The Frontstretch: Beyond the Cockpit: Matt Crafton On His Start, Short Tracks And Menards by Mike Neff -- Saturday April 20, 2013

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Matt Crafton has been competing in the Camping World Truck Series since his debut race in 2000 in a Duke Thorson owned Truck. This past weekend he set the record for consecutive starts in the series with his 297 run, still in a Thorson truck. All but 25 of Crafton’s record setting starts have been in a ThorSport truck. He spent the 2004 season in a Kevin Harvick Truck before returning to his long time owner and friend Duke Thorson.

Crafton has garnered two wins in the Truck Series during his impressive streak and has also had a myriad of teammates in 13 years of driving for ThorSport. While Crafton stays focused throughout the Truck season, he knows how to have some fun in the off-season. He runs a sand rail around in the desert, not far from his home in the Southwest but also loves running on some of the most historic tracks. He sat down with Mike Neff at Rockingham to discuss a vast assortment of things pertaining to racing and not so much.

Mike Neff: You finished second in another ThorSport 1-2 finish. Is that just frustrating or is it encouraging because the organization is obviously moving in the right direction to win a title?

Matt Crafton: I’ve never really been happy about finishing second in my life. It is cool for Duke and Rhonda Thorson. To have the 1-2 finish is a good day but it is not what I came there to do.

Neff: You’ve run almost your entire career out of the ThorSport garage. Is it to a point where it is almost like you’re part of the family. Can you imagine going somewhere else to run at this point or are you in for the duration?

Crafton: I’d like to say this is where I will be forever. We’ve got a great group of guys besides my jack man (laughs with his jack man in the hauler) but you know there is always a weak link in the chain. Duke and Rhonda Thorson, at the end of the day, I have to thank them for what they’ve done for me and this entire organization. Menards has been awesome to this organization. And then, as a sponsor, we’re going on our 11th or 12th year with them this year, which is just unheard of these days. For a sponsor to be with a team that long so it is very cool.

Matt Crafton has had an excellent start to the 2013 season. But can he keep it up?.

Neff: We’re only two races in. Johnny has won the first two and you’ve finished ninth and second. Early, early, early on, but how do you feel about your championship chances?

Crafton: I think we have a very good shot. (punches a passing teammate after they punch him in the groin.) I think we have a very good shot. We just have to make the best out of our bad days. At Daytona, we were 25th with five to go and finished ninth. Martinsville shows the depth this team has and how good we really are. We were inches from going a lap down on the first run and, with all of the adjustments we made in a Truck race, when you don’t get that many chances, and the swings and changes we made and what Junior Joiner and these guys do through their communication is phenomenal and that is what is going to make us win a championship.

Neff: Do you still have one or two sand rails that you go out and run out West?

Crafton: I have one, only can afford one (laughs). Barely can afford that. I go out there quite a bit during the Winter. We play out in the desert. Go out there during Thanksgiving and New Year’s. We go out the weeks of Phoenix and Vegas when the Cup and Nationwide guys are out there. There are a couple of guys that I go with and meet up with friends from California and go out there.

Neff: Is that in a National Park or just an open area in the desert?

Crafton: It is just open area. They have pain in the ass BLM people, I don’t know what their job is, they are kind of like cops. They’re good to have out there because there are a lot of idiots out there on New Year’s and Thanksgiving weekends but sometimes they can take their jobs a little too serious and beat you up a little bit. I haven’t had any problems with them other than letting off a few too many fireworks.

Neff: Are you still spotting and coaching some drivers?

Crafton: Just Travis, I was helping out Travis Pastrana up until this year, when he went to Roush. They’re pretty much doing everything in house. He still calls me after every practice and every week before he goes to the race track. When he’s in North Carolina, he lives at my house so we watch videos. He’ll watch video stuff when I’m not there and call me and go over it with me or while he’s watching he’ll ask questions about the race track or after practice he’ll call and ask questions to try and get as much help as he can.

Neff:I’d like to bring up Menards again. I know you mentioned them earlier but they’ve been with you pretty much your whole career. How much fun is it being around Mr. Menard? I was exposed to him growing up in Indianapolis and his love for that place, but just his enthusiasm that he has for racing in general.

Crafton: That is what is so cool John Menard and how much he has put into this sport. I know he doesn’t own a team anymore but he sponsors us, he’s with Paul. He has affiliations with so many different racing programs. He’s affiliated with the Nationwide team at RCR. He does it because he loves it and, at the end of the day, you can’t ask for a better man.

Neff: Looking at your background, you ran open wheel for a while. Midgets, sprints, even micro sprints, was that with wings?

Crafton: I ran all of them. Micro Midgets, Mini Sprints, winged and wingless from the time I was 15 until I was 18. Mom made me a fake birth certificate so I could run when I was 15 so that I could run the full season. I was going to turn 16 in the middle of the season and I wanted to race for a championship so we had to fudge on my driver’s license by a year. Back then it was kind of unheard of for people to drive while they were 15 but that’s what we did.

Neff: Did you ever run Mini Outlaws at Cycleland?

Crafton: I’ve only run at California at Teluride, Visalia, Hanford and Ventura. That’s pretty much all of the places I ran that stuff.

Neff: Southwest Featherlites was kind of K&N level back when you ran it right?

Crafton: It was Late Models. I still wish NASCAR had that series. It was Perimeter Late Models in the Southwest, Northwest, Midwest and All-Pro series throughout the United States. We all ran by the same rule book. The year I won the championship we ran 18 races and there wasn’t one race where we didn’t send cars home running B-Mains. We sat on the pole at Phoenix when 70 cars showed up to try and make a 43 car field. It was that way every week and the thing is it went away because they wanted to make the K&N series bigger and they thought all of the guys who were running Late Models could get rid of them and pick up K&N cars but at that point all of your Late Models are flower pots because no one had a use for them. The perimeter cars couldn’t run anywhere on a weekly show because those were generally straight rail or big spring cars. It made me sick because I built a brand new car. I went to Phoenix four times in four years and the last two times I was there, in a 100 lap race, I led 85 laps in one race and 83 in the other and broke a rear end on both of them, just absolutely destroying the field. I got the Truck ride and the second year I built a new car because my folks had gotten rid of the one I was racing, just so I could go back and win that race because it was such a thorn in my side. I hadn’t won it until the last one. The last Copper World Classic for the Southwest Tour is the one I won, it is very, very cool that I have that trophy. My dad had raced the Southwest Tour since it had started in the 80s and he’d finished second in that race and just to be able to go there and all of the just “bad ass” race car drivers who ran that race, Bobby Allison, Kenny Schrader, there were so many guys that used to come and run that race I just had to win it. It would just always get away from me so I built my car and literally ran it twice and then they announced they were getting rid of the series. Needless to say I had to take it in the shorts to get rid of that car.

Neff: You should have brought it out here to run at Martinsville.

Crafton: The thing is that was a perimeter car. The stuff they run at Martinsville is straight rail and big spring cars. So I was going to have to do so much work to it, and the motors are different, that it was just going to be a big money pit.

Neff: Martinsville is still perimeter cars. They don’t have straight rail cars.

Crafton: I didn’t know that. I loved going everywhere the Southwest Tour went, it was just so cool. We used to go to Phoenix twice a year, Pike’s Peak (Colorado Springs), we used to race Vegas, the big track. They’d put plates on the fiberglass body cars and go around there. That was my plate racing training. That was racing the way it ought to be.

Neff: I was asked to ask you this question. Do you still have your giant lifted truck?

Crafton: I do, I have a ’78 Ford F-150. I bought a little mini Ford when I turned 16 I got that working for my parents. My dad always had a ’73 that he bought brand new and I always loved the body style of that truck. I saved and saved and I’ll never forget, a guy wanted $1,800 for the truck and I had saved $1,500 in my sock drawer for it. It was sitting behind a place called Engines Only. It was dirty and nasty and needed a ton of work, but it had a fresh 460 in it. I bought that truck and rebuilt it in my dad’s shop. I still have it to this day. Since then, now that I can afford it a little more, I tore it completely down and powder coated the frame, made it a four link like Monster Trucks are. It has coil overs all the way around, although I drive it on pavement, it’ll never see dirt again.

Neff: If it is so high, how do you get into it?

Crafton: It isn’t that high. It used to be higher. It’s really not that hard to get into it. I’d say it is about 8-10 inches of lift. It used to be bigger but I wanted to make it practical. Getting in, the door is at your waste. You grab the steering wheel and jump a little and you’re in.

Neff: You’re getting ready to set a record for consecutive starts in the Camping World Truck Series. What does that record 297th start mean to you? You’ve been around forever?

Crafton: It makes me feel old as hell to be honest (laughs). The thing is 36 isn’t that old. Jimmie Johnson is still winning titles and we’re still up front and winning races. At the end of the day I can’t say enough about Duke and Rhonda Thorson and Menards for giving me the opportunity to do what I love to do. I wake up every day and guys always joke about living the dream but I honestly am living the dream. Without those people it wouldn’t be possible.

Neff: We talked about the Southwest Tour and short track racing. Would you like to see the series get back onto more short tracks, which is what it was founded on, or do you like running the mile and a half tracks more?

Crafton: I wish we could pick and choose our mile and a halfs that we run. I love going to mile and a half tracks because there are so many more fans that they can fit into the place. Some of the short tracks we just can’t fit all of the fans in. I wish we’d go to some of the good short tracks, not some of the really rough places we used to go to before. I wish we’d go run Irwindale. It is one of the best short tracks in the country with side-by-side racing all of the time. One of the coolest tracks that is going to be is the new Mesa Marin. It is going to be as nice or nicer than Irwindale. It is awesome and I’d love to see us go back out there. There are some short tracks in other places that we could go to. I wish we could go to 28 races and add some more short tracks. Milwaukee would be awesome. Memphis, there are two awesome, awesome race tracks that always used to have good crowds but I just don’t know why we went away from them.

Neff: Nashville would be a great place to see the Trucks race.

Crafton: I wish they’d take a bulldozer to the place. I hated it. Because it was concrete.

Neff: Oh no, I’m talking about the fairgrounds.

Crafton: Oh, I’m sorry, I was talking the Super Speedway, that was terrible. It was follow the leader all of the time. If they want to make the Super Speedway great they can tear up the concrete and put asphalt down. Everybody ran around the bottom and couldn’t make any moves. It made for a terrible race, in my opinion. The Fairgrounds would be awesome. I’ve never been there, I’ve never seen the place, but I’ve watched races on tape and it looks like it would be great and I’ve always heard it was great. I heard it was similar to Mesa Marin where we used to go with the Trucks and the Southwest Tour.

As I said in the Media Center ealier, I wish they could figure out a way to keep these newly paved race tracks from being so smooth. As much technology as they have today, after they laid down the smooth surface, they should be able to go around and blow sand down into the surface and pit it all up. That would make racing fantastic. Michigan wasn’t always the best racing to watch but as a driver it was great. Look at California. It was an awesome race because you could go anywhere. Kyle got passed and went to the top and found something and was chasing those guys down when they got into each other. My favorite race tracks are Atlanta and Rockingham because I can go anywhere and make my car work. My stuff isn’t working on the bottom, I can go to the middle, I can go to the top, I’m going to try another groove and make my stuff work. That is the way racing ought to be and that is the reason why, as drivers, we love these places because the driver makes the difference. The paved Michigan is pathetic racing. Somebody asked me at Michigan and I told them it was the stupidest thing they could have done because the racing was going to be terrible.

Crafton made his 297th start in the Trucks, ran near the front of the pack and eventually came home in sixth place. That leaves him third in the point standings after three races, 20 points behind his teammate Johnny Sauter, who is the leader. If Crafton can stay competitive and keep Duke and Rhonda Thorson happy, he very well could start another 297 races.

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