Throughout the 2021 season, Josh Bilicki has been kind enough to chime in on a quarterly basis for this series. Topics have included everything from snowmobile racing, various aeropackages, the Olympics, in-car playlists, the Next Gen car and so much more.
One highlight in an early interview was the benefits of having an entire season with one team. This topic was the focus of much of our post-season conversation as we looked at the solid season Bilicki had with his No. 52 Rick Ware Racing team.
As we wrap up 2021, read on to learn more about Bilicki’s hand in paint schemes, who he would race if given the chance, and running with and against teammates.
Terra Jones: Toward the end of the regular season, you had a top 20 at the Indy Road Course and a top 10 at Daytona. First of all, congratulations on both of those! I know those are both big accomplishments for your team. Now, a disclaimer: When I ask this question, I want you to know that I’m on your side. I’m a champion of the underdog. Okay? (laughs)
Josh Bilicki: Okay!
Jones: When you have a finish like that, where many of the top contenders wreck out, do you personally feel that it takes away from the accomplishment?
Bilicki: I don’t. And I think a good reference to that would be Daytona where we finished 10th. Well, we actually finished 11th. But someone got DQ’d and we bumped up to 10th. But if you look at where my teammates finished, and no hard feelings towards them, but I believe they all finished 27th on back. Now, all three of my teammates finished the race, right? But they all finished 27, 28, 30, somewhere around the back. The reason for that is because we, I mean me, my crew chief, my spotter, Reed Sorenson, we raced really smart. We didn’t race hard against each other.
There were several times that my teammates were side by side and they were racing each other. And in fact, you saw my teammates wreck. Again, no hard feelings towards them. But, we don’t need to be in that situation where we’re racing each other. Especially driving for a small team. It’s so important for all of us to make it to the finish, to at least be there. We don’t need to race each other. It doesn’t matter if I finished 27th and Garrett (Smithley) finished 28th, or whoever it is, whoever my teammates are, or if it’s vice versa. So that’s one thing where I feel like we stood out from the rest of my teammates, all year, by being smart.
You know, if my teammate was behind me and they were faster than me, I’m going to point you by. We don’t need to race side by side for 30 laps in a row and make ourselves look silly, and then affect the outcome of the race. I’d rather swallow my pride a little bit and lose a position to my teammates. At the end of the day, look at the big picture. And from our team owner’s standpoint, he looks at things the same way.
So, going back to Daytona, like I said, we were in that position because we fought hard the whole race. But we were also smart. We did race hard. BJ McLeod and I, I think we both did a great job, just being aggressive, but at the same time using our heads, not getting in any situations where we didn’t feel like we didn’t belong. And that’s why we finished so strong, or as my teammates again, they finished the race. But they finished 27th or further back.
And kind of the same thing with Indy, too. Could we have had a top fifteen at Indianapolis at the road course? Probably. But I would have had to really be super aggressive. And just like Quin Houff, on the last lap, he was one spot ahead of me. But he used his bumper on one of the bigger cars. And they didn’t like that. I think he got into Alex Bowman. And Bowman came back and spun him out and because of that, he finished nowhere near me, I think maybe top 25. But still, he didn’t have a top 20. So, again, I think it all falls back to just using our heads.
Oftentimes, I see people say, “Well, yeah, but he went laps down.” Even when we ran some of the most laps of the season, people were saying that. But to be honest, and I think you can ask a guy like Reed Sorenson who won races in good equipment and has also driven backmarker equipment, that our cars often are harder to drive than the front runners, just because we don’t have the downforce, we don’t have the engines, so we’re pushing harder. It’s definitely an accomplishment for us to have that top 10 and top 20, two of Rick Ware’s best finishes throughout the year.
Jones: That’s really eye-opening. I appreciate you sharing all that. Let’s talk a bit about those laps that you completed this season. When we first spoke in February, you talked about the importance of being with one team all season. You shared that you hoped that consistency would help you grow as a driver and get the No. 52 team more competitive. I saw after Phoenix, you finished out 31 races in a row and you ran more laps than Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, both the Busch Brothers, and Bowman. I think that all speaks to you as a driver and how you take care of your equipment. With all that being said, what other ways did you see that consistency pay off for you and your team?
Bilicki: Just looking at the big picture, we weren’t always the fastest Rick Ware car. But, going back to it, we always seemed to be the smartest. There were multiple times where we could have…like Bristol for example, at the night race. We had a lot of damage. I think the No. 20 car cut a right-front tire as he was lapping us and literally just rocketed in our door. We got in the wall really hard. The steering was way off, the car was driving awful. And to be honest, I think my spotter, Reed, wanted us to quit early because we were so off the pace and we didn’t want to affect the race. But I know that it’s an impressive stat. Had we not finished that race, our list of completed races would have ended at race 25 or whatever race that was. So yeah, I think just logging all the laps and making it to the end of the race was definitely impressive for us.
And in terms of the team, with the limited guys we have, they did a great job giving me cars that could make it to the end. We started the season with some really silly mechanical issues. It was really frustrating. The only two DNFs we had this year came from mechanical failures. I think the first eight or nine races of the season, we had mechanical issues during the race. And several of them we did finish, though we went multiple laps down when we had to go behind the wall. But looking towards the end of the season, the second half of the season, we raced through all the issues we had and we were much more consistent on just bringing a car to the track that made laps. So big props to my guys.
And for me too, as the driver, I need a lot of laps to learn. You know, even though I’ve been in the Cup Series since 2017, this was my first full-time season. And it is different. I learned this year how to pace myself during races. You can’t use up all your equipment and your brakes and your car. Mentally you can’t use your body up in the first half of the race because then you have nothing left for the second half.
In 2019, I ran the Bristol night race. And I fell out of the seat. Realistically, it was probably a combination of things. I had carbon monoxide poisoning because I got into the wall and knocked out the crush paneling. Then, I threw up in my helmet.
Jones: Oh my gosh!
Bilicki: Yeah! That was bad! But fast-forwarding to 2021, there wasn’t a single instance this year where I felt like I would fall out of the seat. So, I learned how to pace myself. I learned how to race these long races – because they are extremely long races. I mean, 500 laps at Bristol? That’s long! You can’t just jump into that. But just logging laps because of the car my team gave me this year to make it to the end definitely grew me as a driver. And I think we’ll be in really good shape for next year.
Jones: It was fun to watch this season as you had those finishes and all the accomplishments that came with it. Now, I also read after Martinsville that you helped design your paint scheme for that weekend. Was that something you did completely or you just had a hand in? Tell me a little bit more about that.
Bilicki: Yeah, so I think probably about 35, maybe 45% of the cars we raced this year, I’ve probably designed on my own.
Bilicki: Yeah! Martinsville being one of them. I taught myself how to use Adobe Illustrator and create designs on racecars and graphic renderings probably three or four years ago. It’s all self-taught, just through YouTube. But with me handling all my own sponsors, I knew it was pretty important for me to have that skill, so I wouldn’t be spending, I guess for once I wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars for a rendering that may never actually be raced.
So, before I reach out to new sponsors and pitch new sponsors, I always put together a rendering with their paint scheme. It could be a simple design, right? Just change the colors to match their logo, but depending on their logo, I might just create a whole new design. So I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it. I don’t think a lot of people understand that.
Like I said, I do it all, from the marketing side, going to these meetings, designing the car. This year, I did have some help from Hershy Designs. He designed some of the cars I raced too and he’s been a huge help.
But yeah, Martinsville was unique because it was literally the Monday before the race and we had a sponsor deal kind of fall apart. So Rick (Ware) called me and said, “See if you can put something together with one of your partners.” So, I called Insurance King. Now, earlier in the year they were interested in the race because it fell on Halloween, so we had some ideas. They ultimately agreed to take the race, which was really cool to do last minute. And since it was so last minute, I just decided I had to design a car. So he gave me an idea. He said let’s do like a mummy wrap. If we had a little bit more time we probably would have had a little bit more of a unique design. I think there are definitely some things that could have been different about the design. But all in all, yeah, I did 100% of that!
Jones: That is really awesome. It looked incredible. I was there and I kept thinking, “That is the coolest looking car on track!”
Bilicki: Oh wow. Well, I appreciate that! Thank you!
Jones: Absolutely! So the last time we spoke, we were going to talk about the Next Gen car, and we kind of tabled that due to some, we’ll call it uncertainty at that time. Now, things are moving forward with the car so let’s talk a little bit about it. Our editor-in-chief, Rob Tiongson asked about sequential shifters. He wants to know how they are going to change the game for NASCAR.
Bilicki: Yeah, so it’s the five-speed sequential, whereas right now we have the four-speed H pattern. It’s gonna essentially make the car a little bit easier to drive, especially upshifting and downshifting. I don’t think you’re gonna see as much wheel hop at the road courses. You also might start seeing shifting at short tracks, like Martinsville. You know, I don’t really know how they’re going to have these cars geared. But I wouldn’t doubt it to see third, fourth, fifth gear at a short track or maybe just fourth and fifth gear. To be honest, I don’t know if it’s gonna be faster. I could be making myself look silly right now! But it makes sense.
And why would you not with it being so simple to use? You literally just pull back to upshift, push forward to downshift. I don’t see why we wouldn’t try to set up our cars and our gearbox for that. It’s gonna be really interesting. It’s gonna be a game-changer. Definitely a lot more modern.
I’m glad we don’t have paddle shifters, to be honest. Because a lot of the current cars now have paddle shifters. I think one unique aspect of our current cars was the fact that they were hard to drive, and the H pattern contributed to that. I feel the sequential is a good step forward. But it’s not to the point where it’s like a GT3 car where it has all paddles, and it has traction control. I feel like it’s in between where we need to be. And I think that’s a good step for NASCAR because NASCAR is still supposed to be a big, heavy, hard car to drive.
Jones: And what do you think fans will be most impressed with once all the cars are on track?
Bilicki: I think this car sounds really cool in person. There are a lot of people judging how the car sounds on video, but in person, they sound a lot better. I was watching the cars at the Charlotte ROVAL test and it sounded like a sports car. I mean, they sounded incredible!
I think the braking capacity is gonna increase a lot. I mean, the amount you can drive the car into the corner is going to be a lot harder, because you have bigger brakes. The speed factor of the cars – it’s not going to look like they’re going any faster when we’re at Daytona, Talladega, or at mile-and-a-half tracks, but at a road course? Like I said, you’re going to be surprised how far the cars can drive into the corner before they start braking. I mean, even I was surprised watching some of the cars at the road course test. We had just raced there on Sunday and then we were watching the cars test on Monday and Tuesday, and just seeing them drive 300 feet deeper in some of the braking zones? I think that’s a pretty big difference for next year.
And the visuals of the car too. I think the cars look incredible. So I’m excited to see them all stickered up next year!
Jones: Okay. Honestly? I’m not good with change and I’m trying to keep an open mind going into next season. But you just got me really excited about 2022!
Bilicki: Oh good!
Jones: Yeah, I’m like, “Is it Daytona yet?” (laughs)
Bilicki: (laughs) Yeah!
Jones: Now, before we move on to some “lasts” for this series, I want you to look at the season as a whole. So take your efforts behind the wheel. Throw in the work done at the shop to pit road, cues from your spotter and calls from your crew chief, and combine it all. What grade would you give the No. 52 team this season?
Bilicki: Our 52 team, honestly? I would give them a solid A, with what all we dealt with. For the sponsorship, we didn’t have a huge corporate sponsor. We had a lot of small businesses come together to fund our effort. To be honest, had I crashed every other weekend, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay in the car. We really put this together on a budget and we made it work. We do a lot with a little and that was really impressive for our guys. That was huge.
A huge hats off to Rick Ware, too, for keeping me in the car. But like I said about my sponsors, they’re all small businesses. They all stepped up ginormously this year to make sure that I stayed in the car the full season. And our guys too. We started the season off rough. But we ended really, really good. And you know, we didn’t always have the best speed out of the Rick Ware Racing cars. But, we were always the most consistent and that’s why I’d give them a solid A. That’s why we were the highest finishing RWR car too, because of the whole group effort. We just use our heads and that’s what you’ve got to do when you drive for a small team.
Next year might be a little bit different with Rick Ware Racing as an organization, where there will be some more backing and support. And obviously, with the Stewart-Haas relationship too, and Ford, it’s going to be a little bit different year. But still, we’re a small team and we need to take these things into consideration. We don’t have 100 guys in the shop who can put together a backup car.
So that’s kind of what I always thought throughout the year, “Let’s just deliver this car home clean and do our best job.” And by doing that, we had some pretty solid runs. So I’ve got to give it an A.
Jones: I know we talked at the beginning of the season about how the smaller teams have their own goals and what constitutes a win. I think it’s important for fans of the sport to realize this and so I appreciate you candidly sharing all that.
Bilicki: Yes. Absolutely!
Jones: Alright, it’s time for the last quarterly question. If you could race against any driver, be it someone from another series, someone that predates you, or an up-and-coming driver, who are you racing against?
Bilicki: Ohhh. That’s tough. I would probably say Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher. Those two in Formula One. Growing up, Michael Schumacher was basically my idol. I always watched him winning races. Obviously, every young racecar driver wants to be like the guy who’s winning a lot of races. Right now, if you’re a NASCAR fan growing up, if you’re five, six, whatever you are, and you just saw Kyle Larson win 10 races? You want to be like Kyle Larson when you grow up.
Well, me growing up, I was always really intrigued by F1. Senna was a little bit before my time. But, I think Senna was probably one of the best drivers. Ever. But like I said, I never got to watch him race actually. So I’ll say Schumacher.
Then on the NASCAR side, Jeff Gordon was my guy. Unfortunately, he retired a couple of years before I raced in the Cup Series so I never really got to race against him. But I definitely think it would have been cool to race against him in his prime, and those famous DuPont colors. That would have been awesome.
Jones: That’s great. I’m sure a lot of our readers will appreciate those answers! And then since it’s the last Cup interview for this series and we’re looking to next year, who should your interview replacement be? Who do you think fans would like to hear from on a regular basis?
Bilicki: Huh, um, you know, I think definitely a driver for a small team. I think we can shed light on some of the differences that we go through versus what some of the big teams go through. And I think that we did a great job of that this year. I’m always happy to do this again next year!
Or maybe get a guy like BJ (McLeod) in there. That might be unique because he can share from a team-owner perspective, but also as a driver. And I guess there’s still some people moving around. Obviously, there’s still some open spots as well, too.
So I would definitely say BJ if you are willing to do that. I think that’d be cool. Or my teammate, Cody Ware. He would be a good fit as well since his dad owns the team. I think he sees something normal people wouldn’t see.
Jones: Oh very true! Those are great options! Now, I saved this question for last, and you kind of hinted towards it a little bit. But looking ahead to next season. I know there has been talk of Rick Ware downsizing and we’ve touched on the alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing. But, are you able to definitively share your plans yet?
Bilicki: Unfortunately, I cannot share my plan. Everything’s pretty much set. All I can say is it will be exciting. Every year, I’ve taken the next step in my career, where we’ve gotten better. From 2016 where I just ran three races. 2017, I made my Cup debut. 2018, being full-time XFINITY to now, being full-time in Cup.
I can definitely say next year, we’re going to continue the trend. It’s definitely looking like it’ll be the biggest and best year. I can tell you, it’s my goal, and it’s looking like I will be at every race. But as I said, there are still pieces of the puzzle that need to be solved. Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, we’ll have a press release out on all that.
During the off-season, be sure to stay up-to-date on everything Josh Bilicki is up to via his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. A huge thank you goes out to Josh’s Public Relations Representative, Kate Fegley, for assisting with these interviews this season. Finally, thank you to Josh for taking the time to talk on a regular basis for the Terra Talks series.