Talk about rags to riches. The son of a racer, Scott Lagasse Jr. has seen his fortunes both come and go in the NASCAR world. After landing a seemingly promising Truck Series ride a couple of years ago with Bobby Hamilton Racing, Lagasse was replaced after just 10 starts in favor of veteran experience. Refusing to sit on the sidelines, the young driver landed on his feet two years later with Wood Brothers/JTG Racing, driving in the Truck Series once more — before seeing that ride evaporate due to a lack of sponsorship after just eight events.
Left unemployed in the middle of last season, a few chance meetings with some friends of friends landed Lagasse in his current ride in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, the No. 11 CJM Racing Toyota. And after a rough start — he wrecked twice in seven starts to finish off the end of 2008 — this season has seen him finally have a chance to get comfortable behind the wheel. Lagasse currently sits 13th in points with two top-10 finishes, proving a strong competitor in an exciting Rookie of the Year battle with Brendan Gaughan and Justin Allgaier.
Frontstretch’s Doug Turnbull had a chance to speak with Lagasse about his journey to get to this point, his future racing plans, how he feels about Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide Series, and his stance on start-and-park teams. Lagasse joined this edition of Beyond the Cockpit from behind the wheel of his rental car leaving the airport in Phoenix – with his bosses sitting right next to him!
Doug Turnbull, Frontstretch: Scott, you hail from St. Augustine, Florida, just up the road from Daytona. Since you just raced there a couple of months ago, talk about the significance of running well at your home track.
Scott Lagasse Jr., driver, CJM Racing No. 11 Chevy: It’s very close to home, and it’s neat to have a lot of friends and family down there to cheer for me. We had such a quick racecar; it was good right off the truck. Unfortunately, we got caught up in someone else’s mess — and you’ll have that at Daytona.
But it was, up until that point, a very good weekend.
Turnbull: You drive the No. 11 car in the Nationwide Series but have had an up and down ride on the way there. A couple of years ago, you drove in the Truck Series for Bobby Hamilton Racing, but that deal didn’t work out. Then, you landed on your feet again in the Truck Series with Wood Brothers/JTG Racing, but that ride didn’t pan out. You’re on the sideline a couple of months and then, out of nowhere, you replace a proven Nationwide Series veteran in Jason Keller in that No. 11. How did that happen? Did something go wrong with Jason? Did you bring sponsorship? What’s the story?
Lagasse: It’s really a wild story. I’ll probably get some of it wrong and get corrected here (his bosses are sitting right next to him). I guess you can say that everything happens for a reason. I had heard that a lot from my mom over the last three or four years, because it had been such a struggle; it wasn’t at all what I was expecting, moving to Charlotte and racing a lot.
I was working on some stuff, and the Truck team (Wood Brothers/JTG) shut down. I was looking everywhere, for anything and everything, and had a bunch of stuff in the works – a partial Cup schedule and some Nationwide races.
Meanwhile, I found out there was an ARCA race in Chicago probably eight or nine days before the race. I wanted to go run with Cunningham Motorsports, because I had run with them before, but they were full and didn’t have anything I could run there. So, I called Billy Venturini just to kind of nose around about what was out there. Billy and I had kind of become good friends just from racing each other. I called him really to get a feel for how competitive ARCA had been over the last year, because I hadn’t really gotten the chance to pay much attention to it. During the conversation, I said how I really wanted to go and run Chicago and how I was working on a deal to get there. He said that he was from Chicago and was supposed to take three cars there but now was not taking any. And then he asked me, “Do you wanna go?” I said, “Yeah, let’s get this deal together.”
So, between him and I we worked hard to get it put together, and his guys and my friends helped us move the seat in the car… we actually didn’t even have time to put a new seat in. This all happened in about a week, and we went there.
A couple of things happened before we left. Another friend called me and said that there was someone I needed to meet. I told him I was busy, but that I would try and meet him after Chicago. He said that was fine, but gave me a number and said it was the General Manager of CJM Racing, Brent Weaver. He told me, “Just give him a call; I told him you’d call him.” I asked him if they were looking for a driver and he said that he didn’t think so, but that we needed to meet.
I called Brent, and we ended up hitting off on the phone. I told him I couldn’t get together with him, because I was getting ready for the ARCA race. Somehow, though, we ended up catching dinner right after that. I felt kind of goofy going in there, because here I am poking my head into the bar, looking for a guy [that] I had no idea who he was or what he looked like.
We sat down, had dinner, just chatted and it ended up being a long dinner. It finally got to the point that I said during the conversation, “What are we here for? Are you guys looking for a driver?” [He said,] “No, I just heard we needed to meet.” During that conversation, Billy called me and I waited until I got out to my truck [to call him back]. He said, “Hey, did you know the guys from CJM Racing want to meet you?” I said, “Yeah, I just left dinner with them.” He said, “Well, guess what? I do some of their driver development work for them.” I said, “Cool.”
So, needless to say, by the end of it, I got to spend some time with Brent to see what it was all about. And I got to spend time with Tony [Mullet] and Bryan [Mullet, these brothers own the team]. Tony lives in Charlotte, and I go to see how he interacts with his family and was really impressed with their whole idea and how everything came together. On paper, it was a single-car Nationwide team going against some bigger Cup teams. But it had gotten to where I was excited about it.[After that], we [Lagasse and the Venturini team] went to Chicago and won the ARCA race and [Jason Keller] decided to leave [CJM Racing] the following weekend and go to the No. 27 team. So, the next thing you know, we’re sitting down, meeting, and I’m in the car in Dover the following weekend.
It’s been a lot of fun and a good start to the year for us.
Turnbull: You are aligned with the team to beat in the Nationwide Series right now, Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch literally runs circles around the competition right now. How is that alliance helping you, and do you think you are going to become more competitive because of it?
Lagasse: Tony, Brent, and Bryan put together the technical alliance with Gibbs, and to be honest with you, it’s a very new relationship. They are very helpful to us — that being said, I don’t think our guys get enough credit. These are our racecars; they build them. They build some of the nicest racecars I’ve seen. The technical alliance, you have to be excited about that and about being able to lean on the Gibbs organization.
That being said, we are an independent Nationwide team. It’s not like a Hendrick relationship, where it’s very tied in. Everyone’s getting to know each other. Obviously, all the Gibbs folks have it figured out right now. They’re just good in every area. You can’t just expect them to give you everything they have. I wouldn’t expect them to do that yet. We have a trust-building scenario and our hopes are that, without sounding cocky and arrogant, that this will become a two-way street, where we’re helping each other. That being said, we’re a very humble group that gets along great together and wants to win races. We definitely cannot complain about anything right now.
Turnbull: You’ve got the technical alliance and the good sponsorship alliance. The No. 11 is one of the only Nationwide Series teams that has a single, fully-committed sponsor in America’s Incredible Pizza Company. That has to be cool, because first, you get free pizza, and also, you get to build a relationship together.
Lagasse: America’s Incredible Pizza Company has been great. It’s their growth. They’re growing, and growing very fast. It’s really neat, because everybody involved is in the growing process right now. I don’t know the complete plans [for the sponsor], but I know there are big plans for the future. For me, right now, I take it week-by-week and learn as much as I can. They’re great people. Everyone’s morals, ethics, and ideas on life are very similar, so that makes everything easy to go do an appearance for them or just hang out. They are really neat people. It’s a great relationship, because everyone fits really well. It’s almost scary.
Turnbull: Right now (before the Phoenix race), you find yourself 11th in points amidst plenty of Cup guys. In fact, there are only a few Nationwide Series-only teams and drivers that are competitive like yours. How do you feel about Cup drivers coming over with Cup race teams and racing the Nationwide Series?
Lagasse: I like it. For me, the best I example I give is playing basketball. When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to be better, so I went to play with the high school kids. And then, when I was in high school, I went to play with the college kids. They’re [the Cup drivers] the best of the best. I do understand the point that people make: that they’re there, so they can run the cars harder. That can produce better results sometimes — and sometimes it can’t. For me, I like it. You learn a lot. I’m very comfortable racing around them. You race hard all day long. It probably, if anything, helps us – it gives credibility to the series.
Our rookie battle is going to be tough. I think there are three of us in the top 10 in points right now. For us, after battling back after the Daytona thing, we’re really excited about that, but we’re also sitting there, saying that we’ve got to learn, we can be a lot better. Paul [Wolfe, crew chief] and the guys have the same attitude – everybody just wants to get better.
So, I like having the Cup guys down there. I just think it helps in a lot of different areas. It depends on what your end goal is – why are you there? For us, we’re in here to learn and to build and to grow — and obviously to win races. To win them against these guys, that’ll make it much sweeter.
Turnbull: What are your thoughts on start-and-park teams in the Nationwide Series, since there are several each week?
Lagasse: I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to that, so I have to be careful to make any kind of off-the-wall remark, I guess. These guys are in their own battle and are doing their own thing each week, too. They’re working just as hard as everyone. To take it away from them, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with that. I really haven’t paid much attention, but I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot of them out there right now.
Turnbull: Has CJM considered trying to build a CoT and run a Cup race sometime in the future, like some Nationwide teams have in the past?
Lagasse: That wouldn’t be the question for me. I’m sure there’s been thought of it; but for right now, our main goal is to get this No. 11 competitive every week. Expanding into the Cup Series should be thought about, but we need to focus on how to make each week the best in and out. I’ve never been able to get in a car this many weeks in a row. It’s been hit and miss at the beginning of the season, but I’m looking forward to getting in a groove here. I haven’t looked that far, to be honest with you, and haven’t asked that far either.
Listen to Doug this Saturday from 2-4 p.m. on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.