19-year-old Noah Gragson drives the #18 Safelite AutoGlass Toyota in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. Gragson can be found in possibly every social media channel around. He’s taken over NASCAR’s SnapChat in the past and he’s notoriously attempted to use his Twitter to win the heart of Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn. He’s more recently used Twitter to ask NASCAR’s VP of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell about his daughter’s professional singing and whether or not she needed a Valentine. This latest story is still developing.
In the meantime, I had a quick “5 Minutes With” Gragson during this weekend’s NASCAR event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Scroll down for the interview and for photos from this weekend’s race!
JW: You’ve had kind of an unconventional path into racing. A lot of kids are racing quarter midgets from age 5, all the way up. You popped in a little bit late, and had a lot of success early. How did you find yourself in racing?
NG: I grew up in Las Vegas. I always did the stick and ball sports; football, basketball, all that. I always liked action sports; snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain biking, dirt biking, and those kinds of things. My dad took me to a little, indoor electric go-kart track called Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas. I did that for about a year, and never really had the opportunity to race. I was probably 11 or 12 then, doing that on the weekends. I finally got the opportunity [to race] with his business partner’s kids. We went out to the Bullring and they raced Bandoleros. I tested out a Bandolero during spring break of my 7th grade year. Then I got the opportunity to race the full season when I was 13 years old in 2012. I’m kind of considered a late starter, starting at 13 years old, compared to all those kinds starting a real young age, you know.
JW: And you had no issue keeping up? (laughs)
NG: No, I finished 3rd in my first race, and ended up winning the championship in that first year in the Bandolero. Then, I moved up to Legend cars. I won a National Championship on the road course my second year, and then moved into the K&N [Pro Series] cars, so that was a really big step, going from Legends to K&N. Normally, people do street stocks, or late models, or who knows, but going from Legends cars to K&N was a tough jump, for sure. I finished 3rd in my first K&N start, at Kern County Raceway Park. Then, 2 weeks later, in my 3rd race, I won the race at Tucson Speedway in my third start. So that was really cool. Then battling back and forth for the championship lead with Chris Eggleston in 2015. I ended with 2 wins, 1 pole, and I think 7 points out of the K&N West championship. So tough battle, but just came up a little short.
JW: So coming out of Legends, are you a road course guy?
NG: I don’t consider myself a road course guy. I did the [Legends] ovals during the regular season. Las Vegas has that 8 race winter series on the road course out there, and I did that as well, so I had a little bit of experience with [road courses] but I didn’t come strictly from an open wheel, single seat style of racing, I guess you could say.
JW: That question was partially influenced by the fact that I know you’ve listed Sonoma Raceway as your favorite race track.
NG: Yeah. I love Sonoma! I ran the K&N race there in 2015 and 2016. I damn near won it in 2016, but I got passed by Chase Elliott with 2 to go. But I like that track. Going through the esses, jumping curbs, shifting gears. Good times!
JW: So you’ve kind of developed your reputation as a jokester or prankster; kind of the light hearted guy of the group. Has that ever turned back on you? I imagine you must have had pranks come back your way.
NG: Yeah, I mean… there’s good and bad that come with it. I like to joke around a lot, and prank with some of my crew guys. And if you’re gonna dish it, you gotta be able to take it too, right? Now that I’m racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and having Rudy Fugle as a crew chief, it’s a lot more serious. It’s a lot more… I guess… a lot more work, less play at the race track. You just gotta do it when the time is right, you know? There’s a time and place for everything. Deep down, I’m a happy go lucky kind of guy.
JW: Speaking of pranks and shenanigans, where did the Shark Head originate?
NG: Oh! That was at Bristol. We raced on Wednesday, so Tuesday night we were at the hotel. A crew guy from the 51 team had to get Kyle [Busch] some breathing strips for his nose at WalMart, and he saw one of those shark heads there. He brought it back to the hotel, and we were sitting there in the hotel restaurant, eating dinner and hanging out… Everyone from the team, my family, some friends. He came in there with that shark head, and I thought it was the funniest thing. So the next day, we had that rain delay and I’m like “Steve, go get that shark head! I’m gonna go photo bomb John Hunter [Nemechek]’s interview.” It kinda just blew up on Twitter, Instagram, all that stuff.
JW: One of the questions I had was about social media. In the racing world, there’s been a bit of a delay in all of motorsports really jumping in and embracing social media as strongly as some others have. You’re very much leading the pack in that direction. What do you think of [Monster Energy] Cup, NASCAR’s involvement and where social media is headed? Do you like what they’re doing? Do you have ideas? What would you like to see?
NG: I think it takes time. You got a lot of veterans of the sport who are starting to get up in age. They’re starting to retire. You got the new wave, a generation coming up through the ranks. You got your Ryan Blaneys, your Chase Elliotts, your Bubba Wallaces. Those guys are 4, 5 or 6 years older than the guys I started racing with these last couple of years. They’re kind of that first generation to grow up with technology, so I think it just comes a little more naturally to them. As the drivers from the past are starting to get out of the race car, they still stick around and I think they’re starting to pick up on using social media. But for a young driver… some people agree with me and some disagree… I think social media is one of the strongest forms of growing your fan base, if not THE strongest, because it’s instant. So I just try to be myself on there. Be relatable, be funny, and try to be the kind of guy where the fans can say “Oh yeah, I know him.” I try to put myself in their shoes. I like to see pictures of inside [the hauler]. Just try to take them into the behind-the-scenes stuff is kind of neat. I feel like people like that kind of stuff, too.
JW: OK, one last question for you. The Wasabi Incident….
NG: Off Axis Paint, they paint all my helmets. I’m good buddies with the guy who owns it. His name’s Greg Stumpff. We went to lunch one day. It was myself, a couple of the other painters from Off Axis, and Matt Crafton, who gets all his helmets painted by them, too. A lot of people are like buddies, it’s real friendly down there, and a place to hang out. It’s cool to hang out with them. So we went to lunch at the sushi place in Mooresville, which is where the shop is. There’s a good place called Pisces Sushi there. So we walked in, and my buddy Dallas says “Hey, you should Tweet that if you get 1,000 retweets, you have to eat the wasabi.”
So I ended up tweeting it. I kinda screwed myself, but I’m like “There’s no way I can get 1,000.” So he said we should lower it to 500 retweets, then I have to eat the wasabi. So I tweeted it. And the deal was if I got 500 retweets before the end of the meal, I had to eat the wasabi. By the time we got our food, I’m looking at it, and it was like 100, 115 retweets, you know? I start eating my food, and about halfway through the meal, I’ve got probably 200-225 retweets.
Crafton’s like “He’s almost done with his food” so he tweeted NASCAR and a few other big names. And he tweeted Dale Jr. telling him “retweet this tweet.”
And I’m like “Oh s**t!” So Dale Jr. retweeted it, and within like 17 seconds, I already had 500. I had like 300 new retweets in just a few seconds! So Junior Nation responded, and I had to eat the wasabi. I almost threw up. It was a pretty rough deal on me. I ended up racing a go-kart later that night on the Outlaw go-kart track out at Millbridge Speedway, and damn near blew chunks everywhere. It wasn’t good. BUT… I ate that wasabi on a Wednesday, and we ended up with our first pole in the [Camping World] Truck Series that weekend. So maybe I gotta eat more wasabi.
God, I hate wasabi! Wasabi and horse radish. So gross.
JW: You’re missing out!
NG: You like horse radish? Or wasabi?
JW: Both! But I won’t touch guacamole.
NG: I love guacamole!