Justin Lofton is one of NASCAR’s newest stars, coming into the Camping World Truck Series for Red Horse Racing (where he is currently 12th in driver points) this year following an ARCA championship season in 2009. The 24-year-old Westmorland, Calif., native made his third Nationwide Series start at New Hampshire this weekend for Baker Curb Racing, turning heads with his practice speeds and a ninth-place qualifying effort. It’s the latest of what will be a limited schedule in this division, while he hones his skills full-time at the Truck level: he’s got one top five there in nine starts.
Lofton sat down with Frontstretch’s Amy Henderson on Saturday, hours before running a respectable 17th to discuss his past and future as one of the sport’s rising talents… and Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies?
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: Tell us about your background as a racer. You started racing mountain bikes and now compete full-time in the Camping World Truck Series.
Justin Lofton: Yeah. I started racing downhill mountain bikes when I was, like, 11 or 12. I was actually racing BMX bikes before that. It was what my parents let me do instead of race go-karts. I had a couple friends who raced go-karts, and I don’t know if they were afraid or what, but they just didn’t want me to get into that yet.
So I started racing mountain bikes, and went from racing mountain bikes when I was 16 to racing hill climb cars when I was 17. That was because I broke my femur racing mountain bikes, so that kind of took me out and so I was able to drive a car and started racing a car in the hill climb series. I raced at Pike’s Peak in 2005, then from there, we ran really good, so I was like, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ So then I went into off-road racing and raced a limited horsepower, unlimited chassis car and was actually my dad’s pre-runner when he ran down in Mexico and stuff like that. I won six out of eight races and came in second in the other two, won Rookie of the Year, won the championship in our class and finished second overall.
From there, the natural transition was to go into late models. I went from racing late models at Irwindale Speedway, where we had six or seven poles, one win and a bunch of top fives, and from there it was just moving into Grand National cars. The Grand National cars led to the ARCA cars, and now I’m up here.
Henderson: You’re also the reigning ARCA champion. To get to that level in any series is tough.
Lofton: It requires a lot of good people, and what was really cool is that when I started racing, I was introduced to a lot of good people who introduced me to more good people.
I was introduced to Brad Parrott, and me and Brad became really good friends, and he’s the one who convinced me to move out east, then introduced me to Lorin Ranier who is now my agent. Lorin took me over and met Eddie Sharp, and he’s the one who sort of orchestrated the whole deal at the end of 2008, going into 2009. When I sat down with Lorin in 2008, he said ‘OK, if you want to make it, this is your recipe. You have to at least a run a race in 2008, you’ve got to run strong. People need to know who you are; no one knows who you are now. Then, in 2009 you have to win the championship.’ I don’t really know if that was true or not, that he knew that I could do it.
At the end of 2008, about five of the guys who are on my crew were let go from Ganassi Racing. I’d become good friends with them in the previous three years. We came together and the phone call to me was, ‘Hey, I just got fired, let’s go win a championship together.’ So I was just like, ‘OK, well I guess you’re hired.’ I was looking for a crew chief, so we put a whole crew together and we grew as close as any family can be. We went out together and won the championship, which led to more opportunities for us.
Henderson: You’ve also been running the Truck Series this year. What are your plans in that series? Will you run the entire season?
Lofton: Yes. I’m running the Truck Series full-time for Red Horse Racing, the No. 7 Toyota Tundra. We haven’t gotten off to a great start in it, but we’re trying to turn it around. They have a completely different feel, and I really had never realized how much feel I developed in a car until I got in the truck and it was like, ‘Wow, this is way different!’
Then, when I went from the truck and got back in a car, to run as good as we have so quickly… it’s a pretty natural thing for me.
Henderson: Do you prefer driving a car or a truck? Or is it just different?
Lofton: It’s just different. I really enjoy the challenge of the Truck Series. I just wish the races were a little more consistent than one or two races and then a month off, and then with the testing schedule and sponsorship money being so hard to find, it’s not like we can just say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a month off, we can just go test three or four times in the month off.’ We might get a test, but if that’s not there, we’ve got to sit around.
Henderson: You mentioned sponsorship money. The No. 27 Nationwide car is eighth in Nationwide Series owner points. Every driver this year has done well in it, but how hard is it for a young guy like you to get a ride in this series with all of the Cup guys?
Lofton: It’s really tough — that’s what you’re competing against basically every July, August, September when Silly Season starts going on. A perfect example is when we [Baker-Curb Racing] were kind of talking last year at this time, trying to work out the Red Man deal, and it was kind of like, ‘Well, you can have these few races [with a Nationwide driver] and carry into the next year, or you can have a Cup driver for these few races.’
It’s really tough. The sport has unfortunately put itself in that position. They do such a good job at giving exposure to Cup drivers that that’s what people want to see. It’s easy brand recognition for them. It’s unfortunate, but times are going to have to change really soon. There are guys out there that it’s time for them to hang up their helmets and let some kids come in.
Henderson: What do you have to do to get that brand recognition?
Lofton: What we’re doing this weekend… we had a solid practice. We were pretty good in qualifying — I was a little disappointed that I got a little anxious and overdrove the corner, but you’ll have that. Then, you just have to go out there and put in a real solid run.
We should finish in the top 10 at least… we should finish in the top five. [Ed. Note: Lofton drove to an 17th-place finish at New Hampshire.] These guys do a great job.
Henderson: Are there plans for more races in the No. 27?
Lofton: I’d like to, and I think they’d like to have me. It’s a matter of finding sponsorship. We had FFA [Future Farmers of America] come on this weekend for this race, which was really cool. It was something I was a part of when I was in high school, and Weekend Warriors TV on the hood. It was just one of those things that all came together at the last minute.
But I think once we get our Truck season kind of figured out and running well, that should make it easier. If I can get some excitement over on the Truck side, I can get some people interested and maybe they’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s go run some Nationwide races.’
Henderson: You talked before about having to compete for sponsorship against guys with proven brands. What do you have to do for a sponsor? Other than winning, is there anything else that you have to bring to the table?
Lofton: Honestly, if you find out, let me know! We haven’t done it yet. A lot of it is, you’ve got to put a solid program together for everyone involved, and you’ve got to do it on a budget. And that’s the hardest part: trying to run a race team on a reasonable budget and give them everything that they expect. There are a lot of people that might have the money to be out here right now, they’re just nervous about it and don’t know how it can benefit them.
Henderson: You talked about the importance of meeting good people. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten, and who did it come from?
Lofton: Honestly, I think my Grandma has given me the best advice ever, and that was, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s something that has stuck with me that I remember and live by all the time. If I want to be a Cup driver, I’d better act like a Cup driver, so I think that’s the best piece of advice I’ve gotten.
Henderson: What’s fun away from the racetrack?
Lofton: I’m super busy! We started — myself, my friend Brett and my sister — we’ve actually started WeekendWarriorsTV.com, which is our bi-weekly Internet racing TV show. It’s basically almost a replica of Thursday Night Thunder with a new twist. We’ve started that, and from there, that’s expanded into basically a full-out production company.
We’ve started making music videos, commercials, basically anything that requires video filming, anything like that. We’re going to start doing some short films at the end of the year, start entering some film fests. So that takes up a lot of my time, and then after that, I got back into mountain bike racing, play hockey — I try to keep myself nonstop, go go go!
Henderson: The last question is one we like to have a little fun with. You’re headed to the grocery store … what’s one item you always come home with in the bag?
Lofton: I’d have to say Cokes and cookies. Oreos, unless Grandma makes chocolate chip cookies!