Beth Lunkenheimer · Wednesday October 16, 2013
Californian David Gilliland grew up at racetracks around the West Coast. He first watched his father Butch run, as a little kid before joining him in the garage area to help work on his cars. At the ripe young age of 19, Gilliland was then named crew chief for his father’s NASCAR Winston West Series team; the following year, he won a championship in the role.
Not a bad start for a teenager who would turn into one of the sport’s “young gun” prospects. After spending all that time as a mechanic, learning the inner workings of these racing vehicles it only made sense for him to one day try his hand behind the wheel. By 2005, the young driver made his Nationwide Series debut, at Phoenix International Raceway and was tapped to run a limited schedule of races. The following year, in just his seventh career start, Gilliland scored his first career NASCAR win, beating out guys like Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and many more along the way at Kentucky Speedway. It didn’t take long after that for Yates Racing to choose him to finish out the 2006 season behind the wheel of the No. 38 Ford. The rest? It’s history, Gilliland becoming an eight-year veteran of the Cup Series and remaining consistently employed over other, more highly-touted youngsters like David Stremme and Reed Sorenson.
Today, Gilliland pilots a different No. 38, the Long John Silver’s Ford in his fourth season with Front Row Motorsports. Earlier this year, Gilliland pushed teammate David Ragan to a victory at Talladega Superspeedway, where he matched his career-best, second-place finish from Sonoma in 2008 with Yates Racing. It’s been a successful year for both team and driver, who announced Wednesday morning he’d re-signed with FRM for the 2014 season. It’s a perfect time for a sitdown with Frontstretch.com’s Beth Lunkenheimer, done at Kansas Speedway to discuss the NASCAR ride he’s been on since that first Nationwide Series win in 2006, a strengthening Cup program, his son’s racing career, and so much more.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start with growing up at the racetrack. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you wanted to be a racer?
David Gilliland: No. That’s all I can remember ever wanting to do. The first memory I have of a racetrack was hanging on the chain link fence, looking in watching my dad race and dreaming of being in there one day with him, working on the cars and being a part of it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s been my passion for as long as I can remember and it’s been a big part of me getting to where I am today.
Lunkenheimer: Fast forward a bit to 2006, to your first win at Kentucky Speedway in your seventh career Nationwide Series start. Looking back now, did you ever expect to be where you are now after that win?
Gilliland: Not at all. That was obviously a great day for us, and there was a lot of work leading up to that. Everybody seems to think I came out of nowhere and won, but we’d probably won close to 100 races before that in other divisions and other series working our way up. It definitely happened fast — it got me on the fast track for sure in learning all of the racetracks along the way and the business, how this side of the garage works. It’s been a learning experience, for sure.
Lunkenheimer: Before you joined Front Row Motorsports, I know you were forced to start and park quite a bit with TRG. How hard is that as a racer to pull in, knowing there’s nothing wrong with your car?
Gilliland: It’s very hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a driver. There were many days where I contemplated just quitting racing because you’re a competitor and you come to the track to compete and be the best you can be. We did that, but just had to shift our focus to being the best we could be on Fridays for qualifying day. It was definitely very hard. Pulling in before the race is over just goes against everything you’ve been taught to do, learned to do or wanted to do.
Lunkenheimer: You said you contemplated walking away. What is it that made you stay?
Gilliland: It was probably all the work I had put in to get to this point and knowing that there was still a possibility of getting something else and getting a ride. Seeing the economy and the way everything was headed was discouraging at the time. Seeing the sport and seeing teams that had been here a long time closing down was hard. It was probably my passion for racing that kept me going.
Lunkenheimer: Looking back at Talladega earlier this season when you were pushing your teammate, David Ragan, was there any thought of making the move around him? Or was it more like, “We’re teammates, let’s do this together?”
Gilliland: For sure. First, we needed to get there and by the time we got there, Carl had pulled me off of David, so at that point, there was no chance of passing him. If I had tried to pass him on the back straight, neither one of us would have finished in the top two. We would’ve been lucky to finish tenth. We had to get there first and just ran out of time. I’ve finished second a couple times now and that first win is important to me. I definitely want to get it, but the first and foremost goal was to get us together and get up there.
Lunkenheimer: How important was that 1-2 finish for the team as a whole?
Gilliland: Very important. It would be very important for any team, but a team like Front Row Motorsports in our position and where we’re at right now, it was a great boost for us and our car owner Bob Jenkins. He’s put a lot into this sport and into our teams out of his own pocket, and I feel like it was special to be a part of that.
Lunkenheimer: Let’s talk about your son Todd’s race a couple weeks ago. From your posts about him on Twitter, it’s clear you’re a very proud father. Let’s talk a little about that race and the preparation leading up to it.
Gilliland: He won the USAC National Quarter Midget championship this year. We raced from California to New York and everywhere in between. Todd’s a bigger kid and he’s going to be tall, so he’s growing out of the quarter midget stuff. Some people stay in quarter midgets until they’re 15 or 16 years old and he raced against some of them, but he just turned 13 in May and was looking for that next thing to do. We decided to go late model racing. I bought two cars and it started out that we were going to test and race when he felt ready. He can’t race any NASCAR stuff until he’s 14. We went and tested and I was really impressed and surprised at how well he did the very first time in the car. So we tested a couple more times and felt like he was ready. We were supposed to run a race in the southeastern limited late model class with eight to 12 cars — that was our goal originally. That race ended up getting canceled, so it happened that there was a 100 green flag lap race that same night. It’s Hickory’s biggest late model race of the year, the Fall Classic. Everybody thought I was crazy for throwing him in there — including myself — but we figured he could learn 100 laps worth and get some experience.
He did great. He was fastest in both practices against guys that have won multiple championships and basically the best late model guys on the east coast. I was very happy and very pleased — he finished sixth and qualified ninth. He did a really great job — he’s got a lot of potential and a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to helping him. It’s really nice to be able to help him with stuff that I didn’t have growing up. I think he’s got a great shot at going as far as he wants to go.
Lunkenheimer: How were your nerves watching him race?
Gilliland: I’m probably one of the most nervous dads at the quarter midget track, and Todd won a lot of races there and did a great job. In the car, I was nervous but probably half as nervous as I was watching him run quarter midgets. Part of it was that we’ve got a little bit better idea of what to do in the cars on the late model. I feel like he’s safer in a stock car, so I wasn’t quite as nervous as I’ve been in the past. I almost wore a hole in the top of my trailer walking back and forth — my shoes anyway, for sure.
He didn’t tear the car up and it was his first time even using a radio. We had tested a handful of times; I was strapping him in the car to go out and qualify and realized he hadn’t ever run at night. Yet here he was, going out to race one of the biggest races with 28 cars in the field. At night, your depth perception is a little bit different, the glare and the reflections; everything is just a little bit different, but he did really well.
Lunkenheimer: How nice was it to have all three generations together at the track that weekend?
Gilliland: It was really nice. I only get to see my dad maybe once a year now because he lives out of the country. It was nice to have him here for that. I knew he was coming, but he surprised Todd and he really wanted him to come. It was neat to have him there and having three generations of drivers together all in one place. We’re working on trying to get a race together where we can all race against each other. That would be really neat. I wanted to get through the first race, see how Todd did and see how he liked it. He could’ve gotten out and said he hated it, but it was the complete opposite.
Lunkenheimer: Do you have any race day rituals?
Gilliland: Not really. I try not to shave on race day, but I don’t really have anything else that stands out. I used to always have a [picture] that my kids drew taped inside the car. But as they get older, they seem to have less and less time for dear old dad.
Lunkenheimer: When you’re not racing or helping Todd with his racing, what keeps you busy?
Gilliland: Nothing. I don’t have time, honestly. Our race shop is at our house and it’s just what we do. I go out and set up the cars myself and work on them, repair them, fix them, get the other ones ready. We really pour everything into that — it’s just what we do. It irritates my wife sometimes, but it’s just so important for him right now at his age and the way our sport is going. Every single race, everything he does is so important, and me knowing that as a dad and knowing the sport the way I do, it’s just what we do. My daughter rides a horse, so we go do that a little bit, but really with being gone three or four days a week and having that stuff at home to do, there isn’t much other time.
Lunkenheimer: You said your daughter rides horses. Is that something she’s interested in doing professionally, or is it just for fun right now?
Gilliland: She’s young — she’s 10, so sometimes she’ll go back and forth between wanting to be a vet to help horses or a trainer. She’s very, very smart and does very good in school, so we’re pushing her that direction to go to school and get a good education. With both of our kids, that’s the first and foremost thing. Todd actually got a race taken away this week because he didn’t turn in a homework assignment. He was supposed to race in a couple weeks, but he knows that’s his deal. He’s gotten straight A’s and honor roll for the last four years, so the education is just very important.
Lunkenheimer: What’s the strangest thing a fan has asked you to sign?
Gilliland: Probably his chest — a guy asked me to sign his sweaty chest. I don’t think he even had a shirt on and was all sweaty and I was like “no.” The worst thing on average to sign is somebody’s hat — it’s all sweaty and they’re asking me to sign their hat. That’s probably the worst thing.
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