Danica? Danica who? It’s Jennifer Jo Cobb who’s about to make history in stock cars this Friday, breaking through while establishing a type of short-term success few in her position have ever had. NASCAR’s only full-time female driver in any of the sport’s top-three divisions, she’ll finish her rookie season 17th in the Truck Series standings following the checkered flag at Homestead. It’s a record high for any woman in NASCAR’s modern era, a season of consistent, steady growth that included two top-15 finishes and just two DNFs for wrecks – not bad for a first-year participant still learning the ropes.
As Cobb’s season in the Camping World Truck Series comes to a close, she sat down with Frontstretch‘s Bryan Davis Keith to discuss the learning curve associated with big-time auto racing, the lessons learned and how she plans to approach her 2011 campaign.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: How would you sum up your first season as a full-time Truck Series driver?
Jennifer Jo Cobb: Fun. Living the dream, that’s for sure. I was hoping for better performance by now; I thought we would be pushing into the top 10 by the end of the year, and quite honestly we were at Talladega. But we have done so much with so little, and I think that’s the biggest story of all. We’ve been able to be here week after week, to persevere and stay in it, and God willing, we’ve only got a few races left to finish it out, make a little history on the way. [We] hope to pick up some sponsorship, and that next year will only be better.
Keith: Speaking of limited resources, give us some perspective. What have you put this season together with?
Cobb: Way under a million dollars. It takes $3-5 million to run a full season in the Camping World Truck Series, while we’ve bought everything from the trucks to the hauler and handled payroll for well under a million dollars.
Keith: From a driver development perspective, what has it meant not only learning how to race trucks, but dealing with resource constraints and equipment constraints?
Cobb: Sometimes you go, “Oh my gosh, is it me or is it the truck?” Is this the best we can do, even with all the years of heartache and all the money that’s gone into it? Because I don’t know about you, but well under a million dollars is still a lot of money. It gets frustrating at times. Nothing will take a driver’s confidence like having an ill-handling truck. You’ll wonder, “Why can’t I figure this out? Why can’t I make it go faster?” In that regard, it’s been challenging. But the level of comfort I feel now compared to the beginning of the year in the Trucks is phenomenal. The amount of confidence I have is wonderful, and it’s been a long time now since I’ve doubted myself or asked, “Am I in over my head?”
It’s happened a couple of times this year, especially at Dover. That track was crazy! It was physically painful, with all those G-forces. I don’t know if I was sick, but everything hit me at Dover. Now, I can’t wait to go back and see what experience will bring me at a track like that. So I really do enjoy the challenge of it, and embrace the opportunity to become better.
Keith: A lot of times when we see teams trying to put a season together week-to-week, there’s always a case made that visibility at the track week after week is key. Being at the track every race, even if you’re not running in the top 10, what impact has that had for your team?
Cobb: From a fan perspective, I am so grateful to have the love and respect I do from so many fans. They have their top-notch favorite who’s going to win, and then I’m their favorite, too. And I’m OK with that. I have to have a growing process and time to get to where we’re vying to win. I want to be up there, and my fans know that. So, from a fan perspective, it’s really been a warm, fuzzy year. I haven’t gotten a whole lot of negative feedback, just a little bit here and there, but even with those folks, I’ve just enjoyed communicating with the fans this year. Via Facebook, via Twitter, emails, [I’ve had fun] trying to be an inspiration. I’m out here living my dream.
You know, I’m spiritual, and I ask myself what does God want me to leave on this Earth? I’m not a doctor healing people. I’m not a police officer protecting people. So maybe I’m a racecar driver that can inspire people. That’s my thing, the bigger thing beyond me. The fan interaction has just been fantastic.
As far as sponsorship, it’s a real slow-moving train. I wish we had more smaller companies with $5,000 and $10,000 here and there. We had some great sponsorship in the Kansas City area with Mark One Electric and Metro Ford for both of those races, and now Guier Fence followed us from Kansas City to Texas. We even picked up a cosmetics sponsor, Lilly’s Cosmetics, and that came solely from being involved with the series, having other teams in the garage going, “That’s your girl, that’s who you want to sponsor.”
Now, talk about a sponsor that’s going to let me be who I am! I’m a racecar driver, but I’m also a girly girl and I love makeup. So we’re going to have a pink truck and I’ll have a pink driving uniform. I never wanted any of those things, even when I was just starting, but now that there’s a sponsor behind it, I’m all for it. So I’m hoping that everyone that supported us this year can come back and do it again next year.
It might happen one race at a time, but I know we’ll start out the season at Daytona. [From there], no matter what happens, I just want to do everything better. Even if we run half of the season and run it better… this year was about survival and doing it, an accomplishment. And I think this year has been a pretty decent accomplishment. Now next year, it’s about getting serious and getting top finishes.
Keith: Assuming that next year is again a case of patching sponsorship together week after week, and improvement is the goal, does that mean instead of stretching dollars to do more races you’ll scale back and come to select tracks well prepared? Do you take the mentality of, “We’re going to come to Kansas with a full tire allotment and run it to the best of our ability?”
Cobb: That’s definitely been on my mind. It breaks my heart to think about not being part of this series full-time, and to not be able to try to best our points position. Those are my wants, but at the very least I think we could scale back and put ourselves in position to run better.
What we’re lacking as a team right now is not just resources, but time. We’ve operated with the same trucks since Kansas, the same three trucks. Our fourth was wrecked at Kansas, so we’ve just been recycling the same three all year. Mostly two, one of them only came out for Bristol. So only two trucks all year… they’re tired. They need to be rebuilt, they need to be refreshed and redone. With our engines, we may not be able to do a final engine rebuild for the last race. Everything is tired, and we need refreshment in our stable. Next year, I don’t want to put our trucks and people in that position. We either need more people and better resources, or to scale back.
Keith: You’ve entered the NASCAR realm at an interesting time for female racers as Danica Patrick made her debut this year. It’s obviously two different approaches; your team is trying to survive, Danica has entered with a huge marketing platform and a brand already established. What kind of impact has that had on you this season?
Cobb: It’s been more of a positive for me. I don’t mean this to be negative towards Danica, but people do see the type of money that’s put behind her racing program. Me, I’m very open and honest with fans and the media about what we have to work with and what we’re trying to do. And doing what we’re doing, I think we’re really having more success in the Truck Series then she’s having in the Nationwide Series, and we have very limited resources while they have all the resources in the world. But I think it’s been positive.
The positive I see coming out of it is that [seeing Danica], it’s hard. People see someone with those resources and who a lot of people believe in as a driver and spokesperson, they see a person like that struggle, and they’ll come to respect… I mean, there’s a number of drivers out here that come out and make this look easy. They’re really, really good. And then there’s some of us that get some media attention, but we have to struggle in front of everybody. Danica, myself, everybody has to have a learning curve. Danica has to do hers, unfortunately, in front of the world with a big spotlight on her. [At the same time], she’s going to get to keep racing because of that spotlight and those sponsors.
I feel like I’m in a fortunate position where I have a very loyal fanbase, and I feel like the media focus in the Truck Series is on me when I do well. When I’m not doing well, they leave me alone. When there’s not a story there to highlight, they’re not out here saying “Oh, she qualified 31st.” I don’t want them talking about that, and they’re not forced to talk about that. When I start qualifying up front and vying to win races, that will be a big story, and people will go, “oh, here’s an overnight sensation” because I wasn’t highlighted before. I’m fortunate to have my struggles under the radar. Instead of sitting here wishing I got all that attention, I’m sitting here saying, “This is great!”
I’m learning in a little bit of a cocoon. We’ve got a great crew, we don’t throw each other under the bus. I gave my crew chief a hard time, we ran out of a fuel a little while back. And I told him, “Well Steve, of all my fans, everyone told me to buy you a calculator, but nobody told me to fire you.” I’m weighing the mistake made with all of the long nights put in with only two employees, and I told him there’s not a crew chief out here with as small of a salary and as big of a heart.
Keith: Looking at this season, where have you most improved as a driver? And where do you need to really hone in on next year?
Cobb: The biggest improvement has been in learning the oddities and aerodynamics of the truck. Getting used to the pitch in the truck, the right rear hanging out, or if a vibration is serious or not-so-serious. I’ve had so many vibrations this year, but nothing’s fallen off, so I’m starting to ignore them.
It’s learning the feel of the truck. What I need to get better at for next year is, instead of trying to make my truck faster, faster, faster, and we’ve already started working on this in practice, is learning how does the truck run on a light fuel load and worn tires? How does it drive with a full load of fuel and sticker tires on it? Is it good on both, is it consistent? Alright, now we’ve got a good truck, we can go race instead of worrying about the speed charts, chasing tenths of seconds that we can only maintain for a few laps. I think that’s the biggest thing, to learn what’s important to having a good race truck. I think we can continue to improve there.