Chicken is pretty good. For John Wes Townley, it has given him a career doing what he loves – racing cars/trucks for a living. But racing with his father’s company, Zaxby’s, slapped on his cars since his NASCAR debut in 2008, the Georgia native has lived a life full of harsh criticism.
His wild hair and tendency to wreck quite frequently at the start of his career created a fan’s perfect combination to make fun of a man that had worked thoroughly to make a dream come true. However, amidst the bombardment, Townley has recently excelled in NASCAR, arguably becoming the most improved driver in 2015 – finishing in the top 10 five times through 12 races and competing for a win at Atlanta in the Camping World Truck Series. His family-owned Athenian Motorsports team has flourished in the Truck Series, and is also fighting for its survival in the Xfinity Series, adding Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Alex Bowman and rookie Dylan Lupton to improve the team’s performance.
As Townley continues to perform well, he is expecting a trophy in the Truck Series before the season is complete. His growth after years of mediocrity has shut up naysayers, and completing all but 77 laps in the division this year for the highest-standing Truck Series team in the championship standings is further evidence that is he not the inexperienced spoiled kid that everyone thought he was. In this exclusive interview with Frontstretch, Townley breaks down how he is running so well, what the future holds, an unbelievable series of events following a wild wreck at Pocono Raceway in 2014 during ARCA qualifying and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: What has been the biggest difference in the team this season?
John Wes Townley: I would say the people and having room to work. We have a nice, big shop to spread our legs out in. We’ve made good changes, but the equipment is just top-notch. The people we have working here are top-notch. It really shows out there on the racetrack.
Wolkin: Until Pocono, you were inside the top five in points. Did you expect the team to be so strong this year?
Townley: I expected it to be good, but never have I had it in my racing career have I had it to where every week – like we might have a good run one week and next week have an average one – but it has just been consistent. We are running inside of the top 10 and if not the top five in the Truck Series. I would say that I didn’t quite expect to be that good. I’m really excited about where we are going. I’m pretty confident that we will get a win before the season is over.
Wolkin: The Chevys have been rather behind the Toyotas this year. The only ones to win this year come from the part-time JR Motorsports effort. Are you guys missing anything compared to the Toyotas and the two Fords?
Townley: I don’t think so. I think a lot of the picture is those guys don’t run every week. They have more time to sit back and think and look at the races from the past. They can make better decisions on the setups that they are using. They can put more time and effort into it because they are only running a few races a year. Everybody is backed up in a corner, and not just us, even the competitive guys. You have to go out there and run something decent each week instead of sitting there for three months and figuring out what setup you’ll use.
Wolkin: You are the highest-ranked Chevy in the standings. How big has the addition of Michael Shelton been for you guys?
Townley: He has been great. The calls this guy makes are just wonderful. I have no complaints about Michael. Everything has been positive.
Wolkin: What does he do different compared to the other crew chiefs that you have had?
Townley: I think he gets me and I get him. He is really laid back and I’m really laid back, so I think it is a good mix. In the past, my crew chiefs haven’t really been that laid back. The communication wasn’t that quite good. The communication between Michael and I is just stellar.
Wolkin: You have led only five laps in your Truck Series career. What do you need to do to win a race in that series?
Townley: I think this year, we are there. All we need is a little bit of luck. I think sooner or later – probably this year – it will happen.
Wolkin: A year ago, you had an awful wreck at Pocono during ARCA qualifying. What do you remember about that day?
Townley: Things are kind of fuzzy after the hit. I never lost consciousness, but it definitely rung my bell a bit. I remember the rest of the day, but everything else is distorted. I felt like I was in a daze. I went back out there and worked my way back out there and after three laps, I was back to running full throttle by the tunnel turn, which was where it happened. I got my guts back.
Wolkin: What effects did you have after the accident?
Townley: Well, there weren’t noticeable issues that I had. NASCAR has a testing software that they have drivers take after a driver has a hard wreck. They’ll have a driver take a baseline test and get that score. Whatever that score is, if they feel like you have had a wreck that is substantial enough, they’ll have you retake the test. If the results aren’t quite as high, they’ll make you wait another week before they let you get back in the car. It wasn’t anything that I could feel at the time. The test was just so sensitive that it picks up very minor things.
Wolkin: What did they say was wrong with you?
Townley: There wasn’t really anything ever wrong. My head hadn’t healed fully from the concussion, and I felt fine. The test is so precise. It shows things that you don’t even notice.
Wolkin: How worried were you about your career at the time?
Townley: I don’t know if I was worried as much as I was pissed off. I just wanted to get back out there. Every time I went back to that doctor, I was like ‘oh man, is he going to do the same thing again?’ At the end of the day, I understand why they do it, so you don’t go out there and hurt yourself again before it is healed. It ended up working out at the end. I just hated that I couldn’t run the full schedule last year. It is looking like it is going to happen this year – knock on wood (looks around his hauler for wood to knock on).
Wolkin: After getting back on track at Pocono, how difficult was it to get back to racing at a place where you had such a serious injury?
Townley: I did a warm-up lap or two and slowly worked my way back up to speed. Not going to lie, it was a little bit intimidating on that first lap. After about two laps, I was back to running it the same way as I was before.
Wolkin: Shifting gears, your Xfinity Series team hasn’t run as well as the Truck Series one. What is missing over there?
Townley: It is hard to say. It’s something that we have scratched our heads on for a while. Between the top-15 cars out there, a lot of those guys are Cup-affiliated teams. The issue with that is you have people with $20-$40 million and money from the Cup side that didn’t get used. That obviously creates a lot more resources for those guys. They have a lot more data because they have been doing it for more years. I think it really gives everyone else a disadvantage. Plus, it doesn’t help that nobody can test. That is probably our biggest issue.”
Wolkin: You guys put Alex Bowman in the car for a few races. What information has he shared with you that can help the team for the rest of the year?
Townley: Alex is a great driver. But if anything, Alex has just confirmed our suspicions that it has definitely been the car. Whenever Alex gets in or Dylan Lupton gets in, we have the same results. The information we get from those guys is very similar. We have to work on the front end of the car. I know we’ll get there eventually. It’s just going to take time.
Wolkin: What exactly is wrong with the front end?
Townley: It’s just all engineering way beyond me. It comes down to pick-up points. There is actually a software that you can run on the car, and there is something called a K&C [Kinematics and Compliance] rig and it simulates the lateral load at certain racetracks. It’s something that those Cup guys that I spoke of earlier have access to. We could easily go purchase that, but we don’t have the engineers to look at that information and make adequate decisions based upon it. It’s just a slow process.
Wolkin: Speaking of Dylan, how has his development been thus far?
Townley: He has been doing really well. You have to step back for a second and think about how this kid has never driven these cars before. He has raced something similar in the K&N Pro Series West. He was running those before, and to go out there and to be competitive in these cars is a completely different animal. It took me at least a year to get my feet wet and after that, too.
Wolkin: What is the most difficult part about being a single-car/truck team in both divisions?
Townley: Just not having a teammate to fall back on when you are struggling. When you have a teammate, you can be testing two different packages at the same time. With this deal, we only test one package at a time, whereas you can test two packages at a time and after the first practice, I’ll come back and sit down in the hauler and compare notes to see what is different, assuming we would have identical cars. That’s a big disadvantage and at the superspeedways not having any teammates.
Wolkin: What are your plans for next season?
Townley: I definitely want to run the full Truck Series season again. I think we’re going to look at running as many Xfinity races as we can. Everything is up in the air. It could be full-time Xfinity Series and part-time Truck Series.
Wolkin: What about attempting a Cup race?
Townley: I think next year we might try to do one. We may try to squeeze one in by the end of this year. We’ll see what happens.