Nextel Cup Driver Q & A · Tony Lumbis · Monday June 18, 2007
At the start of 2007, David Ragan found himself with the most daunting assignment of all five rookies: driving in place of a future Hall of Famer. Selected to replace Mark Martin in the famed No. 6 Ford at Roush Racing, Ragan has had his share of ups and downs in NASCAR’s top series since then, but through it all, his optimism and confidence have remained high. So high, in fact, that 15 races into the season, he’s become a pleasant surprise in this year’s Rookie of The Year contest; just four points off Juan Pablo Montoya’s pace, the driver of the AAA Ford appears to be the toughest challenge facing the Colombian as they battle for top rookie honors.
Our Tony Lumbis sat down with David Ragan before the Pocono race this June and talked with him about tackling those tough expectations, his own father’s Cup career, getting his big break through television, of all things, and plenty of other topics in this special edition of Beyond The Cockpit.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: In 2006, your career appeared to be on track with a clear path in front of you: share the No. 6 Truck with Mark Martin, progress through the Busch Series, and eventually make it to Nextel Cup. Then, at the end of that season, you got the call that you’d be the next driver of the flagship car for Roush Fenway. What went through your mind at that very moment?
David Ragan: It kind of caught me off guard. I was kind of looking forward to a full-time Truck Series or full-time Busch Series run, you know, just happy to be at Roush Fenway Racing with an opportunity to do great things, and I really wasn't looking at this situation. (But) Jack, he had the confidence in me, (along with) Jimmy Fennig and the guys at AAA, so I knew it was my time to step up.
Certainly, it’s been a long road, a tough road at times, but we have a lot of fun. I just knew that it was going to be a lot of hard work, (but) that's the only way things should be and it’s kept me on my toes and working really hard, every single day of the week.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You're paired with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who has worked with some of the top drivers in the industry. How has his leadership helped you develop as a driver?
David Ragan: Well, with Jimmy, he reminds me a lot of my Dad. He's here for one reason, and that is to race hard and go fast. You know, my dad (Ken Ragan, former Cup driver himself), he's really driven that into my mind, to really be focused when you're at the race track, and Jimmy is the same way; (there's) not a lot of horseplay, its all business on the track and off the track. So that's been a plus, having him on my side to keep me in line…and certainly, with the new setups and new aero packages and new style of CoT cars, its really important to have a veteran leader on the team where it takes some of the pressure off of me (in terms of) making some of the decisions about the chassis setup. Jimmy and our engineer Mike Bugarewicz, they're the guys with all the answers, so it’s good to have them on our team.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: How does the communication work on race day? Do you let Jimmy make most of the calls, or is it a two-way street?
David Ragan: He (Jimmy) makes all the calls. He'll ask for my input on occasion, but Jimmy knows through experience. That's something that maybe takes a little bit of heat off of me when I'm on the racetrack racing, I don't have to be playing situations out in my mind about pitting. I'll leave that up to Jimmy or (car chief) Bobby Bakeeff, someone like that. All I have to do is worry about taking care of the race car and getting it to the end of the race. So yeah, Jimmy makes all the calls and one day down the road, when I get more comfortable, maybe the second or third time we are going back to these racetracks, my input might mean a little bit more… but right now, Jimmy is the number one man.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You mentioned your father, Ken, a former Cup driver from the 1980s. What kind of role does he play in your career? Does he give you a lot of advice, or does he lay back, letting you make your own decisions and learn from your own mistakes?
David Ragan: So far, he's laid back and turned his life to the Legends car series, and lets Jack Roush and (General Manager) Max Jones and all the staff at Roush Fenway kind of take care of me. In years past, he's been my number one guy. He's made the decisions and told me what to do and what not to do. If I had a question about if I should drive (a certain) car or (with) setups or something, he was always there, but over the last year or two, he's kind of let off the reins a little and given more control to the guys at Roush.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Your racing accomplishments in the Bandolero Bandits division, Legends Cars, Goody’s Dash Series and NASCAR Late Model Series caught the eye of Nextel Cup star Mark Martin. Based on your experience, what advice would you give young drivers coming up through some of those same series today who are hoping to receive that same kind of recognition?
David Ragan: Well, there is no certain way to become a Nextel Cup driver. Depending on what area of the United States you're from is going to determine what you're going to race. If you're from the Southeast, it's going to be hard to race any kind of Sprint Car or anything. You're basically going to have to get a Late Model. My dad, we did it on a very tight budget, and we were very fortunate to have Humpy Wheeler and Ed Clark (President and General Manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway) on our side when we were racing the legend cars, it just made it a lot easier, (especially with) my father working with the series. We we're able to race a lot and not spend a lot of our money. The thing is to be smart with what you drive and work extremely hard, and realize if you're going to be a successful race car driver, you basically have to give up everything else other than driving a race car.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You said you were able to race hard and NOT spend a lot of money. I would think a lot of drivers would want to know how to do that; it's not a simple task.
David Ragan: That's where I'm very fortunate to have my dad. He knew what to do (and) knew a lot of good people and friends that helped him and his racing career that helped me out a lot. We didn't have a ton of money. We didn't have a bunch of race cars. We raced what we had and when we got through a race and were ready to move up, we sold everything and kind of started over again. So it was very good to have someone like my dad on my side to look after things and lead me in the right direction.
The biggest thing is just getting laps and seat time and one day you'll get that shot, whether its testing a Cup car, or a Gong Show (audition), or driving someone's Winston West Car. One day you'll get a shot to impress somebody, and hopefully you've put yourself in the right position.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Speaking of the Gong Show, how cool was that running for Jack Roush on TV…or was that more of a pressure cooker?
David Ragan: I tried to go in and not let it be a pressure cooker. A lot of guys were getting wound up, and certainly it was an exciting time, but I think you basically had nothing to lose, you had everything to gain. So, if you go in with that mindset of leaving it all out on the line and try your hardest, hopefully something will work out. But that was a fun experience. Certainly, if it wasn't for the Gong Show, I wouldn't be here today. I'd be back racing in an ARCA car or racing my Legends car somewhere. The Gong Show was something myself, Erik Darnell, Danny O'Quinn, and a lot of us are very thankful for.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Are you still close with Erik and Danny?
David Ragan: We'll still keep in touch. We're all about the same age. Erik is doing a great job in the Trucks and Danny is racing some Busch races for us this year, so it’s really cool that we're all just common racers that wanted to get to this level. Jack Roush gave us an awesome opportunity to come here and do what we love to do and try to and make ourselves better race car drivers for our sponsors and our team. It's been cool to make some good friends along the way.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: It must be nice to put the competition aside for a little bit when hanging out with these guys.
David Ragan: We put it aside for a little, but we're still pretty competitive and want to beat each other as often as we can.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You mentioned the resources here at Roush Fenway which provides you with four talented teammates, each with very different backgrounds and driving styles. Do you find yourself going to any particular one for advice, or do you spread the wealth pretty evenly?
David Ragan: Matt Kenseth is one of the best race car drivers in the garage. Certainly, you can't overlook Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, but Matt Kenseth is right there with them. He knows when to go hard, when not to. He's very, very smart; he's probably as smart as a lot of the crew chiefs in the garage. So, I've tried to go to Matt, he's got a lot of experience, he's been around for just about the longest. I try to go to him, but I try to talk to everybody that I can. I try to hit Carl, I try to talk to Greg or Jamie a little to see what everybody has got to say. There is no right or wrong answer, but I try to listen to everybody and make my best judgment based off of what they say.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: When you talk to Carl, has he given you any advice on the back flips yet?
David Ragan: No, he's told me that's his deal. I can't steal it, so I've got to come up with maybe some cartwheels or something. It would be pretty tough for me to do a back flip.
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Speaking of Carl Edwards…you’ve been in those types of awkward situations this year as a rookie where you’re in a wreck and there’s teammates involved, and Edwards was the most recent example of that. However, your Coca-Cola 600 post-wreck quote after the No. 99 slid up in front of you appeared to be very apologetic to him ("I really hate that it had to be my teammate Carl Edwards. I really hate we ruined his night, also.") To most of us, it seemed that it might have been Carl's fault, instead, for going to fast on a flat tire and spinning up in front of you. Did you view the wreck differently?
David Ragan: Certainly, the fact is that if Carl was going slower, he wouldn't have spun out and neither he nor I would've been involved in an accident. But in any case, if someone is spinning or someone is wrecking, it's my job as the race car driver and my spotter's job as the spotter to do our best to avoid it. It was more or less that I was saying that I hate it was Carl. I would rather it be someone else if I had to hit somebody, I just hate that it was one of my own teammates. Certainly, I don't put the blame on anybody. We all make mistakes. Carl was just trying to do the best he could to get back to the pits under bad circumstances, and it's our job as race car drivers to try to avoid situations like that. It's just a shame that it had to be Carl. Maybe it was just our destiny that night to get involved in something. I just wish it would have been one of the Chevrolets (smiles).
Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Your birthday is on December 24th, the day before Christmas. How frustrating was it growing up knowing that you had to get all of your presents for the year in one shot? Or was it actually better because you got twice the amount of loot under the tree?
David Ragan: I learned at a young age that certainly birthdays and Christmas are very exciting times around our house. You just get used to it, you don't know any different if you get Christmas presents (and) birthday presents all in one week. But it’s always a fun time around the house. If it (my birthday) were in July or something, it would interrupt our racing season, so its probably good that it comes in the offseason.
©2000 - 2008 Tony Lumbis and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!