For most Busch Series competitors, Milwaukee’s just another race…but for Johnny Sauter, it’s his home. The youngest of the three Sauter brothers currently racing in the series, the native of Necedah, Wisconsin is the only one of the three to win a Busch race, including taking the checkered flag in convincing fashion at the Milwaukee Mile last year.
Having moved on from James Finch’s #1 team to the Gene Haas #00 this season, Sauter’s continued to show success on the track, with 3 Top 10s and a ninth place ranking in Busch points heading into Milwaukee. The defending champion of this weekend’s Busch race talked with our Toni Heffelfinger about what it’s like to come home to Milwaukee, the Sauter racing rivalry, his prospects for Nextel Cup next year, and…ring bologna?
Toni Heffelfinger, FS: You come from a racing family, as your father and your brothers all race, too. I thought we'd start off and talk a little bit about your father, Jim Sauter, and how he helped you coming up through the ranks.
Johnny Sauter: Obviously, he played a huge part. I grew up in a pretty small community in rural Wisconsin, and my dad was just racing at the local short tracks and dabbling in Nextel Cup. That's pretty much how I got into it and realized this was something that was pretty cool and something I wanted to do…I got to go to the race track pretty much with him. My dad was always a firm believer in if you wanted something bad enough, you'd figure out how to get it. He always helped us with knowledge, but as far as financially, he was pretty much hands off. He was always able and willing to point us in the right direction though.
With my brothers, I got to go to the racetrack pretty much with those guys, too, so that's what it's like with a racing family, I guess.
Toni: What was it like in your household with your older brothers? Was your father running around a lot with all of you? What is the competition like between the brothers now? Are you fiercely competitive in all things, or just on the track?
Johnny Sauter: Believe it or not, my brothers are actually considerably older than I am, so they were pretty much off doing their racing gig while I was still growing up.
As far as being competitive, I think we're definitely competitive. I don't know that it really exists beyond racing. At the end of the day, beating everybody, not just your brothers, but 42 other competitors is what it's all about…that sense of accomplishment and feeling like you're the man, so to speak. I race my brothers like I race just about everybody else. I race them hard and at the end of the day, I try to pretend like it's just another car I've got to pass.
Toni: You already mentioned you're from rural Wisconsin, and this week, you are racing in Milwaukee. Tell me a little bit about what it's like racing at your home track and what makes it different.
Johnny Sauter: I guess I speak for myself when I say that it's just a different atmosphere. It's the hometown fans; it's the hometown crowd. It's the racetrack I grew up going to and saying, “Man, I hope I get the opportunity to race here someday.” Having the success that I've had there, last year sitting on the pole and winning the race, is awesome, but it just makes you that much more hungry to go back and repeat.
It's just one of those things (going to Milwaukee) that's almost inexplicable. It's one of those things that you look forward to, and you look at the schedule every year during the offseason and think, “That's really a place that I can capitalize on and hopefully pull off a victory.” It can change the mindset of the team for the rest of the season.
Toni: Does being at your home track make this a race that you want to win more than any other race in any series?
Johnny Sauter: Oh, I don't know; I pretty much want to win everywhere I go. That doesn't change. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a huge accomplishment to take Yellow Transportation and everyone involved last year to Victory Lane (at Milwaukee). It was a huge relief off my shoulders from the pressure to go there and run good. To be able to win and sit on the pole was a huge relief.
Being able to go back and repeat this year, you'd think there'd be more pressure…but I really don't feel that pressure. I feel like I need to go there and have a solid run and keep the rest of the season in mind. I'm trying to race like Milwaukee's not a season of its own; it's just another race in our season. We've just got to continue to be consistent. I definitely think we've got a legitimate shot at winning the race though, and whatever happens, happens.
Toni: Let's talk a little about the Busch Series in general. Most drivers use it as a stepping stone on their way to Nextel Cup. Do you think the series as it is now is still a viable step on the way up? Do drivers still get noticed there?
Johnny Sauter: I think so. Someone asked me today if the Busch Series had an identity crisis, and I think that’s absolutely not true. The Busch Series is 25 years strong, and they're going to continue to go on and do the things that they do. On any given weekend, there's 10 to 20 Nextel Cup guys running in the Busch Series, but there's still 20 seats out there for other drivers, and you've got young up and coming guys in those seats trying to make a name for themselves, trying to get to the next step. It's going to be a little bit tougher to shine with the resources and experience the Cup guys have, but I think David Gilliland's living, breathing proof that anything is possible. It's not impossible to win…let's just put it that way.
Toni: Does that reminder from last weekend that anything is possible give the rest of the Busch regulars hope?
Johnny Sauter: I think so. I don't know that it's so much hope. I think everybody believes, everybody has to believe they can win any given race at any given time on any given weekend. At least I do. There's no doubt in my mind that says I can't go win the next 20 races. Is it unrealistic? Of course, but without that mindset you probably never will win.
It was very inspiring to see David win that race, and it just rekindles the belief in your mind that these Cup guys aren't unbeatable. They're human beings, and they happen to be in pretty successful organizations with a lot of resources and technology, but they're not unbeatable, that's for sure.
Toni: Where's the racing tougher, in the Busch Series or in Nextel Cup? Or is it somewhere else entirely?
Johnny Sauter: Tougher? Well, Nextel Cup is definitely the cream of the crop. You've got the best of the best. Everybody's been a champion at some time in their life, or at least the majority of them have. They're coming from every state across the country. In Nextel Cup, there are 35 teams that can win on any given week, that's how competitive it is. The resources and the people are top notch. Nextel Cup has 43 teams competing against each other, and there is only going to be one winner. I know Formula 1 is competitive, but the car count just isn't there.
Toni: What are your goals for this season? What do you want to accomplish, and what's realistic for this year?
Johnny Sauter: Goals are one of those things, sometimes I think they're somewhat personal. I know your mindset at the beginning of the year is that you want to go out and win a bunch of races and win the championship or make a run for the championship, but at the end of the day what's realistic and what my goals are two different things. My goal right now is just to win a race or to win races. Obviously the championship is…realistically there's a chance of winning it, but it's pretty much a runaway with Harvick, so right now it's just to win races. If I could crash in 10 of the next 20 races and win 5 of them, I'd take that right now versus finishing 15th. Just winning. That's what it's all about. That's where I get my enjoyment.
Toni: You're with a team that has a Nextel Cup team as well so you're looking at possibly moving up. Can you give us some idea of how that's going and what the possibilities are for your future career?
Johnny Sauter: There's talk (of Nextel Cup). We ran a Cup race at the Coca-Cola 600. There's talk of maybe doing one or two more down the road this season. To be honest with you, my main focus right now is just to stay where I'm at, to do the things that I'm doing and to be successful at it. The Busch Series is a great place to make a living and have fun and race. To get to do that for a living is remarkable anyway. If the opportunity presents itself (Nextel Cup) and it's a good opportunity, who's to say what’ll happen? For right now, if we do it, great, but if we don't, I'm happy.
Toni: Along those same lines, what would you say has been the biggest moment of your career to this point?
Johnny Sauter: Honestly, I think the win last year at Milwaukee was pretty special. It's a NASCAR Busch Series win, and to be able to do that in front of the hometown crowd and do it in the fashion that we did, sitting on the pole, dominating the race, getting Yellow Transportation back to Victory Lane, that's what it’s all about.
Toni: What's the oddest fan experience you've ever had? A weird autograph request or something else?
Johnny Sauter: I think every driver has had some pretty bizarre autograph requests…one experience I had was when I was Dover one time. This was a couple of years ago, maybe a year or two ago. There was this guy down in the garage area and he asked me what my favorite food was. I told him it was ring bologna, and nobody knows what ring bologna is. It was just one of those things, he told me, “I'll go get you some if you show up.” I actually ended up going out to his campsite and having ring bologna with him. I don't think he expected me to, so that was a pretty cool experience. He was nice enough to keep it low key. He was very gracious and I was thankful, so it was pretty cool.
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