Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Travis Kvapil on Making His Career in Racing

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch.com: You made the natural progression out of working with cars in your dad’s garage to racing. Was there ever any doubt that racing was what you wanted to do?

Travis Kvapil: There was never a doubt it was what I wanted to do. I knew somehow I would probably be involved in it, but I never knew, or expected, that it would be my career path. Growing up, my dad owned a body shop, so I grew up working on cars, being around cars. After high school, I went to a technical college and got an associate’s degree in automotive technology. I was going down the path to be an auto mechanic, and we were still just racing on the side. I never expected it take the turn that it did. I guess you always have those hopes, those thoughts of maybe, but I was not preparing myself for it to go that way. I was preparing myself to be an auto mechanic.

Lunkenheimer: I was going to ask what you would be doing if you weren’t racing. I guess that would be a mechanic.

Kvapil: I would probably be working at a shop. On the side, I was working at a local chassis shop, building racecars, so that’s really where I feel like I would have been if I didn’t make it in driving. I know somehow I would be working on setting them up, probably on the local level, but I really enjoyed working on cars growing up, especially racecars.

Lunkenheimer: Coming back to Texas, the site of your first win, what’s it like coming back here?

Kvapil: It’s been a long time. Texas is always special to me coming back, even though it was 15 years ago. It’s still your first NASCAR win, first Truck Series win. I remember it being my rookie year and thinking about how much relief was off my shoulders. I remember leaving thinking hopefully I’ve established myself in this sport, hopefully this helps secure me going into the following year. You just don’t know, and having success and being able to win made me feel a lot more comfortable. You put a lot of pressure on yourself when you’re young and trying to make your mark.

(Photo: MAKE Motorsports)
Texas Motor Speedway marked Travis Kvapil’s first career win. (Photo: MAKE Motorsports)

I remember also feeling how all the guys that supported me locally – the local car dealers, the concrete business, all the companies that supported me along the way – how gratifying it was, that’s the only way I could thank them. There was no way I could ever repay them for their sponsorship money or their weekends away helping me at the track running late model cars. To show them I could get to this level and have success at this level was the only way I felt like I could thank them. It was very gratifying to have success.

Texas is a cool track; it’s fast. I remember that race very well; didn’t have the best truck, I think we were a top three truck. It was me and Ricky Hendrick, and I think Rick Crawford came down to it at the end. It was very fun.

Lunkenheimer: When you left the Truck Series, you went to Cup and then came back to the Truck Series. I’m sure it was a different transition going up to Cup compared to coming back to Trucks and losing some of that power.

Kvapil: In 2001 through 2004, I ran in the Truck Series and was winning races every year as a contender every week, with a championship in there. At that time, I wanted so badly to get to the next level, and you don’t know if it’s going to come or not.

I got the opportunity to race for Penske Racing and Kodak. I had a couple different opportunities, and I thought ‘how could I not drive for Roger Penske? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ I’m thankful for that opportunity; the team at that time was Rusty, Ryan and me. Everyone knew Rusty and Ryan didn’t get along, and I was the rookie. Everyone had their own agendas and it didn’t really work out.

Then, at the end of the year, Kodak pulled their sponsorship because their business was turning downhill. I really was thankful for that opportunity. I just wish there was a way we could have kept that going. We had decent runs here and there, but it was more not very good runs than good runs.

I ran a couple years in Cup and went back to the Truck Series and had the opportunity to drive for Jack Roush in 2007. That was fun; Mike Beam was the crew chief and it was a well-supported Ford team that had a lot of resources behind it. We were a contender every week; we won four races and easily had a chance at seven or eight of them. What a lot of fun that was to go back and drive for a team that had all the resources behind it.

It’s kind of funny, I was driving for Roush and everything was going good, and basically one day, Roush called me into their office and said they had to talk about some sponsorship stuff. They said they were building a Cup team the next year. I had no clue what was happening that day. I remember thinking it was just a normal day, and here they come telling me I’m driving a Cup car the next year. It was really fun; that team was really good too, driving for Doug Yates and Yates Racing and the partnership they had with Roush. We had some good runs in the 28 car and came close to a couple wins really.

A couple years in Cup and that’s when the economy really took a downhill turn. We couldn’t find sponsorship to keep that car going, and back then I went to some smaller Cup teams like Front Row and BK Racing just trying to survive and keep my name out there. A lot of that has dried up, and it really comes down to the sponsorship dollars or drivers that can bring funding. I didn’t have that and never really pursued that.

Ultimately that’s what ended up bringing me back to the Truck Series again with MAKE Motorsports. A couple years back, they wanted me to do a couple races and we did that. We just kept that relationship going, and here we are now pretty much full time last year and going full time this year. It’s been a long career and I’m thankful to still be involved in the sport and be able to do this every week.

Lunkenheimer: What are some of the challenges you guys face as a small team?

Kvapil: Really in every area. It comes down to having the funding and the resources behind you to go out and either buy or build top notch equipment, trucks, the engines. Aerodynamically we’re disadvantaged, horsepower wise we’re disadvantaged.

We have two or three guys that work at the shop full-time. We’ve only got a couple trucks, so you’re never really working ahead. We need time on the pull-down machine or the seven post, and obviously we haven’t even considered wind tunnel time.

Every one of the front runners is at the wind tunnel every week or they have Toyota information or manufacturer information that helps them. Even down to buying all of the tires for the race. We typically don’t buy a couple sets of tires for the weekend. We have to spend every dollar wisely and pay attention.

There’s no sense of buying tires if we don’t have plane tickets to get home or whatever. We just have to take it one step at a time and figure out how we can still be here and still compete, how we can still stay in business, and at the same time, if there’s a little left, where we can spend that money.

Lunkenheimer: How do you feel about the caution clock this year?

Kvapil: I don’t know. I actually kind of like it. I would probably have a different perspective if we were a top three or top five truck every week, but since we’re usually a mid-pack type truck, it’s a safety net to keep us on the lead lap. I know in Kansas a couple races ago, we were a lap down and I was racing my guts out for the lucky dog, knowing the caution was coming out soon.

There’s a lot of strategy involved. When you go to certain tracks you want to pit before that caution clock, or you wait for it or fuel mileage. I kind of like it. Any time you can bunch the trucks up and get them racing side-by-side is more exciting for the fans, and I think that’s a better show for everyone in the stands or watching on TV. At the end of the day, it’s about entertaining the fans, putting on good races for them and keeping them tuned in and interested in the product that’s on the race track.

I think we have a ways to go before we can really put a grade on it, but I like it. I think it’s something new, something exciting, and time will tell what everyone else thinks. We’ve only really had a couple situation where we’ve actually used it, so we’ll see how it goes.

Lunkenheimer: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, either personally or professionally?

Kvapil: I remember growing up and this guy – Jimmy Pearson was his name – he raced out of my dad’s shop. He was this perfectionist guy; everything had to be clean and perfect and he was very attentive to the details. I remember him telling me when I was very young – I was sweeping the floor or wiping down the car and I half-assed it. He was like, ‘man, if you’re ever going to make it in life, you have to do everything to the best you can.’ I remember him saying if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right. And that’s stuck with me. Maybe it takes you an extra couple minutes to do something, but having the pride and knowing it’s the best you can do or the best you’re able to do with what you have to work with. I really try to apply that in my racing and in anything I do.

My boys race now, and their cars are very well prepared, I can tell you that. I don’t outspend anyone by far, but I’ll work them and I think it shows on the racetrack when they have success.

Lunkenheimer: What’s your favorite part of doing the autograph sessions with the fans?

(Photo: MAKE Motorsports)
Autograph sessions didn’t always bring Travis Kvapil joy. (Photo: MAKE Motorsports)

Kvapil: I’ll be honest with you: I used to not really care for doing that stuff. I felt like I was at the racetrack and just wanted to race. My head was in the game and I wanted to worry about the setup. I really enjoy it now as I’ve gotten a little older and I’ve realized that if it wasn’t for these fans, we wouldn’t have a job. If they’re not watching and there’s no demand for us on the track, then we’re not going to be. I think a lot of it comes with maturity and seeing the kids’ faces or meeting the guy that says he’s been watching you for years and is excited to meet you.

I think when you’re younger you don’t really appreciate it as much. You’re more into racing, the on track and the competing. You just grow up, you mature and you realize what life is all about. Really for us, it’s the fans in the grandstands and going out there signing autographs for 30 minutes is not a big deal, and it can make a pretty big impact on people and can really make their day.

Lunkenheimer: What’s one thing you wish people knew, either about you or about NASCAR, that they probably don’t?

Kvapil: Along the same lines, just how tough it is. So many people question why I run 15th every week and wonder why I don’t just push the pedal harder. They’ve seen Days of Thunder and think I can just grab another gear. Really, just how hard it is, how competitive and how much work is behind the scenes. I would say 80 percent of it is the equipment you’re driving on all levels.

My belief is you get on the Cup side and there’s 40 guys over there – I really think there’s probably seven or eight of them that are exceptional talents, maybe 15, maybe 10 – but even still, if you put one of those exceptional talents in Josh Wise‘s car or David Ragan‘s car, they’re not going to run top 15, they’re not going to run top 10. They might run better than that car normally does, but they’re not going to be in contention.

It’s about what you’re sitting in and what the team is behind you. I love the sport; I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. But it’s tough, it’s really hard, and I just wish – not only for myself, but for the Josh Wises, the Landon Cassills – I wish they had the opportunity to get in a Hendrick car or a Ganassi car and show the people what really could be done.

Lunkenheimer: If we pull out your phone and look at your music, what are we going to find?

Kvapil: I’ve got Pandora.

Lunkenheimer: Favorite Pandora station then (as Kvapil is pulling his phone out of his pocket to show off his playlists).

Kvapil: Let’s pull it up. It’s a little heavy probably. Rob Zombie is on there; my station is Metallica radio, Hollywood Undead radio. I’m into the Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold, the heavy stuff. I like old Motley Crue and stuff like that, I’m a bit of a rocker.

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