He started in sim racing, is in an online college career and has a NASCAR K&N Pro East Series title at just 18 years old. This is William Byron who now dives head-first into the 2016 racing season with Kyle Busch Motorsports in his first full-time Camping World Truck Series season.
Setting the K&N East world on fire in 2015, winning four races and taking the championship in his first year, Byron officially began his Truck Series career at the tail end of 2015 at Phoenix International Raceway. The race didn’t last long as he was caught in a multi-truck crash on lap 6, however, it was the start of the next step in his NASCAR career.
Finishing 13th at Daytona International Speedway after a late spin to begin 2016, Byron ran into engine trouble at Atlanta Motor Speedway. What made the plume of smoke even more gut-wrenching was the fact he was running second at the time of the failure – an impressive gain from his 15th starting spot.
Fronstretch sat down with Byron at Daytona to discuss his career to date, inspirations from the Sprint Cup Series field and how the online world can help NASCAR in the future.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch: Have you really seen anything like this Daytona Rising?
William Byron: No I haven’t. I haven’t been able to go up there a lot over the last week but it really looks amazing from the outside perspective with all the grandstands together. It really looks like a stadium. It’s awesome to be here and to be a part of that.
Catanzareti: Do you get a feeling that you really made it in racing when you race here?
Byron: I definitely feel a lot of excitement because I’m finally racing in Daytona and part of the events. I think it’s just kind of a dream come true to race here and to be a part of the Truck race.
Catanzareti: Talk about being with this team. KBM, obviously having Kyle Busch, he just won [Duel No. 2], defending champion. What does it feel like to be with him for this season?
Byron: Feels really good. The guys at Kyle Busch Motorsports work really hard and they have just a lot of great notes and background on the Truck Series. It’s really awesome to work with people like that that are able to do their job so effectively. I’m just looking forward to seeing what we can do in the race tonight and going forward for all the races this year.
Catanzareti: Talk about you and Liberty University and that whole relationship you have with them and how you’ve been able to both combine racing and the school.
Byron: So I started racing online before I started racing in a real car. The biggest thing was translating that into my real career where I started having success when I was 15 years old. I proposed that to [Liberty University] and how they could grow their online schooling program. Their students can go out and learn in a certain field online and then take it to a real job inside their community. They’ve really been a huge part of my support program the last three years. Just looking forward to having them full-time on the truck this year in the Camping World Truck Series.
Catanzareti: Do you think it’s a good way to bring younger fans into the sport having a college here in NASCAR?
Byron: I think so. I think the biggest thing is trying to get the younger demographic of kids maybe 16 or 17 that are looking to go to college there either residential or online. And also catering to the fans that already exist and maybe want to go back and get an education online and take a few courses and see what it’s like. It’s open to anybody. And that’s what’s so great about the sponsorship is that it can help anybody from all ages.
Catanzareti: Do you have any friends from Liberty who come to the race track to support you and watch the races?
Byron: I have a few. I have Mr. Moon is actually coming tonight. He’s part of the Liberty University program. It’s really cool that he’s coming. We’ve had Mr. Falwell come to a few of the race over the past year. He came to Bristol last year and he really enjoyed it. It’s awesome to have their support and have them actually come out and see the races firsthand. I think that really helps.
Catanzareti: A lot of 18-year-olds usually struggle with public speaking. How are you?
Byron: Not that it’s easy, but I think, especially with doing it so much the past few years, I love what I do. I love racing and marketing is a part of that. Public speaking is a big part of what I do and I just love talking about the races so it makes it a lot easier.
Catanzareti: You had that Truck start at Phoenix last year. It didn’t last too long unfortunately but does that give you any more of a comfortable feeling coming into here at Daytona, knowing you’ve been in this series at least once before?
Byron: It gives me some comfort just knowing that we can compete and knowing that we had speed on a mile-long track like that. We’ve been able to test over the offseason a little bit. It just made me more comfortable in the truck. I definitely think going through the process of practice, qualifying and some of the race definitely helps.
Catanzareti: Ever since the K&N East title, what has the time been like? Have you been coming in with that on your back with a lot of momentum or have people been telling you this is completely different and it’s still going to be a learning curve?
Byron: I’m probably the hardest on myself to say that it’s totally different. I just look at it as a totally different experience. I try and take some things away from what I learned, mentally, going through the process fo running for the championship and the wins we had. Other than that, I’m kind of looking at it with an open mind jumping into it new with everything.
Catanzareti: You were in the ARCA race last week, came up short of the win. Have you been tossing and turning in bed thinking of those last few laps?
Byron: [Laughter] Not really. Once that race was over I just focused on the Truck race and see how we can get better for that and try and win that one because that one would mean a lot. The ARCA race was good to get that experience of what it’s like to race in Daytona, the intensity and stuff like that.
Catanzareti: You posted a picture from Media Day, you were standing next to Jimmie Johnson doing interviews. What’s it like being around those Sprint Cup guys?
Byron: It’s really cool. Jimmie was really kind of like an idol of mine growing up. Now being with Kyle [Busch] a lot and having his advice over the offseason. Things like that have been really good. Just looking forward to being able to get more advice from him as we go throughout the season and work toward Atlanta.
Catanzareti: Nine months from now when you look back from Homestead, what would be a successful season to you?
Byron: I think just being a presence on the race track each week. Hopefully winning a couple of races and hopefully running for the championship. If we can get into the top 4 at the end of the season, that would be definitely the goal; just to have a shot at the championship. We just have to take it one step at a time and get through the first four of five races, running every lap and just getting through the learning part of it to where I can really go race and run for wins.
Catanzareti: Who has been your biggest inspiration in racing?
Byron: I really think just watching all the Sprint Cup drivers as I grew up and watching the races each week. Going to Charlotte Motor Speedway and seeing what it’s like. That’s really the biggest thing, I grew up watching it so I love trying to see if I can make that a career. So now that it’s a reality, it’s pretty awesome.
Catanzareti: Do you go on YouTube and look up past races, maybe races you’ve been in, and kind of realize you’re actually out there doing what they’re doing?
Byron: [Laughter] It is cool. I definitely go back, if anything, just to study the races I was in. Or just to study races I haven’t been in, especially. I probably 90 percent of the time study races I haven’t been in. And then 10 percent of the time look back on what I could’ve done differently.
Catanzareti: Talk about the advantages of having YouTube, Twitter, online sim racing. Drivers in the past didn’t have stuff like that. By the time you get in the car, you have a lot of experience.
Byron: Twitter is good because that’s really where I get a lot of my information on races and what’s happening in practice and things like that. Those advancements definitely help and sometimes they hurt just because you have to think through exactly what you’re going to say before you say it.