Race Weekend Central

Beyond The Cockpit: Gaughan Full Circle At Last

November 14, 2003. There are fewer than 40 laps to go in the then-Craftsman Truck Series season, and, as often seems to be the case in that series, several drivers are still in contention for the season title. But it’s sophomore driver Brendan Gaughan in control of the points as the laps wind down, leaving Travis Kvapil, Ted Musgrave, and Jack Sprague to try to be in position to capitalize on any mistake Gaughan might make, or to fight it out for second place. Gaughan, the 2002 Rookie of the Year, is already doing something the naysayers said was impossible — competing for the title with a family-owned, West Coast-based team. There are less than 40 laps left before he proves them wrong.

“And then it all changed”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82VpGmMUpBk as Marty Houston got loose at the top of the track, spun into the wall and then slid down the track, collecting Gaughan and narrowly missing Travis Kvapil, who would go on to finish fourth, good enough to take the title himself. As Gaughan walked from his destroyed race truck to the waiting ambulance, he waved to the crowd even as the men in the booth for SPEED TV agreed that he’d be back next year and that he’d hold multiple titles before it was all said and done.

But things don’t always work out like we expect, as Gaughan’s career has taken some curves and speed bumps since that day nearly a decade ago. He raced with limited success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, posting a smattering of top-5 and top-10 finishes, but he never quite had the chance to rekindle the magic of that 2003 year that almost was.

Until now.

10 years after nearly winning the Truck Series championship, in 2003 Brendan Gaughan is poised to challenge for it again, this time with Richard Childress Racing.

Fast forward to 2013 and Gaughan is returning to the Camping World Truck Series with Richard Childress Racing, in a newly-renumbered No. 62 truck and, unlike 2012, when he ran a limited schedule, this year Gaughan will race for the title that many believed he’d win someday. He’ll be reunited with crew chief Shane Wilson, with whom he won back-to-back championships in the old Winston West (now the rebranded K&N Pro Series West), the 2002 CWTS rookie title, and six races in 2003 before that fateful wreck at Homestead. And he can’t wait to get started.

Gaughan, who says he’s feeling more confidence than ever after scoring four top 5s in just eight races with RCR last year, says that being with a competitive team has reminded him that he’s still the driver he always was.

“What I’ve missed for those seven years was equipment of this caliber,” Gaughan said at RCR’s media day in Jaunary. “When the ugly duckling got told he was a duck long enough, he started to believe it. Ernie Cope (my crew chief last year) really beat it back into my head that I’m still good at this. I gained a ton of confidence.”

When I sat down with Gaughan for a longer interview later last month, he said that Childress agreed that he still had what it took to win a title — and the owner had one more piece to put in the puzzle: Shane Wilson.

“Things are working out really well for me right now,” says Gaughan, clearly excited about the upcoming season. “Richard gave me a full-time ride. The whole reason to go part-time (last year) was to see if I deserved it or if I still wanted it. At the end of last year, the things we did, the numbers we hit, Richard was pretty happy and offered me a gig.

“That was really cool, but then he said that Shane was going through a transition and Richard actually came up to me in November and said, ‘Do you and Shane still get along?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we get along enough.’ Shane and I still chuckle about it. For us, it’s great. We don’t have to work on chemistry. We’ve fought with each other. We’ve loved each other. We’ve hated each other. We’ve gone through the whole gamut, and we know what we’re both about, and it’s fun to be back with him. It’s really fun to be back with him!”

It should be fun; from 2000 to 2004 in the Winston West, Camping World Truck, and Sprint Cup Series, Gaughan and Wilson posted a combined total of 16 wins and 41 top-5 finishes across the three series.

“I had the best years of my career with him, not just the one year,” adds Gaughan when asked about the secret of their success together. “We won two championships together, Rookie of the Year in Trucks, had a championship in the Trucks that next year and ended up pretty close. He was a guy looking to make his name in the sport and was a little disenchanted and came out here to this little team in the West, found a great home, and we hit it off great.

“We moved back East and it didn’t work right off the bat for us, but he’s been very successful since he left. I said it during media week, I probably have the most overqualified crew chief in the garage and I’m excited that, with that chemistry we used to have, I’m excited that we’re back together.”

For many drivers, that 2003 race would be devastating. It was to Gaughan, too, but now he’s focused on 2013, and a decade older and wiser, he’s ready to make a run at it again. He looks back on 2003 not as a failure, but as a success for an independent team that many said would never make it in NASCAR’s upper echelons.

“Look, that’s why it’s called racing,” Gaughan says of that now long-ago season. “Two weeks before we were at Phoenix and were going to win that race and had a motor let go and finished 11th. Three weeks before that, we ended up getting caught in a wreck somewhere. That’s why it’s called racing.

“You can’t just look at the last deal and say that’s what happened. The way it ended was kind of crummy, but the fun deal is, everybody said you couldn’t do it from the West Coast. You can’t do it from the West Coast, and that year, you had Gibbs still racing trucks, Hendrick still racing, DEI had trucks, you had Jack Roush trucks still racing—you had big time teams and big time names and it was cool to be the little engine that could.”

At the time, there was speculation that Houston, who was driving as a teammate to Musgrave, had caused the accident on purpose. Gaughan, who has a teammate this year in Ty Dillon, says that kind of racing isn’t teamwork, but that he and Dillon will work together for a lofty goal.

“I never said that (Houston wrecked him intentionally). It was everybody else who said that, but I never said that,” he said before transitioning to his own organization. “The line on teamwork is to be a good teammate. You share information, we work hard with each other, we work out in the gym, we hang out together, do all the things we’re supposed to. When you’re on the racetrack, you don’t wreck your teammate.

“We’re going to be fast; Ty Dillon and I are both going to be quick each week with the equipment that Richard is giving us, with what Chevrolet is giving us. We have great crew chiefs, we have great teams. We’re going to be fast. We’re going to race with each other a lot this year. There’s no team order for this or that. All we’re doing is racing each other clean.

Gaughan did well with RCR in a limited schedule last season, producing four top-5 finishes in just eight starts in the series.

“We both like each other. The driver’s standpoint is you always race somebody how they race you. If your teammate is a jerk, you’re going to race your teammate like a jerk! That’s happened on many teams in many places. But when you get along as teammates, yeah, you’re going to do have a run in. We’re going to go door-to-door with each other a little bit, we’re both going for the win. We expect it because we expect both teams to be that good. But it’s not like I’m going to lay down and let him pass me, and he’s not going to lay down and let me pass him.

“Yeah, there might be a time where if we both need a couple points on lap ten, we might share. But other than that, we’re both racing for wins and the same championship. And if it comes down to the last race with us first and second in the points, that’s what Richard Childress is doing this for. That’s what he brought me in here for. That’s what he’s doing for his grandson, and we’re going to go and try to be one-two going to the last race.”

Gaughan didn’t come to NASCAR from what many consider a traditional route, through America’s short tracks. Instead, his skills and passion were born in the Western desert, along with those of drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Robby Gordon, and Casey Mears, in off-road buggies and trucks, racing over sand dunes and rocky hills. Gaughan says it has made him a better driver. And he’s not alone in that belief.

Mears, a onetime teammate of Gaughan’s, says, ” I feel like it’s been a big help in everything I’ve done growing up. Racing has always been kind of an in control – out of control situation. You’re sideways, you’re throwing it around, but you’re also always looking for grip, you’re chasing the track, you’re chasing different conditions all the time when you race on dirt. So, for sure I think that off-road racing has helped with that in everything I’ve done.”

Another friend from those desert days was Jimmie Johnson, who would go on to win five consecutive Sprint Cup titles. I asked Johnson about what he learned racing off-road trucks.

“It took me a long time to develop my skills on the asphalt until I could look back and say, that’s something from off-road. It’s beginning to actually work for me,” Johnson says. “I’m so used to using a lot of brake, and setting the car into a slide in the corner, then on asphalt, the less you use the brake, the faster you go. Dynamically, that changed a lot how I drove the car. When we get to tracks that are rough, tracks where you cant tune the car and you just have to deal with that, I think that it helps me a lot because there are very few changes that you can make on an off-road truck, you just had to deal with it.”

And that ability to “handle” any situation is what Gaughan believes sets these types of experienced competitors apart.

“It’s just like dirt racing; Tony Stewart came from the sprint cars and the dirt, and Jason Leffler and all those guys and they all have a little bit better car control than a guy who has just never been sliding around on the dirt. The thing about the desert guys, we’re not only sliding around, but now we’re in the air,” he explained. “We’re two wheels, four wheels, one wheel, on our roof. You’ve had to learn how to do so many things with a race car that are not natural, but when you get traction – I remember the first day I jumped into a Camping World Truck and I drove it and I said, ‘wow, this thing, it’s stuck like you can’t believe,’ and Butch Miller had just gotten out of it screaming how loose it was. Because to me, it felt like I had traction and I’d never had that feeling. So to us, it’s just a much more in control situation, and when it starts to get out of control, we’re more accustomed to it.”

Guaghan also says that racing in the desert is the most excitement someone can have in a race car.

“It is a _ton_ of fun, “he says, the joy evident in his voice as he remembers those halcyon days. “There is no racing in the world like that, no racing – I love NASCAR, I love what I do, but there is no racing in the world as fun as racing in the desert, racing in the short course. What Robby Gordon is doing, starting back up that super truck series, there is nothing as much fun as that style racing.”

But wait, don’t you have to be just a little bit crazy to race off-road?

“First, I’m glad I’ve never hit a cow, because that hurts!” Gaughan says after I tell him that Brian Ickler once told me he hit a bovine during a race. “I’ve driven off of cliffs and spent the night, I’ve ended up in guys’ yards, almost into guys’ houses in Mexico, when you drive off a cliff and almost end up inside their house. There’s all sorts of stories. That’s what’s great about Mexico and desert racing; the bench racing stories are _epic_. There’s so many stories that come out of that kind of racing. You’re in the car for 20 hours. I finished the Baja 500 one year and it took me 23 hours and 50 minutes to do 500 miles. I got frostbite _and_ heat exhaustion that same race. It started to snow in the pine forest at night and I didn’t wear gloves and I got frostbitten. Earlier that afternoon, we were changing the transmission at Laguna Diablo and it was a hundred and fifteen degrees, and I didn’t drink enough water and got a touch of heat stroke on me and had to lay underneath the car and drink a bunch of water until the team got there to finish putting the transmission in, and then got going again.”

Stories? Like pretending to be Jimmie Johnson? Like that reverse Mohawk?

“Yes, it is,” Gaughan admits when asked if it’s true that he and Johnson used to sign autographs posing as each other. “Back then, I was a lot slimmer and he was a little bit heavier and we looked a lot alike.”

I asked Gaughan how many fans think they have an authentic Johnson signature but really have a Gaughan special. He laughs. “God only knows. We were 15 and 16-year-old kids who were having the time of our lives racing cars and what Jimmie has done is absolutely spectacular,” Gaughan adds. “I hope that one day I can get back there full-time and at least compete against him to remind him that I haven’t totally disappeared.”

Johnson also laughs when I ask him about the autographs. “Yeah. We did lots of fun things. Some of them, I probably shouldn’t say. We’ve known each other for a long time. We actually tore up a lot of equipment over the years, so we go back a long way. Brendan’s a great guy.”

Johnson was clearly taking the high road in not spilling any dirt, so I asked Mears, a former teammate of both Johnson and Gaughan back in the day, what he remembered about the Las Vegas native.

“I remember he was playing college football at the time and when he first came in to the team, he came in and he had a big shaved stripe right down the center of his head,” says Mears, laughing. “I guess there was some sort of initiation with his college football team. I’ll never forget that. That was pretty funny. Brendan’s a great guy. We’ve known his family for a long time, and obviously, the off-road roots are pretty deep there.”

Gaughan tells some more of the story.

“Well, I didn’t mean to show up with a reverse Mohawk shaved in. There’s only one person that I think may even remember it or have a picture of it, but fortunately they’re all gone. I played college football, and for freshman initiation, Georgetown did not have a Greek system, fortunately for me, because I would not have survived, but football was its own little Greek system as with most places, and for freshmen on the football team, you had to do initiation,” he said. “And you had to do certain things. You had options that you could choose, fortunately. The option that I chose because it was a much – how should I put this — a much _saner_ option — was letting them shave a stripe in my head. So I sat down with the clippers and they shaved a reverse Mohawk in my head. I had one race left that year, so I went to that race and I wore a baseball hat the entire time. I wore it until I put my helmet on and put the helmet on real fast!” He adds, “Casey told you that? He remembers. Damn. Hopefully he doesn’t have a picture somewhere.”

I make a mental note to ask Mears and shift gears to Gaughan’s experiences as a college athlete. He made the Georgetown basketball team as a walk-on, no easy task, and holds the school’s record for kicking percentage as a football player. Not surprisingly, the Truck Series veteran has taken what he learned with him to the racetrack.

“You’ve got to remember, racing is a team sport,” Gaughan reminds me. “The whole sport is about people: the people you have putting race cars together, the people you have going over the wall, your crew chief. How you react to people, how you treat people, the chemistry you have with people, that makes such a difference. There are a lot of guys in the sport who are really good at what they do and everybody goes, ‘why aren’t they just as good as that?’ It’s when they get it — Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, they get it. They understand that it’s a team sport and they take care of their guys and that’s why they’re that good at it. So I take all that team mentality and that coaching mentality and I’ve always put that in, whether it’s a team I owned or wherever I race. That’s one thing Shane and I have in common; he was a high school basketball player. He believes in the team atmosphere of this deal, so we’ve always gotten along because we always make it a team and work really well within that system.”

I ask Gaughan about life off the track, too. He’s learned some important lessons through family time, as he and wife Tatum welcomed their second son last fall.

“Parenthood is always an adventure,” he explained. “It’s been fun, and having two, it doesn’t get easier. Everyone says, ‘oh, you already have one? It’ll get easier.’ Oh, no. Uh-uh. You no longer get to nap when one naps because you have to take care of the other one, that kind of thing.'”

Gaughan is a fan of adventure, both as a parent and as a racer, and, it turns out, he also enjoys indulging his inner nerd from time to time. He said his favorite movie is Harry Potter, and when I ask him which one (and I love them, too, so I’m interested in the answer), it turns out there’s more to the story.

“The books are my favorite, and I have to tell you, really Star Wars is my favorite movie,” Gaughan admits. “But most everybody doesn’t remember the Star Wars stuff anymore. I’m that type of guy anyway. I love the (Harry Potter) books; I actually used to help write a couple books about the books and was big on websites and blogs, trying to help figure out what was happening. Really, if you go back to it, the first one to me, even though it was the most child-friendly, you just look at the simplicity of how it started to how it went, the actors did a great job, the kids did, growing up with the films, and I still enjoy watching the first one to this day.”

Gaughan will open the 2013 season Friday night in Daytona, the first step on the long road toward, he hopes, the title he’s always wanted. A little but goofy and a whole lot of racer, Gaughan seems rejuvenated this year, bolstered by the team around him and the commitment of his owner and manufacturer. If the year goes like his abbreviated stint in 2012, Gaughan looks like he and Dillon will be formidable opponents to the rest of the series.

February, 2013. Brendan Gaughan is older, wiser, and in the ride of his dreams. He’s ready to start a brand-new season and a brand-new chapter in his life. 2003 is in the past, 2013 is the future, and it’s all lying before him, a ribbon of asphalt and dirt. Whatever happens for Gaughan this year, it’s sure to be an adventure. Gaughan wouldn’t have it any other way.

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