Johnny Sauter has been batted around like a pinball through NASCAR’s Cup and Nationwide Series the last two years. After giving Cup a second chance with Haas CNC Racing in 2007, a season of promise in the No. 70 Chevrolet turned into a season-ending release, and Sauter spent most of 2008 jumping around from ride to ride. He started the year driving the No. 1 Nationwide car for James Finch, but ended it playing “super sub” for several organizations within both of the sport’s top two divisions – with limited success at best.
So, after suffering through that season of uncertainty, Sauter was ready to find another permanent home in 2009; and after choosing to make a significant change, he hopes to have found a place in NASCAR’s “AA” Division, the Camping World Truck Series. Driving the No. 13 Chevrolet, Sauter is going for the series championship in 2009 with sponsorship from Fun Sand, Curb Records, and several other associates that will keep his team competitive in a season where others are simply trying to make it through the year without closing shop.
Amy Henderson talks to Sauter about his promising start to the season, the differences in racing trucks compared to Nationwide or Cup series cars, and finds out the one man capable of stopping one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers dead in his tracks.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: You are with a new team, ThorSport Racing, for 2009. How is it going so far, and what are your goals and expectations this year?
Johnny Sauter: So far, so good. It’s been good. I couldn’t be happier with the way we ran at Daytona. We got to lead laps and we were running good. Obviously, we didn’t get the finish we wanted. The biggest thing that a driver looks for is potential, and the potential is there to have the kind of season that you think about, a great season. I think that we can go out and realistically win some races. Wherever the points shake out at the end of the year, that’s fine – for me, I put a bigger emphasis on winning races than anything else, and I feel like we have the potential to do that, and that’s pretty exciting.
Henderson: It seems so far that the trucks really suit your driving style. Do you enjoy driving that type of vehicle?
Sauter: Yeah. I think as a racecar driver, you like driving anything you can get your hands on. The trucks are a lot of fun. They have a lot of downforce. There are some things that I have learned driving them in the last couple of weeks. I’ve driven trucks in the past, but it was primarily on short tracks. So I’m just getting a taste of what it’s like to drive them on the intermediate type racetracks. I’ll be honest with you, Daytona was a blast, and California was pretty exciting, too. I like the way they’re drafting. Every series you race in, there are perks to driving different types of vehicles. The trucks are just a lot of fun, and they’re really stable.
Henderson: You come from a big family, and grew up racing – how did you get started in racing? You have an ASA championship – where did it all start?
Sauter: I grew up in central Wisconsin, and my family has been racing for years. As a kid, I think that was all I ever knew – racing. I was fortunate to have brothers who were 10, 12 years older than me, and they were racing a lot when I was still a kid, so I got to go to the racetrack with them. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever known. I started racing myself – local short-track stuff, nothing big. I never really thought I’d get the opportunity to go where I was going, but the opportunities just kept presenting themselves. One door would close and another one would open. In ASA, I had my breakthrough year in 2001. We had a tremendous year and had a ton of success. Winning half the races (and the championship) – that’s a pretty good year!
Henderson: What would you be doing if you weren’t racing?
Sauter: People ask me that all the time – and I don’t really know! I have a lot of interests in a lot of different things. Something that has always intrigued me is the military, so there’s probably a good chance that if I wasn’t racing, I might have ended up in the military in some capacity.
Henderson: What one moment or one race win stands out to you the most?
Sauter: I feel like I’ve been pretty fortunate. A couple of Nationwide races that I’ve won that have actually been close to home – I’ve won at the Milwaukee Mile and at Chicagoland, which was my first ever Nationwide win. So those were pretty cool to me, to win at home with a lot of family and friends there. But probably my favorite win was in 2003 at Richmond, when I won the Nationwide race there. Not only was the race great between me and Matt Kenseth, but it was also a car that I’d had a lot of input building – it was a real strong race. We had two or three cars, a handful of employees, and were able to win a race in the Nationwide Series. That’s a pretty tall order, so that’s probably my favorite win.
Henderson: You have raced for some smaller teams in your career – what are some of the unique challenges that you have to face, especially in this economy?
Sauter: I think when people talk about the dominance of the bigger teams, essentially all that is is strength in numbers. It’s not necessarily that they’re smarter people, but they learn twice as fast what not to do, while the smaller teams have to learn what to do. There is a lot of trial and error that goes on in a bigger organization, a lot of R&D, and while it doesn’t necessarily help their program, they learn what not to do. I’m a firm believer that a small team can still do it. At the end of the day, whether you’re a race team or a business, it’s all about the people. Along with good people comes good results. I see that at ThorSport. They’ve been around for 10 or 12 years, and they surrounded themselves with some key people… and we’re trying to get some more people there. All that technology that some of the other teams have doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to run better.
Henderson: How would you describe yourself as a driver?
Sauter: I don’t consider myself to be a whole lot different than a lot of guys. I like to run good. If I have a bad day, I’m somewhat emotional about it. Well, maybe not emotional, but here’s the bottom line – I like to race hard and I’m a very competitive person, whether it’s Sunday, or Saturday, or Friday or whatever. I’m a competitive person when it comes to playing video games. I hate to lose. Obviously, that carries over into the racing part of my life, and I feel like I race hard. Sometimes I do things that I shouldn’t do. That’s just the way it is. In my opinion, it beats the alternative of the guy who keeps on taking it and taking it then one day just snaps. I think you have to let it out every once in a while.
Henderson: What’s your favorite video game right now?
Sauter: Right now, it would probably be 2008 or 2009 NBA.
Henderson: What else do you enjoy away from the track – what’s fun?
Sauter: There are a couple of things that interest me. I go to as many Charlotte Bobcats games as I can. I’ve probably been to 11 or 12 games this year. It’s fun to go to the games. I’m also pretty big into late model racing. I’ve got my own late model car that I keep at the shop, and I’m working on building the car pretty much all the time. If I’m not racing trucks, I’m probably somewhere in the Midwest racing my late model. I just like to race pretty much; but if I have the time, I like to go to an NBA game or a Major League Baseball game. I’m not really much of a football fan.
Henderson: What would surprise people about you?
Sauter: That could be a lot of things, I guess. Gee, I don’t know – throw something out there and see if it applies to me! The thing that would surprise people the most? I’m a God-fearing man!
Henderson: What’s the strangest gift or request you’ve ever received from a fan?
Sauter: I think as a driver, you get a lot of crazy requests that you don’t ever need to talk about! One time, someone asked me to sign their kid, like an infant, so that was pretty bizarre. There are a lot of things that you encounter, but we probably don’t need to talk about that!
Henderson: What’s one thing that you couldn’t live without?
Sauter: One thing I couldn’t live without? God.