Most drivers spend years in lower divisions before they are recruited by a NASCAR team, racing from the time they could still count their age on one hand. For Blake Koch, the road was much faster than that, as he competed in only 20 races in his driving career before he was recruited by the Richard Childress Racing Driver Development program back in 2009.
Now, Koch has 160 starts across all three NASCAR national series (10 in the Camping World Truck Series, 144 in the Xfinity Series, and 6 in the Sprint Cup Series) – and counting. Currently, Koch competes for TriStar Motorsports in the NXS and is rejoining them with sponsor LeafFilter in 2016.
Racecar driver, outdoorsman, Christian, family man… Koch already has a story to tell but still has a long career ahead of him in the sport of NASCAR. Summer Bedgood caught up with Koch at Kansas Speedway to discuss his future, his goals, and what makes him who he is today.
Summer Bedgood, Frontstretch: You re-signed with TriStar Motorsports for 2016. What do you see with the future of this race team that makes you want to return next year?
Blake Koch: The biggest thing is just keeping my sponsors happy. That’s what this whole sport’s about is making sure your sponsors are having a good time and seeing improvements on the racetrack and off the racetrack, but mainly just keeping LeafFilter happy and selling more LeafFilter. It’s been going so good this year that they signed on for next year! It will be my third year with TriStar and I just love (team owner) Mark (Smith) and (wife) Kathy to death and everything they’ve done for me. But when it all comes down to it, it’s really what the sponsor wants to do and Mark and LeafFilter, they all have a great relationship so it’s a good fit.
Bedgood: Expanding on the that, how important was having this full-time sponsor in getting you re-signed for next season and in general how important is having that full-time sponsor?
Koch: It’s huge important! I mean, you can’t race without a sponsor so I think that is the reason — I know that is the reason – I was able to sign on for 2016 is because I have a full-time sponsor. Just the growth that LeafFilter has had with the company, they can also turn that over to the growth they’ve had in NASCAR. They went from a two-race sponsor last year in the Cup Series to sponsoring three races this year in the NXS, then they turned that into a 15-race deal. Then they took the rest of the season and next year. So they’re just growing and it’s great.
Bedgood: How did that relationship with LeafFilter start?
Koch: It started when they sponsored the No. 32 Cup car and Archie [St. Hilaire] the owner called me to see if I could drive it at Charlotte, and I said, “Yeah!” And I went there and I drove it, built a relationship with LeafFilter, and Archie had already signed on a different driver and LeafFilter wanted to stay with me. They saw a fit here at TriStar and that’s how it really began.
Bedgood: How do you guys measure success as opposed to some other teams in the garage area?
Koch: We just want to keep improving. To us, when we come here and want to get a top 15 and a top 10 would be huge, to where other teams come here and they’re not gonna be happy unless they win the race. I think that’s the difference. A lot of people say top 20s for us, but we’re not happy with a top 20. We know we can be better than that. So we come here to get a top-15 or a top-10 finish and we don’t have either of those this year. We’ve got four more races* to do it. We’re gonna put our heads down and try to make that happen.
Bedgood: When do you think we might see you in the Sprint Cup Series again?
Koch: Whenever I get a phone call to come drive one probably! I’m not really actively pursuing a ride in the Cup Series. It’s really, really a tough deal and to be honest with you, I enjoy being competitive in the NXS more than I do kinda being at the tail end of the field in the Cup Series. Those teams over there are so good and there’s so much money, and it’s just pretty difficult to crack into it. Once you start running up front in this series, I think organically you will flow into the Cup Series. But you gotta be competitive in this series first. Like I said, I don’t even have a top 10 in the NXS ever, so I’m more focused on doing that than I am the Cup Series.
Bedgood: How close do you think you are to reaching that goal?
Koch: I don’t really know, to be honest with you. We gotta get a lot of things in order, but we’re doing a lot of things for next year to hopefully ramp up our program to be able to finish in the top 10 here or there. You saw we led the road course (Road America) there for a little while until we had a battery issue. The superspeedways or road courses, we’re definitely able to finish in the top 10, but at the intermediates or short tracks, we’re a little off. We have some stuff working in the offseason where hopefully it pushes us up the ranks a little more.
Bedgood: What kinds of things are you working on?
Koch: Mainly cars to be honest with you! We went from a three-car team to a four-car team this year and had to slowly build cars, and then I wrecked a lot of cars and (teammates) David [Starr] and Cale [Conley], they were ready to get ahead of the game because we crashed a lot early in this year. So in the offseason, we’re looking to build new racecars and go into the offseason ahead of the game and I think that’s going to be a big part of it. And just consistency! You know, I’m on my third crew chief this year, so just to have the same crew chief for a year is a big deal and really important. Gotta have that consistent car every week and also have a better car and we’re doing that.
Bedgood: What are your emotions like heading into the offseason after having the year you’ve had?
Koch: Well you always try to end Homestead really good! We have a new car being built and hopefully going to debut it at Homestead. You’re only as good as your last race in this sport. If you have a good run at Homestead, it makes you kind of forget about the other 32 races. We’re really putting a lot of effort into the last race of the year. It’s a big deal for all of my sponsors. A couple of them are Florida based and I’m from Florida so it’s like a home track. LeafFilter, some of their executives and the owner are flying down there. We just gotta have a good run in Homestead.
Bedgood: I once heard from a driver that he turned away a sponsor because they conflicted with his faith. You’re a very faith-based person. If a driver came to you and you felt like they didn’t mesh well with your Christian beliefs, what would you tell them?
Koch: I’ve never had to face that. I’ve never turned down a sponsor because of my Christian beliefs. I think I’ve never been approached by a company that would interfere with my Christian beliefs because of how outspoken I am about my faith, so I guess we’ll just cross that path when it comes. I haven’t seen it and now that I have LeafFilter as a primary sponsor, I hopefully never have to come across that situation.
Bedgood: I was entertained by Carter’s “count to 10” video on Twitter. How do your children impact you as a driver and do they get excited about being at the racetrack and around racecars?
Koch: Right now my daughter (Bailey) is at an age where it’s pretty much a pain in the butt to take her to the racetrack. But my son, he gets really excited when he sees cars. There has been some rule changes where kids can’t be in the pits when cars are on the track, so really he only gets to go to a few now and just comes down for driver introductions and then leaves and we let him go to MRO, the Motor Racing Outreach Community Center, and my wife can watch the race. But he loves it! He watches it on TV. Last night, I was tucking him into bed and I was like, “Buddy, Daddy’s got to fly to a NASCAR race to go to Kansas.” And he goes, “Okay, I’ll watch you!” So he’s gonna watch me on TV. And it’s just cool but we don’t get much air time, and I wish we did so he could see me, but he knows I’m out there and he does understand. Having my family is such a big part of everything. A bad race goes out the window as soon as I get home and he runs up and hugs me and my wife kisses me. We sit down as a family and you kind of forget about the bad race and move on to the next one.
Bedgood: Do you think he’ll want to follow in your footsteps?
Koch: I absolutely think he’ll want to follow in my footsteps! I didn’t even get into a racecar until I was 20 years old. I’m not saying I’m the best there is, but I’ve been able to stay here in this sport for a while and I’m still here and I didn’t start until I was 20. So it’s not like a huge rush to get him in a go-kart when he’s four or five or anything like that. I think there’s a lot of importance and value in being in a team sport whether it’s baseball or soccer or whatever and just building those social skills and learn how to work with people and the importance of teamwork and everybody working together. I think there’s a lot of things. I’m definitely going to support anything he wants to do, even if it’s not driving a racecar because it is a tough industry and a tough business, but if he wants to do it I’ll fully back it.
Bedgood: You didn’t start all until you were 20?
Koch: Yes, the first time I ever got into a racecar was when I was 20.
Bedgood: What kind of cars were they?
Koch: It was a full-size car. It’s called a Pro Truck in Florida, like stock trucks. It’s a south Florida series called the Pro Truck Series. Then the next year I got a late model and then the year after that I got a K&N ride for the RCR development program.
Bedgood: So what kinds of things do you do with your family on off weeks or in the offseason?
Koch: Well, it depends. A lot of the offseason we’ll spend in Florida and it’s changing now that we have two kids instead of one and we’re actually going to spend Christmas in North Carolina for the first time. All of our family is in Florida so normally we go down for Homestead and we stay there for most of the offseason. But this year, we’re just going to stay through Thanksgiving and drive back home. My son is old enough to know what Christmas is, presents and all of that kind of stuff, so I’m excited for him to wake up Christmas morning and open gifts and stuff like that. But I mean, we don’t really do anything crazy. We go for walks. He likes to play outside. He’s got a little scooter and a little Hot Wheels pickup truck he likes to drive in our cul-de-sac. I’ll go out and shoot my bow in the backyard. He likes to watch me shoot my bow. He’s a real outdoors kids so it’s pretty good.
Bedgood: I was looking at your Facebook and noticed the crew member spotlight you do for your team members. What is the camaraderie like on this race team and why is it important for your fans to know about them?
Koch: The drivers get so much of the spotlight. But really, I can’t do anything without my team. If one guy messes up, the whole weekend is screwed up. If I mess up, the whole weekend is screwed up. If we all work together and we accomplish all of our goals, it’s a great weekend. You can’t miss one person of our race team and have a good day, so the importance of everybody working together as a team and pumping each other up and keeping each other accountable I think is a huge part of success at our race team just like any other team sport. A lot of people don’t look at racing as a team sport, but they’re called race teams. We are a team and when I need tires, someone’s gotta jack it up and change my tires. If they’re slow, I lose all the positions I worked for, so you gotta pump those guys up to do the best they can and the guys at the shop just making sure everything is right, on the pull-down making sure springs are hitting like they need to. It’s just so much about the people that work on my car. Really, I get all the spotlight, but I just get to drive the car. I get the fun job and the exciting job! When it’s a great day, I get all the credit. It’s kind of a little unfair. So that’s why want to put the spotlight on my guys every once in a while.
Bedgood: I saw on one of them you mentioned a few songs on his travel playlist. What do you have on yours?
Koch: I don’t listen to much music. When I do listen to music, it’s either Christian music, or my little brother whose name is Christian James. He has two songs out right now and I listen to those just because I think he’s good and I like to support him and it has good, clean lyrics. I think he’s gonna be a superstar one day! His name is Christian James. He’s got one original on YouTube and then one cover he did. I don’t even remember the name of his original song but it’s really good.
* -This interview occurred prior to the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway. Koch finished 25th.