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In the Fast Lane with Ross Chastain (Part I)

American novelist Ernest Hemingway once mentioned that racing was one of the three sports that he regarded while the rest were merely games.  If the same perspective was put forth with NASCAR, Hemingway would be thrilled with JD Motorsports, a three-car XFINTIY Series effort from Gaffney, SC, and Ross Chastain, their 23-year-old racer from Alva, FL.

Born into a family whose trade was in the farming industry, particularly with watermelons, Chastain’s racing story is likened to the American Dream.  How many of us dream of realizing our dreams and turn them into reality?

While some make something of their hopes, Chastain’s situation is quite unique as it was beyond even his wildest imagination.

On the track, Chastain is a true competitor, battling his hardest for his hardy team from day one of practice rounds through the checkered flag on race day.  He doesn’t walk on eggshells in that racecar.  Instead, he’s focused on giving his best effort at every track in his No. 4 JD Motorsports Chevy Camaro.

Like Chastain, the JD Motorsports effort is one that works diligently to realize their goals.  They do not make excuses if they’re struggling during the race weekend.  Instead, they’re intent on making the best of their situation, a principle that’s been fully adopted by each driver, team, and crew member.

Those factors are not found in the wind tunnel nor bought.  It is all about the people and what they can bring to the table in efforts to be legitimate front runners and contenders in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Once Chastain’s clambered out of his car and conferred with his team, he’s relaxed, thoughtful, and humble.  He understands that his NASCAR career was a result of the strong support system around him and in turn, he tries to give back by being the tough, gritty racer that he is in that No. 4 car.  A family man and a standout teammate to his JD Motorsports comrades, it’s a perfect combination that’s within striking distance of battling in the inaugural Chase playoff format in this NASCAR division.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to Chastain’s racing story is that it did not just solely begin at a local racetrack. Considering his roots, if you will, it all started from the first line of his family lineage who farmed tobacco and cotton. From there, you could say that the rest is history, but it’s not just that simple to explain.

Recently, we caught up with Ross Chastain during the New Hampshire Motor Speedway race weekend earlier this month in efforts to know more about this truly talented and tenacious racer.  To say the least, Chastain’s one of the few racers, in the six-year history of TPF, who relaxed and spoke at such great length about his career and background.  There’s a sense of pride, gratitude, and candor that’s refreshing with Chastain.

Due to the great interview length following the final practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, this exclusive feature will be divided into two parts.  In Part I, we’ll get to know more about Ross Chastain, how his racing career started, and of course, his passion for watermelons.  Without further ado, let’s get “In the Fast Lane with Ross Chastain!”

Rob Tiongson :  In your second full-time XFINITY Series effort with the JD Motorsports team, you’ve scored nine top-20 finishes to place 13th in the points standings as of press time.  What’s some of the things you’re encouraged by from your performances in the first half and some things you’re looking to improve on to make a run at the Chase field this fall?

Ross Chastain stands proudly by his No. 4 car. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Ross Chastain stands proudly by his No. 4 car. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Ross Chastain :  The biggest thing we’ve improved on this year is executing and putting together races and whole weekends where we may not show up the best but by the end of the weekend, we’re the best we’ve been.  There’s something to be said for that.  We don’t stop.  We just take what we’ve got and make it through the weekend.  We keep fighting.

My guys – I think they work harder than anyone else.  It’s weird because at the New Hampshire race weekend, we showed up and we weren’t very good.  We thought we had a better package than before and it wasn’t.  We aborted and we went back to our normal stuff.  I’ve got a racecar now.  We ended practice, two runs from the end, the best that we were all day running consistent lap times and the fastest laps that we’ve ran all day.  That’s promising.  I wish we could reset time and practice all over with how the car is right now.  That’s the biggest thing we’ve gotten better at which is executing all weekend long.

RT :  You’re working with your crew chief Bryan Berry for the first time and it seems like you’ve hit on a good combination in the past two months.   Talk about some of the things that he’s brought to the table that’s been refreshing and helpful for you and your No. 4 team.

Ross Chastain is within striking distance of making the Chase field. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Ross Chastain is within striking distance of making the Chase field. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

RC :  I actually worked with Bryan in 2012 in the Truck Series with Bobby Dotter’s SS Green Light Racing team.  I knew Bryan would be an asset to the whole team.  That was the main goal which was to find somebody who could come in and help all three cars.  Johnny has my best interests at heart and I have his.  It was more than just the 4 car.  It was all about what could help all three cars.

At the beginning of the year, the 01 brought their own crew chief with Ryan Preece and it just didn’t work out like we thought it would.  Gary’s back where he was going from competition director and general manager to being back on the box, making the calls and everything for Ryan.  They outran us last week.  We’re pretty close on setups.  It doesn’t matter if Bryan was on my pit box or if Gary was on mine and Bryan was on Ryan’s.  We’d run the same setups when we’re on the track.

They think alike and make the same calls.  It was about trying to make all three teams better and let Gary step back to oversee everything.  That didn’t go according to plan so he’s back on the box and he’s having a lot of fun.

RT :  Although you’ve been working with new teammates in Ryan Preece or Garrett Smithley, it seems like they’ve taken to their new NASCAR homes pretty well.  How has it been like to work with those two young guns and collaborate during the race weekend?

RC :  I think they’re both older than me! (laughs) They’re both older than me for sure.  I have a few more laps in this style of racing but I still go to them for help.  I went to Ryan after first practice and talked to both of their crew chiefs to learn all I can.  Garrett struggled a little bit but Danny will get that thing fixed up for him.  We were the slowest of all three cars at Kentucky so it was good to see both of them handling well.  Johnny makes it easy to drive for him.  There’s no pressure from the outside and a lot of the people in that building we won’t mention (laughs).

It’s cool to come to the racetrack and do our thing.  It’s crazy what he’s built down in Gaffney, SC.  It’s pretty amazing to walk in and just really pull up to the shop.  You’re on this little two lane road with abandoned houses and an abandoned motel and a water tower that they just repainted.  There’s an abandoned carpet factory and right behind it is JD Motorsports.

No big fancy signs, no fancy hedge, nothing.  We do a lot with a little bit of money and that’s our biggest downfall which is to gain sponsorship.  We all fight it.  Johnny makes it easy to come in and drive his cars and be confident.  He gives us good cars that we go race in and he’s put the best people all around.

RT :  Old school racing, wouldn’t you say?

RC :  For sure!  We run the same cars over and over, the same springs, the same suspension parts, week in and week out.  If we tear them up, we’ve got another set that might be slightly older or used but you go on, go racing, and we’re just fine.

RT :  Racing is a common interest with your family, particularly with your younger brother Chad racing.  Was it something that you knew you wanted to do at a young age or something that you grew up to love over time?

RC :  My dad did some circle track racing as a hobby – it was called Fast Trucks.  He rented his first truck.  You can rent the truck, go race it for the night, and give it back.  He bought two with the open trailer.  He had fun.  It was him, his best friend, and my uncle.  My dad’s brother-in-law got involved and got a truck.  Those three would go around and race.

My dad quit when my brother was born in 1998.  He was busy in the farm with two kids and it wasn’t as fun as working at the farm.  He says that and it’s the truth.  He enjoys working at the farm more than he ever did racing.  He wanted to be there for me and Chad.  We really appreciated that.  He sold all of us his stuff.

His best friend Dennis, who kept his race trucks, was the first racecar that I ever drove.  When I first went on the racetrack, it was really just as a hobby.  We pulled it out, aired the tires up, the same tires he raced on seven or eight years before, and went on and just practiced to see if I’d like it.  I had a Nextel earpiece in my ear with a wire running next to my Nextel phone.  That’s how my dad spotted for me.  I’d hear that “beep beep!”  If there wasn’t a delay, I could hear him say clear or if there was a faster driver around me.

It wasn’t our intention to get into NASCAR or to do it more than a year.  We really thought we’d run Dennis’ truck.  Once we ran it a few times, we ran OK.  We realized that if we wanted to win, we needed to buy a newer chassis for the truck.  We bought a roller from a guy who had a top-five truck.  It wasn’t a dominant one but we took that thing in our first year getting top-three’s and top-five finishes in 2006.

In 2007, we went through it all winter.  It was just me, my dad, and my granddad Jim.  It wasn’t meant to go this far.  It’s crazy to know we’ve made it.  We were just having fun racing and we kept moving up.  We’re now here.

RT :  You’re NASCAR legit, I’d say!

RC :  Yea, I guess!  I keep the names off my firesuits but it’s cool to know that the 4 car is pretty much branded to me.  I like that.  I like that people associate me with the 4 car, watermelons, and JD Motorsports.  It’s pretty cool.

RT :  It’s safe to say that aside from racing, most people would associate you with watermelons.  For those perhaps hiding under a rock after all of these years, talk a bit about your association with them as I understand that you grew up on a watermelon farm.

One look at the watermelon portion of the No. 4 car and you'll see it's more than just a cool design. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

One look at the watermelon portion of the No. 4 car and you’ll see it’s more than just a cool design. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

RC :  Starting back, a long time ago, they say I’m an eighth generation farmer.  That’s a long time ago.  They trace it back to Pierre Chastain who came over from France.  That started the Chastain name here in America.  They started farming tobacco and cotton, everything they grew back then.

From there, there’s been different Chastains growing all kinds of stuff.  My dad has grown every vegetable in Florida besides tomatoes when he was younger.  He didn’t do well with anything until he landed on watermelons.  Even if it was on a relatively small field, it was big for him at the time.  Looking at what he does now, it was tiny.  It was what he finally made money on.  He stuck with it.  He said, “This is what we’re going to have to make our living on.”  We farmed watermelons.

Once we got into racing, we could run late models at New Smyrna with my family.  90 percent of the time, it’s family and sometimes it’s a close friend or someone that their family knows that pays for a kid’s racing effort.  There’s no kid out there racing for free.  Somebody has to pay for that racecar, even if it’s that Fast Truck level or the late model level across the country.  We could do late models on our own and have fun and run once or twice a month.  We finally ran the World Series of Asphalt at New Smyrna and won that in 2011 in a limited.  We beat some guys we shouldn’t have.

That’s when we met Stacy Compton.  We talked with him and he was obviously looking for somebody to drive one of his NASCAR Truck entries.  He had two full-time Truck teams at the time.  He said, “Let’s talk later.”  When he told us what it’d cost, we were like, “We’re never going to do that.  That’s an absurd amount of money.”

We went back to work, trying to figure out who we could find to run one race.  We wanted to stop running late models and run one NASCAR Truck Series race to see where it’d go.  That’d probably be it.  That’d be the end.  My brother started racing at the time.  I raced way more than I ever thought I would.  I got more wins and championships than I ever should have.  That’s because we were fast and putting together good stuff.  We were like, “Let’s run this one race and we’ll focus on Chad.”

Speak softly and carry a big heavy foot.

Speak softly and carry a big heavy foot.

We finished 10th with the help of the National Watermelon Promotion Board.  It took a lot of people to put the money together.  Looking back, it was worth it.  Everybody agrees that when we ran 10th that night at Lucas Oil Raceway, and I still wish we raced there…I don’t know why we don’t, I don’t get it…we had to go and being that we were in the farming industry, everybody in the watermelon industry knew me since I was a baby and they knew my granddad and dad, they were all part of the association so that helped.  They wanted to help me and they liked the idea of marketing in NASCAR.

They did a little bit at LOR with Kroger on a backmarker XFINITY car.  To step up to a NASCAR Truck entry that I wanted to run and had run about 20th, Cole Whitt was the other team truck and ran in the top-five in points.  He was really good.  To step into that 66 truck and finish 10th, everybody was happy.  Even after that race, I was like, “That was fun!  Let’s go back to the farm and focus on Chad.”

We talked to Stacy and he was able to put together some sponsors and people together to keep it rolling for five races.  My foot was in the door with the watermelon industry but I had to get my whole leg in and get the door open.  They did all they could for me and I’ll always be grateful.  They got me here.  I’ll always be the watermelon guy and I’ll always have a watermelon on my racecar until the day I stop racing.  Whether they are paying or not, they’re along for the ride.

RT :  For the record, people who shop for watermelons at the supermarket should get the ones that are heavy to grab, right?

RC :  They need to be heavy, symmetrical with the stripes on it and the shape of it, on either end, it shouldn’t get smaller at one end or the other.  Look for that yellow spot on the bottom, man.  That’s really the telltale sign of a good watermelon…it needs to have a yellow spot on the belly.

RT :  Consumer tips by Ross Chastain, ladies and gentlemen!

Author’s Notes :  Special thanks to JD Motorsports, Ross Chastain, and Jeremy Thompson for their great assistance and kindness for this two-part feature!  Photos in this article are courtesy of Jeremy Thompson where noted (as well as the featured image).  

If you’d like to learn more about Ross, Like” his Facebook page, Follow” him on Twitter, and Visit his official website now!  Be sure to also check out JD Motorsports’ official website and social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at jd_motorsports!  Be sure to catch Part II of our Ross Chastain feature later this week!

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson 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 is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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