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Ross Chastain: Beyond the Watermelon

Ross Chastain: Beyond the Watermelon

To many of our readers, and many insiders in the sport, the first that they saw of Ross Chastain was when the then 18-year-old made his Camping World Truck Series debut at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2011. Chastain qualified 15th and finished a very impressive tenth. The debut led to Michael Waltrip’s rather irritating obsession (for TV viewers) with watermelons that culminated with a piece that aired during an episode of NCWTS Setup where Chastain took Waltrip to a watermelon farm to see what happens there.

Chastain’s family owns and maintains a 350-acre watermelon farm in Florida where he used to work.  However, Chastain is not farming anymore. He’s living in Mooresville, NC and attempting to make a go at racing full-time. The run turned out to be a feel good story that to a couple of more starts with Turn One Racing before a full campaign with SS-Green Light Racing in 2012. But, what got Chastain to that point? We’ll have to go back to the beginning and take a look.

Many times, young drivers get into motorsports through family members, and Chastain is no different. Prior to his birth in 1992, Chastain’s father raced in the FasTruck Series, simply as a hobby, with a couple of his friends tagging along as helpers. While he did race a little after his son was born, he did cut back a lot once he had a little one to take care of. In fact, if you ask Chastain, he doesn’t recall his father racing. Chastain is from Alva, Florida, a small town approximately 18 miles east of Fort Myers.  As a child, Chastain played soccer, like many other children, when he wasn’t on the farm.

“I was playing soccer growing up, and I got to the point where I got too slow and wasn’t able to keep up,” Chastain said. “I tried for a couple of years on really hard and competitive teams and training, but I just didn’t have it. I realized that, and said, ‘Ok, I can’t play soccer. Gotta figure out something else to do to keep me out of trouble.”

It was at that point that Chastain’s father passed down his love of racing to his son.

“We went to the racetrack and watched the racing,” Ross continued. “Matt Martin was there; he was spanking them.”

Later on, the Chastains borrowed an old FasTruck that Ross’ father used to race against in 2005, and started competing part-time. Then, the family bought their own truck. It was a good experience early on, even if not everyone in his family approved.

“My first race, my mom and my grandparents didn’t come. They said that they didn’t want to watch,” Chastain said. “They were nervous, thought [racing] was dangerous, didn’t want me to do it.”

That first race at then-Punta Gorda Speedway in Port Charlotte, FL was a learning experience for the young Chastain. A mechanical failure resulted in him hitting the wall in the feature, and while he still managed to finish the race, the result was not all that satisfying.

Chastain’s grandfather thought that his racing aspirations were finished after the first race, but that wasn’t the case. Upon hearing Ross’ desire to keep racing, his grandfather said that he would help out with the race car, hoping to ensure his grandson didn’t get injured. Since then, Chastain’s family has been heavily involved in his racing and his grandfather has not missed a race.

Over the next couple of years, Chastain raced FasTrucks and eventually late models all over Florida at tracks such as Citrus County Speedway in Inverness, Auburndale Speedway near Winter Haven, and DeSoto Speedway near Bradenton. However, one particular track that he raced on stood out. That track was New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach.

“We ran a couple of races in our FasTruck, and then quite a few in our late model at New Smyrna,” Chastain said. “I probably learned more at New Smyrna than I did anywhere else.”

Chastain claims that what he learned racing at New Smyrna Speedway could be applied to racing on mile-and-a-half tracks.

All of Chastain’s racing prior to entering NASCAR was done on a shoestring. The team started out with an open trailer to haul their FasTruck to the track before eventually getting an enclosed trailer that was later wrapped with NWA logos. They weren’t just throwing money around like crazy.

“We never did the super expensive, hit the big races [schedule],” Chastain explained. “We were very low budget, didn’t spend much money. We had some people helping us, and some sponsors.”

Those smaller sponsors, the National Watermelon Association and Helena Chemical, a company that manufactures fertilizers for commercial usage, are still with Chastain to this day. The No. 55 Chevrolet that Chastain drove at Daytona for Viva Motorsports earlier this month carried those sponsors.

The peak of Chastain’s late model career occurred at the beginning of 2011. In February that year, Chastain competed in the World Series of Asphalt, held at New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach, a venue that Chastain was very familiar with. With an older car and limited funding, Chastain proceeded to win three of the eight races and claim the championship, shocking many in the process.

“We ran really well [in the World Series of Asphalt],” Chastain said. “We outran some cars that we should not have outran. These were teams that were outspending us, outcrewing us, outsmarting us. They had the latest and greatest of cars and we had our same car that we had run for three years and we went and beat them. But, we knew that car and knew what it needed, so it didn’t matter if they had new, lightweight stuff, we could outrun them.”

Winning the World Series of Asphalt in New Smyrna Beach impressed a then-current team owner in the Camping World Truck Series, who just so happened to be in attendance.

“At New Smyrna, I met Stacy Compton (owner of Turn One Racing),” Chastain said. “My first break to run the truck at [Lucas Oil Raceway] was [Compton] watching me race at New Smyrna. [Lucas Oil Raceway] is kind of similar, maybe a little bit flatter than New Smyrna is, but with a truck, [Compton] said that you drive it about the same. I just went with it.”

That first race at Lucas Oil Raceway brought a number of firsts for the 18-year old racer.

“That race had my first live pit stop,” Chastain explained. “I’d never done a green-flag pit stop, or really any pit stop before. I didn’t think that we’d have a green-flag pit stop there. I thought that there’s usually enough caution flags there, especially at the end. Then, the race went green all the way to the end (a 107-lap stretch), and [my crew chief]’s like, ‘All right, we got to get fuel and take two tires. Don’t slide your tires.’ I was like, ‘I just don’t want to wreck getting on pit road, let alone not sliding my tires.’

“Everything went perfect. As good as I could ever hope for. We finished two spots behind Cole [Whitt], who was really competing for wins at that time.”

Likely the most recognizable moment from that first start was the post-race interview that Chastain did with SPEED’s Hermie Sadler. Both men were off of their game.

“[Sadler] freaked me out. That was my first interview of anything approaching that level,” Chastain said. “So, yeah, I said ‘sir.’ I still do. Now, it’s a joke, but when I see someone like that, and I’d watched him race growing up. I’ve watched him broadcast, commentate and do pit reports. I have a lot of respect for him, so I just said ‘sir.’ It’s what I do. He kind of caught me off-guard and I caught him off-guard. I was just stumbling; I must have said ‘um’ over 30 times in that interview.”

Inexperience at the microphone aside, the performance at Lucas Oil Raceway turned heads. At the time, it was considered to be a one-race deal, but that eventually expanded to five events. While Chastain could not equal his tenth-place finish, he had the chance to race on intermediate tracks for the first time, with a best finish of 16th at Texas.

Those performances were enough to earn Chastain a full-time gig driving for Bobby Dotter’s SS-Green Light Racing for 2012.  That season saw a number of impressive runs, including a third-place finish at Bristol in August.  However, it also saw engine woes and money woes cut short a number of events.

For 2013, Chastain moved to a part-time gig in Brad Keselowski Racing’s No. 19. The pressure was most definitely on Chastain to produce. Early on, it was not going all that well.

“To start off the year, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself,” Chastain said. “However, there really wasn’t that much pressure on me [from the team] because the No. 19 was always a part-time deal prior to last year.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself for Daytona and Martinsville. I was not in a good place as far as how I was perceiving things and how I thought people were perceiving me. I went to Daytona and Martinsville expecting to win, but that wasn’t really the case. I was with a brand-new team that hired an all-new crew for the No. 19. It was a whole different crew from the year before, so it took a while to figure me out.

“Daytona and Martinsville were very rough and they taught me a lot. After that, my eyes were opened. [The situation] wasn’t what I thought, but it’s still really good. Now, [I] can go forward and try to compete. From there on, it got better for the rest of the year. The second half of the year, we really started putting together some good runs.”

For this year, Chastain could not get anything full-time put together. Instead, he raced twice for Ricky Benton in the Camping World Truck Series before transitioning to the Nationwide Series with a couple of events for Viva Motorsports, and one for Hattori Racing Enterprises.

“I haven’t been able to run as many races as I want [to] as a driver, but it’s the right step for me in my career,” Chastain said. “I feel like moving up to Nationwide this year and taking those steps to learn, maybe not on the fast track like some of the guys on the other side of the garage that are full-time. I don’t have that luxury, and I don’t have that opportunity. I fit in where I can, and I fit in with teams that have space available for me.”

The most impressive showing so far this season for Chastain was when he drove for Shige Hattori at Michigan in an Aisin-sponsored No. 80 Toyota. The opportunity came together because regular driver Johnny Sauter was unable to compete due to his Truck Series responsibilities.

“I talk to Johnny Sauter on a regular basis and knew that he couldn’t run Michigan because of the trucks racing at Gateway,” Chastain said. “So, I knew the possibility was there, but I knew the business side of the sport as well. I was almost expecting something else to happen.

“To be honest, I called Shige first, pretty early on, after Charlotte. I got in touch with Shige, and he didn’t know what he was going to do, sponsorship-wise. It worked out that he had sponsorship and I was able to come in and drive. That’s how it’s supposed to work in this point, [but] unfortunately, it doesn’t work 90 percent of the time.”

When Chastain isn’t racing, or working the phones and/or his sponsors in an attempt to get rides in the Truck or Nationwide Series, he is working on business-to-business relationships. While it is designed to help his sponsors, the expansion of relationships could potentially result in additional backing for himself.

In his free time, Chastain likes to take a boat out on Lake Norman and have fun. He claims that it’s nothing fancy and that when he shows up to a barge party, he “brings the average price down.” He’s also trying to learn to golf, but it’s a work in progress. Chastain is also at regular at GoPro Motorplex, the popular go-kart track owned by former Truck Series driver Justin Marks. He says that he “…spends way too much money there” racing the rental karts.

As of right now, Chastain has no confirmed rides in any races. He is currently working the phones with the help of his sponsors in order to procure more backing that will allow him to run, preferably in the Nationwide Series.

In the meantime, Chastain is still trying to make himself visible in NASCAR garages. At Iowa last weekend, Chastain traveled out there to spot for Bryan Silas. Silas had one of his best runs in quite a while, staying on the lead lap all night until his engine quit late in the race. He’s waiting for that next gig, but he’ll definitely be ready when it comes.

About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Newsletter Editor for Frontstretch since mid-2008, Phil is responsible for the site’s Monday-Friday FREE e-newsletter that keeps fans up-to-date with the latest racing news, along with exclusive features and commentary. Our head news writer, Phil also doubles as our broadcast critic, keeping broadcasts honest for years with his Couch Potato Tuesday column. A writer for the Troy (NY) Record, Phil is also one of the lead reporters at Lebanon Valley Speedway in Pennsylvania every weekend during short track season.