Kevin Conway has been put in an awkward situation in 2010. With his sponsor electing to skip the Nationwide Series and tackle the Cup ranks, getting up to speed during his rookie season has proven more difficult than for most other drivers debuting as full-time competitors in stock car racing’s highest ranks. And while it’s been a trying enterprise to race against the world’s best – especially with only 25 previous NASCAR starts to his credit – Conway’s proven to be a consummate professional off the track and a dedicated competitor on it.
Frontstretch spoke to Conway at Pocono after the Coca-Cola 600, a race where he showed that dedication. Falling ill halfway through the Cup circuit’s longest race, Conway gritted out a performance that saw him vomiting in the cockpit on more than one occasion, but one that also saw him run the full-race distance for his team and sponsor. That never-give-up attitude also shines through in a talk where he establishes goals, explains how you “pay to play” in today’s NASCAR world, and subtly fires back at critics who question his ability to be involved at the sport’s highest level.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: You had a really gutsy performance in the Coca-Cola 600, racing while very ill in a very long race. How did you pull that off, and what does that say about you and your race team?
Kevin Conway: I think it says that we’re going to stick it out to the end, no matter what. We do finish these races. [But] that was definitely the hardest race I’ve run in my entire life. I’ve never vomited in a helmet before, and that was rough. Really, really rough. But I didn’t want to get out of the car. So I stepped it up. I felt bad for our guys because our car was way better than the finish we had, but it’s kind of tough when you’re throwing up at 180 mph. All-in-all [though], I wasn’t endangering myself or my fellow competitors, and I wanted to tough it out instead of losing more time swapping out drivers. I wanted to do the right thing.
Keith: What’s it like going to a rookie meeting and being the only driver there?
Conway: Well, John Darby and I have become pretty good friends for the three or four minutes that we meet every weekend. Really, we never planned for it to work out that way, and Terry [Cook]‘s back in the No. 09 car this weekend, so I’ll have some company back in the rookie meetings. It’s frustrating in some ways not to have any rookies, but in others it’s exciting because I’ll take the championship. That’s what we set out to do at the beginning of the year, to win the rookie title, and as of this moment we’re the last man standing. Terry’s not out of it yet, though; it’s far from over.
Keith: You really dove in head first into Cup racing this season. What’s it been like?
Conway: The learning curve has been more of a vertical line. We’re not trying to crest the curve, we’re trying to climb it. Our race team came together in January. It’s one thing for a rookie to come into an established team with great equipment and significant resources, it’s another to do it with limited resources, using equipment that was already in place and had to be acquired from another team. It’s really challenging. But I think the whole team, given the circumstances, has done really well to stay in the Top 35 and compete for the Rookie of the Year title.
It’s been a whole team effort of David [Gilliland‘s] team, Travis [Kvapil‘s] team and ours working for the good of the organization to keep all three cars in the Top 35. That’s vital for keeping the resources going for all three teams. It’s been cool; we’re like the little team that could. I think everyone gets frustrated sometimes, because we’ve got a fraction of the resources of everyone else out here, but it makes everybody have to pull together and work that much harder as one. We’re one team that has three cars on the racetrack.
Keith: Talk about that. You’re working with two drivers that have experience together in Kvapil and Gilliland. What’s it been like, racing for an expanding race team while facing a vertical learning curve? What role have you been able to play in moving the team forward?
Conway: Well, it helps me to have them to lean on. And it’s always good to have one more car to bounce ideas off of as far as setup things are concerned. We’ve had the opportunity to test a few times, we’ve tested all our cars, and all three have gone the same speed, so it’s been pretty cool to know that our driving styles overlap. David’s style is a little different than Travis’s, and I’m kind of in the middle of those two guys trying to find my own groove.
Here this weekend at Pocono, I’ve never seen this joint before. So being able to talk to them, being able to find out the characteristics of this racetrack, brake points, lift points, those different things. I think that’s been my biggest challenge this year, seeing these racetracks for the first time. You’ve got an hour and a half to get up to speed, and then you’re going against the greatest racecar drivers in the world. It’s tough.
Keith: In terms of seat time, you’re doing it a bit differently. You don’t have a Nationwide Series ride, you’re not running ARCA. Would more seat time be beneficial, or are you trying to keep the focus on the one ride?
Conway: Seat time is seat time. Track time is good, no matter how you can get it. I would have loved to run the ARCA race this weekend, but again it comes back to resources and finances. We’re not in a position to do that right now. Because of the limited resources we have, it’s been difficult. But we try to take the opportunities we have and make the most of them.
Last year we ran 12 Nationwide races, and I have a total of 25 Nationwide Series starts over about a four-year period, so it was definitely jumping into the deep end getting into the Extenze Fusion in the Cup Series. But I think we’re holding our own. We’re learning a lot, and I think we’re starting to gain respect as well as to build our [rookie] points lead.
Keith: You haven’t been the fastest guy out there this year. You also haven’t wrecked anybody, you’ve been able to run your own races. Have you seen the perception of you in the garage change over the course of this year?
Conway: I think so. I think you’re always gaining respect, the more you’re racing guys clean and showing you’re not going to mess them up. We have to run our own race, given the resources we have. David, Travis and I typically wind up within three or four spots of each other every week. We know what we’ve got, and a good day is a top 25. We’re not out there competing for top 15s, and we know that. So we’re trying to make sure that we run our own race, let other guys run theirs, and continue to grow our organization while continuing to gain experience.
So, as our equipment does get better and the resources do increase, we’re able to capitalize on that and step up our performance as soon as our equipment allows us to do that.
Keith: You come in with a marketing background, and are one of the few drivers out there that’s been able to bring a new sponsor into the sport. What benefits have your marketing background granted you, and what benefits have you been able to bring to your sponsor?
Conway: For us, it comes back to showing a path to profit, how they’re going to make money off of it. Back in the day, everyone would say this is the TV exposure, this is how many people watch the races, we’ll put your name on the racecar and get people to see your brand. The strategy now, though, in an era of fiscal responsibility, people are saying, “If I’m going to spend a dollar, how am I going to get three dollars back?”
The cool thing about NASCAR racing is that it provides the best medium for marketing from the business-to-business standpoint. In the case of Extenze, we’ve been able to help them as they’ve transitioned from a direct response brand to a more retail-based brand, to more of the big-name retailers like Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, CVS and really help them become a more mainstream brand in those channels. It’s been a vital part of their business strategy, and it’s worked extremely well for them tying the race car back to some of their retailers. Also, creating brand awareness for customers when they walk into Wal-Mart… that it’s more than just a late night infomercial that you see on TV. It’s been really cool for them.
I know it’s been frustrating for some drivers, that you can be the greatest driver in the world and never get an opportunity [because] money gets you opportunities. But you’ve got to have talent to capitalize on the opportunities.
Keith: Like you said, your background comes with limited NASCAR experience. On that, you probably wouldn’t have been able to land a Cup ride, but you had the money for it. What would you say about that trend these days, that in some ways you have to pay to play?
Conway: It’s been that way since the very first Indianapolis 500. You look at it, there’s 43 drivers here every weekend, and there’s maybe one or two guys at the max that come into the sport every few years, like a Carl Edwards or somebody like that, that’s come up the hard way.
You look back, I didn’t even have the opportunity to race a full season of Hooters Pro Cup or the East/West Series. Just that is $300,000, $400,000. That’s a lot of money, and it has to come from somewhere. Sponsors in those series are really hard to get, because the exposure is lower and the business-to-business opportunities are less.
You look at 95% of the drivers that have come up, their families have funded their late model careers, they’ve funded their East/West careers. They may not have the funding to run the Truck Series or the Nationwide Series, but it’s taken a significant investment to get to that point. For me, I’ve had to race where I could, and I had some success in late models. We had to keep moving along and racing out of our purses, to get rides because we won a lot. It’s taken me a while to get here, and I didn’t get a lot of experience in the Nationwide Series, but we’ve won tons of track championships and races. All of that gives you a tremendous amount of experience to get to this level. But at the Cup level, everyone here is awesome. There isn’t anyone here that isn’t a great racecar driver, and I’ve learned so much in the first quarter of the season that we’ve gone through.
We’re going to have a Nationwide car later in the year, and I can’t wait to get in it because I’ve learned so much. Not so much in terms of the feel of the car, but in terms of racing. The guys in the Cup Series race really hard every single lap.
Keith: What has been your biggest challenge so far, and what’s the biggest one you’ve got left circled on your calendar?
Conway: I think for me, the biggest challenge has been getting to tracks for the first time and getting up to speed quickly while understanding the limits of the car. A lot of the recent rookies have been able to tear up some equipment and learn the limits of the car.
We’re in a situation where we have 12 cars rotating through all three teams. We tear up a car, and it puts us in a bad spot. So it’s tough for me to go out and push it, to find the limits of the car, because if I overstep those boundaries it’s going to put the entire team in a very bad spot. That’s been the biggest challenge.
Coming up, the road courses are going to be a big challenge. I don’t have much of a road racing background, but I’m going to Infineon with Chris Cook. He’s worked with a lot of drivers in the garage. Hopefully, that will pay off on the road courses. I’m looking forward to them. Last week at VIR [Virginia International Raceway] was the first time I’d been in a stock car on a road course, and it was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it, but it’s also going to be a huge challenge.
Keith: Besides the rookie title, what in terms of driver performance will constitute a successful year for you?
Conway: Staying in the Top 35 and winning the rookie title were our two goals this year. If we can accomplish that, it will be considered a successful season.
Keith: You didn’t get to run the Daytona 500, but now you’re approved. How stoked are you to get to run a Cup race at Daytona?
Conway: I’m super stoked. It was heartbreaking not to run the Daytona 500. That’s every race car driver’s dream. I’ll have to wait until February for that. But to get to run this Cup race right before they repave it is cool. I’m really looking forward to it.