car at a bunch of different race tracks against a bunch of competition is a good way to get experience. Another thing I think the Midwest does, and Wisconsin in particular, if you qualify well up there, you don’t start on the pole like a lot of the short tracks do down in the South. There’s always an inversion, so you start from mid-pack or towards the rear, and you have to learn how to get to the front in a 30 or 40-lap feature race. You have to really drive hard and you’re not just starting on the pole and making laps like you would if you started up front.
Henderson: When you were coming up through the ranks, was there anyone in particular that you looked up to?
Kvapil: Growing up, I was a fan of Dick Trickle and Joe Shear. Those were the local short track guys that were winning every week. Those were the guys I looked up to when I was pretty young. Then, when I got a little older and first started racing super late models, Matt Kenseth was winning races and championships all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, and I really looked up to him. Really, when he got his shot in the Busch Series at that time and then the Cup Series, it really gave me hope and inspiration that I could possibly be there and the steps I could take in my racing future. So knowing that I raced Friday and Saturday nights with Matt and was competitive with him at the local short tracks, and then to see his career grow and the success he had, it gave me the confidence that maybe by doing the right things and working hard, following in his footsteps in the Midwest, that maybe I could have the same success.
Henderson: What’s your race day routine? Did you have to ramp it up for the 600 miles in Charlotte?
Kvapil: I don’t really do anything different. There are always sponsor or media obligations before the race. Then the drivers’ meeting is always two hours before the race. The schedule is pretty structured. I like to get to the track plenty early if I’m not staying in the motor home. I don’t want to get caught in traffic or stress that I’m going to be late. I like to get here early, talk to the guys, talk to my crew chief about the setup and changes that we might be looking to do throughout the event. Then I just kind of hang out and relax until the drivers’ meeting and then just relax for a couple of hours, maybe get a bite to eat and get ready for the race. It’s really nothing special. It’s pretty structured as far as sponsor or media obligations, meet and greets, stuff you have to do, and then once we get to drivers’ meeting time, you just put that stuff behind you and get ready to race.
Henderson: Talk a little about your interests away from the track. What’s fun for you outside of racing?
Kvapil: I have three kids, so any time I’m not at the track or I’m at home, I want to spend time with them. The kids are in sports, activities and things with their school, and I like to be involved with that. Simple things, just taking them to school and picking them up from school is a lot of fun. The Cup schedule means you travel three or four days a week and you’re gone from home. When I am home, I like to hang out with them whether it’s riding four-wheelers around or swimming in the pool, or school activities, just being involved with them. Pretty basic stuff, but when you are away from home three or four days a week, it’s very important, and it feels pretty good to be able to spend that time with them. My daughter will be 16 in June and my boys are eight and five, so it’s a pretty big range in age, so they’re all into different things. They keep me busy for sure.
Henderson: What would surprise people to know about you?
Kvapil: I don’t know if there are any surprises. I’m a huge motorsports fan in general. I love watching drag racing, IndyCar, Formula 1, all that stuff. I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan. I got to go watch them win the Super Bowl a few years ago. I’m pretty much just an average guy from Wisconsin.
Henderson: What did you think of the Indianapolis 500?
Kvapil: It was pretty crazy. You kind of root for the underdog, so I was kind of hoping Sato would pull it off and get the win, but it was pretty neat to see Franchitti. The Ganassi cars are so good over there.
Henderson: Was Franchitti out of line on that final pass attempt?
Kvapil: He gave him a lane. It was a very narrow, slim lane. But you’re racing for the win, and you’d do the same thing if it was the Daytona 500 or the Coke 600 coming to the checkers. You don’t want to give your competitors an inch.
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