Blake Koch is walking around the NASCAR XFINITY Series garage on cloud nine in 2016. The 30-year-old is currently in position to make the Chase, attempting to do so in Kaulig Racing’s first year on the circuit.
Kaulig Racing opened its doors during the off-season. Matt Kaulig, owner of LeafFilter Gutter Protection, opted to start a team, rather than continue his partnership with TriStar Motorsports. Last year, LeafFilter funded Koch’s efforts in the No. 8 car for 24 events. But come 2016, Kaulig began the journey to be a team owner in NASCAR.
Veteran crew chief Chris Rice joined Kaulig’s group late in the off-season, spearheading the team’s efforts by helping secure an alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: It’s Kaulig Racing’s first year. How would you evaluate the season so far?
Blake Koch: I would say it’s beyond what our expectations were going into the season. When Matt Kaulig decided to start this team, we didn’t have much time. Chris Rice came on board in the middle of December. I think we hired our first employee on Jan. 4. We were at Daytona five weeks later and we got a top 10. We are actually pretty blown away at how our performance has been for a new team and how good our guys are working together, just gelling. I feel like we have a great group of guys for the future. This race team is very exciting to think about.
Wolkin: What were your expectations when you first signed with the team, given it would be built from scratch?
Koch: I would say we expected to be 18th-20th. It’s hard to start up a team and beat guys, even if they don’t have big budgets. We didn’t have any notebooks or anything. To this day, we expect to be in the top 15. Matt Kaulig is grateful, appreciative and excited about just being here and seeing the growth of the company. Me and Chris Rice are not happy if we’re not in the top 15. Matt is more of a big picture thinking kind of guy, so he doesn’t really get too concerned with each week. His goal this year is to make the Chase. He’s given us every resource and opportunity to do it. I believe we’ll be in the Chase, but he really wants to make the Chase.
Wolkin: When did Matt approach you about starting a team?
Koch: Matt and Mark Smith [owner of TriStar Motorsports] worked out a way for Matt to be the sponsor for 2016. They got talking and Matt told me he wants to start his own team and Mark supported it. Mark Smith is a great guy. He’s a racer, and he knows this sport needs more teams and owners. When Matt told me that he was going to start a race team, it was right after the fall Charlotte race, so around late October.
Wolkin: So you had some time to get everything together.
Koch: Yeah, but everybody is on race teams. We couldn’t even do anything until the season was over. Then, you have Christmas that comes up soon, the banquet, New Years and there’s just not much time. We didn’t even have a racecar until January.
Wolkin: Where did you guys get your equipment from? Is it mainly from the alliance with RCR?
Koch: Our cars are RCR cars. All of our other stuff is from different places. Some stuff is new. Some stuff we got from TriStar and some stuff from other teams. It’s just whatever we feel is best. We try to keep our start-up costs as low as possible and still look great. Everything we do here at Kaulig Racing looks phenomenal. They built a hero card stand holder that came in a huge box. Everything Matt Kaulig does is first class and looks the best.
Wolkin: What did you think when Matt – a business owner – came up to you and said he wanted to start a race team?
Koch: I didn’t think he was crazy. I was extremely excited because I saw what he has done with LeafFilter Gutter Protection over the last 11 years and what he has turned this company into. He told me, ‘Dude, we’re going to figure this out. It’s going to be a sweet race team and we’re going to win races.’ I believe him. As long as LeafFilter is strong, which it is, we’re in good shape. To sum it up, I didn’t think he was crazy. I was extremely excited, and you can see why now because look what he’s done in 11 races.
Wolkin: What does it mean to you that he’s supported your career since you partnered with him at Go FAS Racing?
Koch: It’s a dream come true. It feels that way that it is something that is completely just a blessing. LeafFilter came out of nowhere in this series, and I was their first driver and I’m going to be their last driver. You walk into LeafFilter’s headquarters and it looks like the Blake Koch museum. There are pictures of me on every single wall. There’s a mannequin of me in a fire suit. I walk into the call center and there are 40 to 60 girls and a couple of guys that are my biggest fans. I know a lot of them by name. I know almost every LeafFilter employee there is, and there are almost 600 of them. They really want me to get Most Popular Driver this year. If the employees get behind it and push it hard, we might have a shot at it.
Wolkin: Did you have any doubts when Matt told you he wanted to start a team?
Koch: No, I didn’t. I didn’t have any doubts what so ever. I know Matt Kaulig is a straight up guy. He’s an amazing guy. When he says he is going to do something, he does it. I never worry about anything Matt says. There are hundreds of people that say the same thing that work for him. When Matt Kaulig says he is going to do something, you know he is going to do it and it is going to be pretty awesome.
Wolkin: What made you have faith in him when he approached you about starting the team in October?
Koch: Just because I know the loyalty. I know he cares about me. I feel like a part of his family. When I go to Ohio, I stay at his house with his daughter Samantha and wife Lisa. There’s a sign for me by my bedroom. I call it my bedroom because I feel like it is my bedroom. They make me feel like a part of their family. I just trust him and go with it.
Wolkin: What’s he been like so far as an owner?
Koch: He is very motivating. He is a very motivating person and a major leader. He lives in Ohio but our race team is in Charlotte, so he’ll send us weekly videos to pump up our race team, congratulating us on good finishes, making us excited to follow stats. He likes stats. For me, a big stat this year is I have six top 15 finishes in my career, and five of those are this year in only 11 races. The only two top 10s in my career are this year. Those stats are very cool.
He likes seeing progress, numbers and he gets excited. He starts pumping up me, Chris Rice and our race team. The way he is so involved, too, is he sends LeafFilter employees to every single race we go to. We’re going to have 18 LeafFilter employees at Michigan. He really utilizes his sponsorship, too. Not only does he utilize and have fun with the race team ownership, he really utilizes the sponsorship with LeafFilter.
Wolkin: You’ve been mentioning Chris a lot. How has his leadership helped you so far?
Koch: As far as Chris Rice goes, when Matt told me he wants to start a race team, I immediately thought the only the guy to come in and do the job that I trust is Chris Rice. He is great with people, sponsors, a very likeable person and he’s so ridiculously competitive that I know we’re going to build fast cars and be contending for wins for a championship race team in the future. He’s a great guy and a family man. I just trusted him. I didn’t look anywhere else or talk to any other crew chiefs.
I went right after Chris Rice and Matt supported that and trusted my input on that, and we got him. He’s been able to assemble a great group of people. He’s been able to push me to that next level. We bicker and fight with each other like brothers every week, but we still love each other and are committed to each other and this sport. Chris Rice is the man, and I knew that since I drove for him at Homestead in 2013.
Wolkin: He’s known for being enthusiastic and so are you. How has your relationship developed with him so far?
Koch: Well, the relationship is great. It’s full of honesty. We’re just so open and honest with each other. What helps that, too, is you can look at it as a marriage. When you commit to somebody, you may get mad at each other and argue, but you’re not going to look for someone else. You’re not going to find a replacement. You’re going to make it work and fix it. You’re to learn from it and strengthen that relationship. Chris and I both know that he’s my crew chief for as long as he wants to be, and I’m his driver. We’re committed to each other. No matter what he says, I can’t take it personal. No matter what I say, he can’t take it personal. Neither one of us are job scared. We know that we’re going to be with each other for a long time.
Wolkin: You guys have an alliance with RCR. What has that done for the team?
Koch: The RCR alliance has been huge. I’m actually blown away at how much and how willing they are to help us. I definitely have to thank Mike Dillon and all the guys, crew chiefs and drivers. Ty [Dillon, driver of the No. 3 XFINITY Series car] helped me out a ton [Friday at Pocono]. They have been so open in welcoming us into their shop that I’m pretty blown away. We go to their competition meetings every week.
We just bought our own race shop, and it’s right next to RCR. It’s literally 200 yards from RCR, so we can just walk to our competition meetings now. That will pay off huge in the long run. It’s been a struggle to move race shops during the season, but the off weekend last weekend helped.
Wolkin: How much does it mean to you that RCR is helping you out again after competing with them in the past?
Koch: I was an RCR development driver in 2009. That’s when I got to know Mike Dillon and Richard [Childress, owner], Ty [Dillon] and Austin [Dillon]. They aren’t going to just welcome anybody into an alliance. The biggest thing is they trusted Chris Rice. He told them this is the real deal, that we’re committed and then, they met Matt. Instantly, they loved Matt and how he rolls. They have been great. It’s very exciting that we’re the XFINITY RCR alliance team.
Wolkin: Would you say it’s the biggest opportunity in your career so far?
Koch: You know, the biggest opportunity in my career was the first time I got to meet Matt Kaulig, Chris Counahan [vice president of sales], Chris Brosch [vice president of marketing] and Bob Kaulig [vice president of business development]. That was the biggest opportunity for me. When I first met those guys at Charlotte in 2014, I just knew this was going to be something special. It was great just to meet them and see how excited they were.
This is the biggest opportunity for me to be competitive in the series I love. This is by far the most fun. I’m not sponsor searching every week. All I have to worry about now is making these LeafFilter employees that come to the track feel special, making sure that Matt has a good time and making sure our racecars are fast. That’s what I think about now. I would say the biggest opportunity for me – as far as life goes – is when I first got to meet Matt Kaulig.
Wolkin: How did this go from a one-off deal in the Cup Series to what it has become?
Koch: Matt saw a big return out of what LeafFilter got out of their sponsorship. He saw what NASCAR did for LeafFilter. He liked it. There were some things he would like to change in how race teams treated their sponsors, so he started his own race team. He’s a team owner and the sponsor. I think he’s smarter than most people I’ve ever met. I think he’ll implement those ideas and have a successful program.
Wolkin: Outside of the track, what’s your daily life like?
Koch: I’m a family man. I love to spend time with my two kids and my wife. I love cleaning my pool. I have a pool in my new house and I love cleaning it. I love going on date nights with my wife. I’m just extremely passionate about my family. I like being a good husband, good father and a good leader. I love to promote LeafFilter because it’s a great product and I think everybody needs it. The company is growing so rapidly, and people are figuring out they need LeafFilter. It’s a way better thing then going up to clean your gutters every year.