Life in the Pits with Cesar Villanueva Jr

Primarily, Cesar Villanueva Jr plays a critical role for Kyle Larson's No. 5 team. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Primarily, Cesar Villanueva Jr plays a critical role for Kyle Larson’s No. 5 team. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Without a doubt, Cesar Villaneuva Jr continually makes a name for himself in NASCAR. Certainly, the New Jersey native’s path into stock car racing proves quite unique and refreshing.

Moreover, the 41-year-old serves in one of the integral roles for the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. Presently, Cesar Villanueva Jr is Kyle Larson’s tire specialist and interior mechanic.

Naturally, Villanueva possesses a racer’s mentality while working with Larson’s road crew each weekend. Surely, this Filipino American gives it his all along with the No. 5 team throughout the racing season.

Likewise, Cesar Villanueva Jr has that Hendrick swagger by speaking softly while carrying a big heavy foot. In this case, Villanueva goes to battle with his crewmates in search of Hendrick’s 14th Cup championship.

Of course, life in the pits requires as much hard work as the leadfooter in the No. 5 car. Similarly, Villanueva praises the team’s driver as consistently as Kyle Larson compliments his crew.

Recently, I interviewed Cesar Villanueva Jr as we discussed his journey in NASCAR. Furthermore, Villanueva shares his thoughts on NASCAR’s diversity movement and the team’s dominant Coca-Cola 600 win. Now, it’s time for “Life in the Pits with Cesar Villanueva Jr” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : Thanks for joining us here on The Podium Finish, Cesar. For the fans learning about you for the first time here on The Podium Finish (TPF), tell us about what you do for the No. 5 team and how long have you been in NASCAR.

For nearly 20 years, Cesar Villanueva Jr makes tremendous strides in NASCAR. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

For nearly 20 years, Cesar Villanueva Jr makes tremendous strides in NASCAR. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Cesar Villanueva Jr : Well, I have been in NASCAR across all three national series now for my 18th or 19th year. So, I’ve been around for a while. And I am the interior mechanic and tire specialist on No. 5 car for Kyle Larson.

Tiongson : When you got to be part of this sport, let me kind of backtrack a little bit. Being a first generation Filipino American like me, you’re from New Jersey, but not too far from where I grew up in Boston.

How did you learn about the sport? And how did you get into the world of NASCAR? I would have to imagine you had some kind of interest related to the sport. But what was your initial start with NASCAR?

Villanueva : That’s a good question. Well, I mean, I guess I’ve always been a sports guy. I mean, I like watching all kinds of sports. And, I’ve never really watched NASCAR. I never really knew what racing. I just never watched any racing. It just all started one day [when] I was in college. I used to be a computer engineering major.

But, one weekend, I was studying for an exam and turned the TV on in the afternoon there. And I guess the 2001 Daytona 500 was on and I had that on TV, just, I guess on for background noise or whatever.

You know, the race started and everything. I saw a big wreck happen. I think it was when Tony Stewart was up in here and stuff like that. And I guess I just fell asleep or whatever.

I got back up and I happen to see the end of the race, like 10 laps to go. And, toward the end of race, another a big wreck happened at the end there. And I think Michael Waltrip won and that’s about it. I turned off the TV started, you know, studying again.

Anyways, later on that night, we decided to go out to eat. And, I’m walking over to the bar. The bar’s got the TVs [on] and there’s a massive press conference down at Daytona. And whoever was in that car, I guess didn’t make it.

So I never knew who Dale Earnhardt was until he died. That’s how basically I got interested in NASCAR. This guy was on all the newspapers, Time magazine, and you drive down the highway, there’s billboards with, if you can remember that long ago, the No. 3 turning to angel wings and stuff like that. So I mean, he was a big deal.

Up to that time, I tell a lot of people, I guess the story asked me how I started and what it was. I mean, I’ve heard of Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and Al Unser, but that’s about it.

So, that’s how that’s what put NASCAR on the map for me. You know, after that race, I started watching the next race. I think, I believe it was Rockingham. After Rockingham was Vegas, and then Atlanta and then the guy who got in Dale’s car won, like, almost immediately. So that was Kevin Harvick. So I mean, just that that’s how it started.

Tiongson : Wow, that was 20 years ago, if I recall. And yeah, I definitely remember the 2001 season. Yeah, I mean, before all of that happened when the TV contracts changed. I feel like that gave NASCAR a huge platform to really expose itself to a bigger audience versus what it was doing before 2001. And then unfortunately, one of the largest icons in NASCAR passed away from that last lap crash at Daytona.

It’s interesting to know that a lot of folks, their first experience of NASCAR is always going to be different. But to know that 2001 was how you got into it in and had the background that’s necessary for racing, certainly is pivotal for sure.

Villanueva : I don’t want to get twisted as far as knowledge on cars and stuff like that. 20 years ago, if you showed me in your hand, a crankshaft and the camshaft, I couldn’t tell you the difference between the two. So, it’s the learning curve since then.

Tiongson : Now, I would imagine so. Cars from back then to now have changed a lot. And that’s something we’re certainly gonna talk about a little bit later in the interview, for sure. That kind of leads me to my next question, actually.

You spent your early years in NASCAR with Truck and XFINITY teams. How were those formative years like for you when you were working in those two divisions and trying to figure your path out in NASCAR?

Villanueva : Well, I guess when I started going to the racetrack, I started out as a tire changer. So that taught me [about] getting my foot in the door and expose myself to all these different teams at the racetrack every week. I did, ASA races, ARCA races, Truck races, a series called Hooters Pro Cup, and then, Busch and Cup cars.

Anyways, a year after that, I finally got onboard with a Truck team. And, I mean, Truck racing is fun. You’re always serious when you’re racing, regardless of what division you’re in. But, the atmosphere in the Trucks is, I guess, a little easier than it is, you know, as you go up, obviously. So, I don’t know, it’s just that’s why, I guess. The Trucks are fun in that that aspect. It’s just a more relaxed environment.

Tiongson : I’ve noticed that just from being in the garage area. Now, I would imagine to the relaxed atmosphere has to come with the fact that there’s not as many races as there would be an Xfinity and Cup. So that probably helps a little bit as well.

You’re no stranger to success in NASCAR. You’ve been around teams that have won, or contended, with championships throughout your career. So how much do you feed off the energy of your crew mates and the drivers you’ve worked with to deal with these long marathon like seasons?

Villanueva : I guess staying with the Truck series here, I’ve been fortunate to be on top Truck teams. Across the five years I was in it, I started out at Morgan-Dollar Motorsports. And at that time, Dennis Setzer was the primary Truck driver. He finished, I think, going back to ’03, maybe second in points. And in ’04, he finished second.

Regardless, it was a great Truck team. And, then, you know, all the people you meet, you know, those are the people that taught me around the business at that shop. And I guess that’s what set me up for down the road.

Even to this day, I work with somebody who I first met at that shop, Morgan-Dollar, from 2004. So I mean, it’s in a way, it goes full circle because I mean, people come and go as you work through all these race teams. And to still be with people and know people all these years, it’s just funny how it works.

Tiongson : Longevity certainly can be something that is celebrated no matter what walk of life. And, you’ve been around the sport so long that you’ve definitely been around to see a lot of the changes with folks coming in and out of the sport. But you’ve been a consistent presence and helpful factor with these teams over your career.

And, oh man, the Truck series, those times were so fun. I mean, with Dennis Setzer, I think it was the blue and yellow truck I recall back then.

Villanueva : Rob, I guess, that was a blue and yellow Acxiom truck. However, that’s not when I started there. We moved to Statesville here and I guess they got some Chevy Silverado sponsorship is what they had.

Tiongson : I think I remember that as well. So yeah, that was during I think ’03, ’04. So those are some really, really good times in the Truck series. A lot of on track and in person drama with some drivers as well.

Villanueva : Oh, yeah, for sure.

Tiongson : It’s kind of like if you talk to a stick and ball sports fan. And if you ask them about a rivalry, most are gonna say Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees or LA versus Boston in the hardwood courts. For those who are nothing really familiar with the Truck series back then, that’s pretty much how intense it was. And I certainly reminisce about those [times].

It’s just weird to say that 18 years ago, or 20 years ago, is that long ago. But I feel like I can remember those years better than I do [recent times].

Villanueva : I haven’t followed the Trucks as much. Obviously, I was in it back then. So, I mean, that’s what you’re doing. But, I know recently, now, Kyle Busch has his Truck teams and they’re always pretty dominant. Thorsport was around back then. And they’re winning races now.

The dominant team before Kyle’s, I think was Kevin Harvick used to have and own a Truck team. And they were pretty dominant few years. But back then, it was, you know, between Morgan-Dollar, Ultra, even Bobby Hamilton had a Truck team. And then Germain was coming up, as well. Roush had their Truck teams. There was a lot of there was a lot of teams back then.

Tiongson : A lot of heavy competition. And, of course, when you have a lot of those quality teams out there, it certainly would explain a lot as to why it was so competitive and very much an intense series, just as intense I feel as the Cup and then Busch Series back into those times. So hopefully, we’ll get to see that. But you know, in the Cup series, we do have the quality competition.

Of course, the No. 5 team has been the team lately with all these wins and top two finishes since Darlington. I’d be remiss to not say congratulations to you about how the team has been so successful this year. From your perspective, how exciting has it been to go to these racetracks every weekend and know that you, Kyle, Cliff, all of you guys have a chance to win, no matter the track?

Foundationally, Cesar Villanueva Jr has that killer instinct approach. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Foundationally, Cesar Villanueva Jr has that killer instinct approach. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Villanueva : Thank you. Thank you. I mean, it’s awesome. Obviously, you know, Kyle’s just a special talent, a wheelman. But, I mean, our team in general, as a whole I feel is pretty strong. And that’s the whole deal goes.

I mean, every one of us pretty [much] knows, you know, we know each other’s job and we back each other up. And I mean that’s what it takes. Nothing falls through the cracks. Hopefully, the key remains bulletproof. And then we get to the track, Kyle’s got a strong, dependable car to drive.

After that, you just put it in his hands, and that’s about it. He makes us look good. (laughs)

Tiongson : He’s always been so complimentary about you guys. I’ve interviewed him a few times this year already. And every time I mentioned about his accolades, he’s always the first to just defer what he’s done in any ways. He praises you, Cliff and the entire team. Humility certainly goes a long way in this sport.

We did talk about this a little bit earlier how you may have not been able to tell the difference between certain parts back then to now. You’ve been around enough to see the changes in NASCAR with the teams over the years. But also, the cars have changed a lot since 2003-’04. And, we’re going to have a big change next year with the Next Gen car for 2022.

So, how much do you embrace these challenges? Even though it’s been a great year, you’re going to have a big curveball coming your way?

Villanueva : Oh, yeah, for sure. First off, you’ve got to close out this year strong. And, you know, slowly but surely, parts come trickling in as to how next year’s car is going to be like. Obviously, we’ve got a car to look at and see how it’s going to go.

Our drivers have tested a Next Gen car before. Personally, I haven’t really messed or looked at the dashes. I haven’t touched or thrown a wrench or anything on that car yet. But I promise you, once the season is over, it’s gonna be full speed ahead on next year. You have to start planning out.

I doubt the toolbox will be obsolete. But all our carts that hold all the current generation stuff, that’ll be obsolete. You have to refit everything in the trailer. And, there’s just a lot of work other than just the car.

Tiongson : Also, I feel like everyone’s pretty much going to get the first day of school feeling, if you will. It’s almost like you got so used to being in high school or college. And all of a sudden, you guys are going to be thrusted into grad school studies. So, it’s going to be interesting if there’s going to be any testing.

In the past, NASCAR had a ton of preseason testing. So I’m kind of curious to see if that gets reintroduced, at least for 2022 before Daytona Speedweeks.

Villanueva : I’d imagine you’d have practice again. Of course, I’m just speculating. So I mean, yeah, just to get track time for these cars.

Tiongson : Yeah, I hope so. Because I know, it’s been show up and race formats this year and last year, of course, with mostly the pandemic and then controlling costs as well. It would be a shame, of course, if the first laps at Daytona, most of the field has mechanical problems. (chuckles) So, I’m sure it would be helpful to have those preliminary sessions before the big dance next year.

Now, we talked a lot about your earlier experiences, and of course, what you’ve been doing these days. But can you tell me, whether it’s a funny or a good light hearted moment, a time that you would say, “Yep, that is my welcome to NASCAR moment?”

Villanueva : A “Welcome to NASCAR moment?” Obviously, it’ll be culture change. First off, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. There’s not very many Asian American people running around in NASCAR, especially 20 years ago at this point.

So I mean, it’s just different. But. hey, they welcomed me. Every team I’ve worked for is like family.

Tiongson : That’s good to know. And that’s something I was kind of curious about. I was more of a fan [back then]. So, I didn’t have as much of a feel of what goes on inside the garage back then as I do today.

That’s pretty good to hear, especially as a fellow Filipino American myself. And that’s something that I’m kind of glad to see, as years have gone by that NASCAR has gotten better with, at least from my perspective, it has with making strides with the diversity efforts in all fronts.

We have Daniel Suarez out there, we’ve got Bubba Wallace out there, Kyle Larson, as a half Japanese [racer], and he’s out there driving the No. 5 car. We’ve been making some strides. And we even have female a crew members in the sport versus I don’t know if that was the case back then…

Villanueva : I don’t doubt on the the diversity of the sport at all. I think NASCAR has done a fantastic job injecting all this diversity in the sport since then. So, I’ve got nothing but positive vibes from the whole deal. And, even like that whole Drive for Diversity and others, like a whole program and stuff. I mean, you know, a long time ago, I was part of that deal.

So, yeah, I believe in the whole thing. And, I’ve been treated well. I mean, it’s awesome. I’d say every team I’ve worked for is like family.

Tiongson : That’s exactly what I think best describes NASCAR. If you ask anybody in the sport, if you had to describe what NASCAR is, like, family is probably the first word that is going to come out of most people’s mouths. And it’s the truth. Everyone does care about each other.

It can be said for most cultures. But, you can probably relate to me as well about how Filipinos have that NASCAR mentality too. We’re very family driven people. And even when tough times come up, we typically just persevere. We don’t make excuses.

Villanueva : Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, even when I screw up, it’s hard to give an excuse. You just do what you do.

Tiongson : You have to have a pretty much a short term memory sometimes. If you dwell on too much of the bad, it’s just going to eat you up and consume you versus saying, “OK I might have had a bad time right here. Let’s look at what can I do to make it better moving forward?”

Villanueva : Sure. I used to be a tire changer. And I’ve won races and cost us races before. Yeah, I mean, you’ve got 36, 25, 30 how many races a year. You can’t just dwell on one.

Depending on what [you’re doing], if you’re doing three races a week, you just can’t get hung up on what you did. Because the next day, guess what? You got another chance to do it again. So, you do your best then there, too.

Tiongson : That’s exactly what it takes to be prosperous to do well, not just in NASCAR. I think in any walk of life, you just have to put your best foot forward. And if you do put a foot wrong, just learn from it.

Now, I’m sure you’ve got some family and friends who may not know everything or follow everything that goes on in NASCAR and other motorsports [series]. You’ve probably got some that say, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of cars going around in circles,” which of course is not the case. But when you had a chance to show them what you do, how awesome is it to share a glimpse of what goes on in racing?

Chiefly, Villanueva recalls the significance of Kyle Larson's Coca-Cola 600 win. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Chiefly, Villanueva recalls the significance of Kyle Larson’s Coca-Cola 600 win. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Villanueva : I live here in North Carolina by myself. So most of my family’s back in New Jersey.

I guess we’ll start with my parents. Slowly over the years, they’ve gotten to understand how the whole racing deal works. It’s just hard to explain to anybody, even cousins and stuff just because we’re successful now. So they’d like to go to a race to see what happens. Well, you know what goes on? I can’t just bring you to the track, because then you’d look lost.

It’s not that I don’t want to show you around. But it’s very difficult when you still got to work. You’ve got a job to do still. And you can’t hold them by the hand and show them how everything works and goes.

So I guess over time, the first thing I’d have to do is come to the racetrack and sit in the stands so they can see what’s going on. Anyways, going back to my parents, they’ve done this for a couple of years now. Watch the race.

We recently won the Coca Cola 600. Since I live in Jersey, my home track has always been Dover even though Pocono is closer just because when I first started, Dover was the closest track to make the drive to see me. And after all these years, we have never gotten to victory lane. The closest I could get to second multiple times.

This past Dover, we had a shot to win the race. And after the last pit stop, we lost the lead, and thought we could regain it back, but didn’t. I really thought that was going to be [the time that] we’re finally going to win at Dover. However, they never drove down for the race just because of the whole COVID thing going on. Yes, no, yes, no. They didn’t know whether to come down or not.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you want to [put it], our organization still won the race, which is good. But we didn’t win the race, the No. 5 car.

Happy as hell for the No. 48. You know, disappointed though, that we didn’t win. But also, like, because we didn’t win and they weren’t there, then we haven’t lost anything.

And then fast forward a couple weeks later, my parents come down from Memorial Day weekend here in Charlotte. And then, they decided to sit in the stands and watch the race. We finally got to win the 600. And I guess that was a personal goal of mine to have family around and win a race.

We had a team celebration at the track. But afterwards, I had the checkered flag, and we took pictures away from the outside of the track. And you know, we took pictures and finally, we won a race and they were there in person. They got to see it. And I mean, it was awesome.

Tiongson : That had to be pretty cool. That race itself was the perfection of the longest race of the year. The No. 5 team won every stage. You guys cranked out amazing stops each time. And that’s the most grueling race aside from the Southern 500 in terms of number of pit stops.

So, to put together that kind of a race, it was almost like the breakout moment to me. And I think that makes it even more special that you got to celebrate that [win] with your parents.

Villanueva : It was just unbelievable. I mean, after all of these years in Cup, the Coke 600, there it is! (laughs)

Tiongson : You couldn’t fit it couldn’t have been a better race, to say the least. If it couldn’t be Daytona or Dover, winning in the team’s backyard, knowing Hendrick is basically five minutes from the racetrack, there is no better…

Villanueva : And that was also the the race that broke the all time wins for an organization. I guess that was the company’s 269th win. And that was a big deal to Mr. H. So I mean, that whole race in general was just huge.

Tiongson : It’s a moment you can say, years down the road, and you’re looking back at your, your professional career, you can say, “Hey, I was part of this team. We achieved this. And it’s a historical moment, not only with my crewmates and the organization. It’s something I can share with my family as well.” And that’s something I can only dream to imagine happening even as a journalist one of these days for me. So, that’s pretty cool that you had that happen.

Being a Filipino American, have you ever had the opportunity to visit the Philippines and see some of the popular sites and destinations over there?

Villanueva : So, the last time I’ve been to the Philippines was 1985. I was five years old. So, I’d say it’s been a while. My parents, they’re both retired, they actually have a condo there. And, they go there every year.

They didn’t go this year just because COVID happened when it happened to be in the Philippines. Instead of going there for a couple months, because they’re smart. Jersey gets cold in the winter months.

So, when it gets cold, that’s when they jump to the Philippines, hang out there where it’s tropical. And then when it gets warm here, they come back. But obviously, when you’re in the Philippines, and it’s about March, there was a lockdown everywhere.

Then, they couldn’t get out. They didn’t get back into like September or October later in ’20. It was just my dad who can leave the condo to get groceries and stuff like that.

But, anyways, I mean, if I have a chance to go back to the Philippines, I guess whenever I want, it will just have to be between November and February. (laughs)

Tiongson : You don’t have as much of a window with the racing season. But, if you get to go when things eventually hopefully get better, November to about January is about a fun time. It’s not too hot.

I hope to visit it again, at some point. It definitely has changed. You went before the People/EDSA Revolution. So, you got to see it before everything changed.

Villanueva : I mean, I might have got to see it. I mean, I don’t remember it because I was so young. But, for me to go back, all it will cost me a plane ticket and time.

Tiongson : (laughs) It’s expensive. It’s long. I don’t think you want to go with how much protocols and testing they’ll make you do. But when things get better, it’s certainly worth the redeye flight just to even experience for a couple of weeks.

Now, if you were ever given the chance to wheel one of these stock cars on any track, would you do it to experience what Kyle and other drivers you’ve helped go through?

Naturally, Cesar Villanueva Jr ponders about driving a racecar. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Naturally, Cesar Villanueva Jr (sixth to the left) ponders about driving a racecar. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Villanueva : I guess the easy answer is yes because I’ve never driven any one of these race cars on the track. Of course, if I ever get to, you know, you drive a go kart and you go.

But, you know, any class of vehicle, late models, dirt or whoever, hobby races every weekend, I mean. …a lot of people, a lot of friends, they got their kids racing in midgets and all these other classes at Millbridge which is a big dirt track here down the road.

Yeah, I would love to see what it’s like to drive in one of these things. You always ask drivers for feedback to tell you how a car is reacting. And they tell you whether a car is tight, pushes, loose, you know, free and all that stuff. But I mean, I’ve never experienced that.

I can understand what they’re saying. But just from a feeling standpoint, because I’ve never raced before you know, I don’t know what that means. So yeah, I’d like to, to get into something and go.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Cesar Villanueva Jr for taking the time to talk to us on The Podium Finish! Also, thanks to Jon Edwards and Hendrick Motorsports for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with Cesar Villanueva Jr, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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