Race Weekend Central

Victor Gonzalez Jr. on Team Ownership, Driving in NASCAR & Increasing Diversity in the Sport

To NASCAR race fans, the name Victor Gonzalez Jr. is not necessarily all that familiar. He does have starts in all three of NASCAR’s national-level series, but the last of those came back in 2018. Most of them were 10 years ago or more.

These days, Gonzalez owns his own Florida-based race team, Victor Gonzalez Racing Team, or VGRT for short. The team currently competes in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge’s TCR class and in SRO America’s TC and TCA classes. Gonzalez is very proud of his small operation and has big dreams for the future.

Our own Phil Allaway sat down with Gonzalez at Watkins Glen International during the Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen to talk about VGRT, his career in and out of NASCAR, plans for the future and more.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: You’re currently fifth in points with a sweet victory at Sebring and a fifth at Mid-Ohio. How would you describe your season to this point?

Victor Gonzalez Jr., No. 99 Honda Civic Type-R TCR: It’s been really positive. We’ve really learned a lot last year, our first year here in IMSA.

Daytona, we were really strong, [but] we had a power steering failure. Sebring, we won. [WeatherTech Raceway] Laguna Seca, we should have ended up on the podium or a top five, but Karl [Wittmer] made a little mistake on the last restart. But that’s racing. We ran really strong at Mid-Ohio and got a top five.

That’s the goal: Be [in] the top five in every race. That’s the way you’re going to get consistent enough to get the wins.

Allaway: [TCR] is not an easy class to race in. You’ve got very stout competition. You have the Bryan Herta Autosport armada and more. How does the competition here compare to when you were in the TCR class in TC America?

Gonzalez: It’s way different because TC America was more concentrated around sprint races. So, the mentality is way different.

At that point, the BoP (Balance of Performance) was way different than what IMSA runs. Here, it is really competitive. Any car can win. There are a lot of really good drivers.

IMSA right now is at the very top level of touring cars in the United States.

Allaway: This is not the only program that you have. You have a TC and TCA program over in SRO America.

Gonzalez: Yes, we have a TCA entry with Sally McNulty. We also have a TC entry. Ruben Iglesias was driving the car, but now from Watkins Glen onwards, we just hired a new kid from Brazil, Celso Neto. So, we’ll have a Brazilian driver doing the last four [weekends] in TC.

He’s driving right now in Stock Car in Brazil, and he’s moving to the United States to make his career here. We’re glad to be the first [team] to bring him here to the States.

The Type-R TC car is pretty good. It has around 310-320 horsepower. HPD (Honda Performance Development) has built a really good product and the class is really competitive.

We were just at [VIRginia International Raceway] last weekend. It was a nail biter [of a] race.

We are happy to be part of TC America, and we are happy to be part of IMSA. It’s hectic for us because we [compete] in 19 race weekends a year. For us, a small squad, it’s a lot.

Allaway: That is a lot and this is not a very big team. How large of a team is [VGRT]?

Gonzalez: Full-time? Including me, it would be three people. I also fly all the mechanics to the races. So, it’s pretty small.

The hauler was in front of me on the drive. I rode in the van with the crew. We’re in the Orlando area, in St. Cloud.

Allaway: With three full-time employees, traveling mechanics and some helpers at the shop, you’re maintaining a four-car team — that can be quite a trial. If trouble erupts, the whole organization could suffer.

Gonzalez: Yes, but we’ve dealt with worse. The guys are really motivated and like what they do.

All my guys are Hispanic. I give them opportunities [in racing] and bring them from other countries to [live] their dreams. They are 100% non-stop, and I’m 100% with them.

Is it a lot of work? Yes, but it’s not that bad.

Allaway: You noted how your crew is pretty much all Hispanic and they’ve come from various countries.  Which countries are represented on your team?

Gonzalez: We have one from Central America, Costa Rica, a few Puerto Ricans. One of our engineers, Zack, is American, but we gave him an opportunity because he was doing iRacing on the HPD level as an engineer. We brought him to work with us.

Last year, we got Gabriel from the Dominican Republic. He was studying at Central Florida University and we gave him an opportunity to work with us as an engineer. He ended up getting hired by Tesla. He had an opportunity to work with HPD in INDYCAR, but he decided to go to Tesla. For us to be able to give that kind of opportunity to move up is priceless.

Allaway: For a lot of our readers, the first time that they would have heard of you was when you made your debut in what was then the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2009 for Day Motorsports. The race actually still holds a record, actually. It’s the longest-ever race in the series by time.

Gonzalez: Yes, I know. It was more than four hours (including the red flags) and it rained.

It’s so funny since when we got the deal, it was Baker-Curb [Racing] who [fielded] the car, but Wayne Day and their people provided the crew. So, Jason Keller was my teammate. I’d never driven in Montreal and never been in one of those cars. It was a surreal experience.

When I got there, [the crew] told me that I had to qualify to get into the field [on time], which I didn’t know. It was a lot of pressure.

In 2009, NASCAR had the top 35 rule in effect in Cup, locking the top 35 teams in owners’ points into every race. The then-Nationwide Series had a similar rule, but for the top 30 teams.

There were 43 spots in the field and [45 cars] there. Also, a lot of Canadian drivers went to do that race too. We [had] a really good run. We nearly got into the top 10, but we finished in 14th. We had a really good battle with Paul Menard. It was good. I got a lot of experience.

I spent 10 years in the NASCAR world. I did Cup, I did Xfinity and I did Trucks. I’m happy with what I’ve done.

Allaway: Have any more of those opportunities in NASCAR come towards you in the last four years since your last Xfinity Series start with Niece Motorsports?

Gonzalez: No, that Xfinity race that I did [in 2018] was done just to see if the team was going to move up. But it was so green.

At that point, I wanted to create my own team. I had had enough of working with other people. So, I put together a good group of guys that can work with me. That’s how Ruben, Edna and I created the team.

Allaway: Sure enough, Niece Motorsports decided not to go to the Xfinity Series. Your race with the team is their only start in the series to this point.

Gonzalez: I also did Trucks with them at [Canadian Tire Motorsport Park]. I hear that they’re also trying to go Cup. I don’t think Al [Niece] is going to do it. It is a big commitment financially. People that are involved in NASCAR, if you don’t have a charter, you don’t make that much money.

When I went into [NASCAR], it was much different than it is now because I was a minority.  It was a really hostile environment. When I went to Nashville to work on my first race with Baker-Curb, they helped me a lot, but when you’re at the races, it was tough. In the NASCAR scene, they were not fair enough with me. Because when I did my first race ever in an Xfinity car, I finished 14th, fighting with everybody. I never tested the car and [had] never been at the track.

If you remember when Kimi Raikkonen drove the Truck race for the first time [at Charlotte], he finished what, 28th or 30th?

Our car wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that good, either. Baker-Curb Racing didn’t [give] too much attention to road courses at that point. At the time, we were still called the “ringers.” Now in the Cup [garage], everyone’s good at road courses. They concentrate more and prepare their cars like they’re going to the Daytona 500. Before, you had Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Max Papis, and we went into that group.

I was happy when they called me and said, “Victor, we’ve got a ride. Can you get in?,” or “Victor, we have a test. Do you want to do it?”

I’m happy with the time that I spent [in NASCAR] and I learned a lot. That’s done.

Allaway: You mentioned that it was hostile. How so?

Gonzalez: You know, I’m happy that Daniel [Suarez] won Sonoma. I know him. His first race in [the Xfinity Series], he did it with the team I was working with, RAB [Racing with Brack Maggard].

At that time, when I went you, you only had Juan Pablo [Montoya]. Juan Pablo came in from Formula 1, but still, it wasn’t easy for him. Then, you had Christian Fittipaldi, but who else Hispanic did you have there?

The environment at the time was really hostile [toward Hispanic racers entering NASCAR]. But I’m not complaining. It’s difficult to do the change from sports car [racing] to over there. But I learned a lot.

Allaway: It was a very competitive time in NASCAR as well. While you had a fair amount of success in the Xfinity Series, Cup was a lot harder. You only got a couple of tries there.

Gonzalez: Oh yeah. When we did the Xfinity race here [at Watkins Glen in 2012] where I finished 16th, everybody that finished in front of me were Cup drivers. On the final restart, I was eighth and fighting with Carl Edwards and Joey Logano. Those guys are so good in those cars. That experience helped me to stay [in NASCAR] longer.

Allaway: Since you’re from Puerto Rico, you might have some knowledge on this topic. What is the racing scene like in Puerto Rico?

Gonzalez: It’s more of a club level of racing there. As for me, I’m the only [driver] to become a professional from Puerto Rico because I decided to make it a career. You’ve got some gentleman drivers who go race, then go back to Puerto Rico and work. For them, it’s a hobby. For us, we win a race, we make money to pay bills.

Allaway: Your starts were in the NATCC’s first season in a Ford Mondeo. What was that like?

Gonzalez: I remember that I went to Skip Barber [Racing School] and somebody bought that car and didn’t have a driver.

They said to me, “Hey, you want to drive this car?” I said “yeah.” So, I went to Portland, Ore. It was a [right-hand drive] car with a sequential shift gearbox. In 1996 for us, that was high tech. For me, it was fun. I went there and drove the car.  From there, I made my career here in the United States.

Allaway: This year, Ruben [Iglesias] drove with you in Daytona, but since then, Karl Wittmer has been in the car with you. What does Karl bring to this program? 

Gonzalez: Karl couldn’t do Daytona because of the birth of his child. He didn’t want to miss that important moment and I don‘t blame him.

So, Ruben, who is one of the partners of the team along with my wife, Edna Cartagena. He did the race in Daytona, but we knew that Karl was going to be in for Sebring. We are creating a partnership with Honda and HPD. That’s why we do all of the development series with them as a ladder system. That’s why we got Karl as part of our program. He’s an instructor for HPD too at the academy.

[Karl’s] family has been with Honda for a long, long time and he was a good fit for us. He’s just like part of the family. He’s one of us now.

Wittmer’s relationship with Honda is older than Wittmer actually is. His grandfather opened the first Honda dealership in Canada in 1972. The vast majority of Wittmer’s driving career has been behind the wheel of Hondas. 

Wittmer admitted to Frontstretch after this interview that he was unfamiliar with Gonzalez prior to joining the operation last season.

“When he called me last season to drive for the team, you sort of do some research on who you would be driving with,” Wittmer told Frontstretch. “I looked at all his stats and said, wow, he’s got a good resume since I had never really heard of Victor beforehand. I was blown away.”

Allaway: This is your fourth year racing the TCR Honda. How do you think the Honda Civic Type-R TCR has improved over that time?

Gonzalez: We’ve learned a lot as a team setup-wise how we can do a better job packaging the car since everything’s homologated; you can’t manufacture any parts. On data, we have learned a lot. Having Karl on the team and HPD engineers have really helped a lot. We have just become a really strong team and we’re really looking forward to the new Type-R that should be coming out in October, the 11th generation [Civic] Type-R.

Allaway: Going forward, where do you see VGRT headed?

Gonzalez: Our goal is to become a full factory team. We’re working towards that goal and Honda is helping us. Yes, we do need more help.  We’re trying to control the budgets as much as we can without hurting the performance of our cars.

We have shown that everything that we are doing so far is working, but we want to be that ladder system to continue to bring diversity to the sport.

Later that day, Gonzalez qualified fifth in TCR for the Tioga Downs Casino Resort 120 at Watkins Glen International.  He eventually got the lead early on via a pit strategy move before dropping back. Gonzalez and Wittmer ultimately finished seventh in class on the road, but got bumped up to sixth after Bryan Herta Autosport’s No. 1 was moved to the rear of the class due to a drive-time rule violation.

Gonzalez is currently in fifth in TCR points, 180 behind Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler. Unlike the drivers ahead of him, he is solo in the standings because Wittmer missed Daytona back in January.

Gonzalez and Wittmer will be back in action Saturday morning (July 16) at Lime Rock Park in the Lime Rock Park 120.  The race is scheduled to go green at 11:05 a.m. ET.  The race will be streamed live starting at 11 a.m. on Peacock.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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