Note: Brendan Gaughan wrote a driver diary for us in 2013 and 2014. It was my monthly task to corral the Las Vegas native for each piece, which often included one of his wild and crazy desert racing stories. I caught up with Gaughan in his Richard Childress Racing hauler before the XFINITY Series race in Charlotte last month, and while we talked a good bit about his 2015 season so far, the talk turned to desert racing and the fun those drivers have, and the stories flowed. If you want to get a driver to talk, ask him about those halcyon days when racing was the most fun he’s ever had.
And if the beginning of the interview seems out of place, it’s because Gaughan was wearing the jersey in question when I talked to him, as he often does.
Amy Henderson: You always wear your Georgetown basketball practice jersey under your uniform. Is that a superstition you have?
Brendan Gaughan: It’s just comfy.
Henderson: We used to talk all the time with your driver diary last year, but catch us up on 2015.
Gaughan: We’ve been really good and we’ve been fast all year, but we’ve had some bad breaks that have cost us a ton of points with this point system. It really sucks, this new point system. Well, I can’t say it sucks, but with this point system, it sucks when you have a bad race because it takes so long to make the points back up. You’re only making up one or two points at a time, but you lose 20 with one bad run. So it’s tough to gain chunks of points back, but we’ve been really fast all year. What are we, 10 races in and we’ve already got five or six top 10s. We’ve been quick in every race; there hasn’t been a race where we haven’t been in the top 10, so we’ve been good. The South Point team is the same group with a new car chief, that’s it. Everybody is really happy and we’re doing well and just enjoying this deal.
Henderson: You’ve been doing double duty this year, running the Cup Series with Premium Motorsports. I know that’s been a tough growth curve.
Gaughan: There are no misconceptions about what the team was when we started. We’re working hard to give Jay (Robinson, team owner) a better product to put on the racetrack. The main deal for me is it helps me in the XFINITY car. It normally gets on the racetrack first. So when I come over here, we’ve always talked about how I’ve never been the guy who could go out and lay that fast lap down early. Well, this helps me. I get so I feel comfortable in the car and then I jump in the RCR stuff, and it’s so nice over here. My interior guy, Scott, gets the car so comfy, and Shane (Wilson, crew chief) and our car chief — it’s so nice to jump in this stuff when I know how good it is. I feel like a million bucks every time I jump in it, especially after going from the Cup practice. So it’s helping me. I wish I could get them in the shows and get them running a little better, just get things better, but until then, it’s still helping my XFINITY side, and that was a big goal of that program.
Henderson: With two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum, how do you approach the two sides?
Gaughan: It is definitely the other end of the spectrum. It’s all about managing expectations on each side. When I’m running the RCR stuff, there are very, very high expectations. When I’m running for Premium Motorsports, I have to know what we’re trying to accomplish, what I’m trying to do. That’s really the biggest thing, making sure we manage those expectations and do them back and forth and understand that I’m not in RCR equipment, but not treat that team any differently. Jay and those guys work hard, they’re nice, nice, people; it’s just a different world. It’s kind of fun to go from the top of the heap to a team struggling to make shows, it really puts life in perspective.
Henderson: With the small teams, it really is a progression, starting with making races, then running for top 35s, then top 30s and so on.
Gaughan: With Jay, we were expecting it to be a little bit better from the start, and it wasn’t as good as we expected. So there has been a little bit of an adaptation to it not being as good as we want it to be. But like you said, we have to learn how to move it back together, to piece it back together and go. We’re working on that. It definitely is a lot of fun going from RCR and top 5 speeds every week to the Premium Motorsports deal where we’re struggling really hard to make the show.
Henderson: You’re in your second year of XFINITY Series racing with RCR, and you said the team stayed together except for your car chief?
Gaughan: This is the same group that we’ve had together really since the Truck year. Since Shane and I got back together in 2013 in the Truck Series, we’ve basically had the same crew. We had a different car chief in the truck than we did in the first year in XFINITY, and then a different car chief this year. Our original car chief, Billy Haggerty, is the one who runs our plate at the shop. He stays at home; he had a baby and wanted to stay home. That works out perfect for us — the guy who was our car chief is the guy who gets our racecars ready each week, and then Josh Cisco was my car chief last year. It was his first car chiefing gig. We talked about him being a rookie and getting up to speed, and he did such a great job that he got put over on the No. 3 Cup car to work under Chad Haney to learn how to be a car chief over there. It was a great opportunity for him, and I’m really happy for him. At the same time, being at a team like RCR… gee, it sucked — I got stuck with this guy named Craig Smokestadt, who’s only got about 25 years car chief experience. It’s not like RCR went, ‘well, we don’t want to hire anybody.’ They wanted to go with somebody in-house and we got a great car chief and every piece is the same now for the past two and a half years.
Gaughan: We’re fast every week. Every team is fast. What hurt us was the wreck at Talladega; it cost us a ton of points. Daytona is Daytona; you see where you manage from there. But we were up to fourth or fifth in points, life was good, and then the wreck at Talladega just moved us down. It’s so tight, it really hurts you.
Henderson: We’ve talked in the past about your off-road background, but how old were you when you started doing that stuff, and what kind of progression does that bring to the table?
Gaughan: I grew up watching it — my father raced. I started racing when I was 15. When most people go to the NASCAR world, they learn how to set up at a street stock level or a bomber level, or a Bandolero or Legends car and they learn the NASCAR side of things from there. I built my first racecars for the desert. I’m able to do that stuff in the desert still today. It’s just a different world from here. I started with a Class 10 with my partner J.C. Dean. We were teammates from 1991 to like ’95. We won four of five championships in a row. We were just two 15-year-old kids who would drive a car and beat the hell out of ourselves. We had so much fun. You progress through the faster ranks there, too. That’s what I did in the off-road world, then went to the NASCAR world and did the same thing: Winston West, Trucks, to Cup, now XFINITY and Sprint Cup. It’s almost 20 years now in this sport.
Henderson: The off-road guys always seem to have great car control. Is that the biggest thing you can bring from that type of racing?
Gaughan: We’ve always said that dirt drivers, even the circle-track dirt guys always have really good car control. I think though that the desert drivers have even more. You look at some of the saves that Robby Gordon used to make. Look at some of the saves Jimmie Johnson is able to make, and Casey Mears. We are all old desert racers and you definitely have to learn a whole other level of car control to do the type of racing that we did.
Henderson: You told a lot of desert racing stories in your diary — do you have a favorite one?
Gaughan: You ask any desert racer to talk about their race, and they are epic every week. We’ve hit cows, I know a guy who got a snake in his car one time. Hell, in a race I raced with my father a month or so ago — he was back in the desert and I raced with him — we almost won our class; we finished second. The guy who won broke. We found out he took his distributor out in the middle of the desert, fixed it with another tool and a rat-tail file, fixed it out there in the desert, put the distributor back in and got the car to run. The stuff that happens in desert racing is unlike anything else in the world. There’s no one story you can pick. Every race has its epic dramas. They’re awesome. You could go up to a desert racer, like Walker Evans, Parnelli Jones, Robby Gordon, and name a race and we can tell you something that happened and be like, ‘holy crap, that was fun!’ I got hit with a potato gun in a race one year. A bazooka. And it was my own guy! Stuff that happens in the desert is so wild. It’s fun.
Casey Mears and I used to be teammates. Casey and I sadly raced for the Mirage Racing team in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series back in the early 1990s. It was a super-lite class that Jimmie Johnson was champion of and me and Casey had these really slow, really badly designed cars.
Henderson: So that’s changed how?
Gaughan: (Laughing) Yeah. And we worked our tails off in those things, and we were bad. I think Casey was 15 and I was like 17 or 18 — he’s a couple of years younger than me. It was him and me and his cousin Clint. We were all on the same team along with J.C., who I was talking about. J.C., me, Clint and Casey were all teammates and we were kids having the best time of our lives. We’re still trying to have the best time of our life, but it won’t come close to what we were when we were kids.