Race Weekend Central

Charlie Luck on Returning to Racing & Why He Won’t Return to NASCAR

For fans that have come to the sport recently, the name Charlie Luck may not ring a bell.

For longtime NASCAR fans, they would remember him as a privateer racer who competed in the earliest years of what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Luck made 106 starts in the series between 1982 and 1986. He never won a race, but had five top-five and 38 top-10 finishes with a best finish of second on two occasions. He also finished ninth in points twice (1984 and 1986).

After 1986, he disappeared from the racing scene at age 26 to throw himself into his family business, Luck Stone. Luck Stone has expanded substantially into a multi-state operation. In addition, the company has diversified into three divisions, Luck Stone, Luck Ecosystems and Luck Real Estate Ventures, all under the umbrella of The Luck Companies, where Luck currently serves as president and CEO.

A few years ago, the itch returned and Luck was back in the seat, this time in a Porsche. Over the past few years, Luck has worked his way up the ranks. Last year, Luck moved up to full GT3 competition for the first time in GT America Powered by AWS, where he won the championship. Now 62, Luck is full-time in Fanatec GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS for Wright Motorsports in a Porsche 911 GT3 R in the Pro-Am class alongside Jan Heylen.

Frontstretch spoke with Luck at Watkins Glen International last month about his driving career, the draw that pulled him back to racing, balancing racing with his responsibilities at The Luck Companies, why he’s not interested in a road racing return to the Xfinity Series and more.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: We’re through six races so far and you and Jan Heylen are second in Pro-Am points. You swept the season opening weekend at Sonoma, but it seems like it’s been a struggle since then. How would you describe your first Pro-Am season to this point?

Charlie Luck: I’ve learned so much [so far]. Coming into this series, I’d never done a driver change. It’s amazing the [number] of details that [go into pit stops]; the pit entry, the actual driver change. We have about 37 seconds to do to get me out, [Heylen] in, buckled and everything, then launching right at the 0.0 mark on the timer in the car.

It’s very, very technical. Fortunately for us, that’s gone well. We haven’t had any pit road infractions or issues so far. Also, it’s been different because I was used to carrying the whole race on me. Now, I start today, Jan takes over. Jan starts [Sunday], then I take over and finish.

I’ve really, really enjoyed it so far. Jan has been coaching me for the last four years, but driving with a co-driver is a whole different world. We have both learned a ton and enjoyed it.

Allaway: When you returned to motorsports, the first place I saw you race was in what was then the IMSA Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup. What leaned you toward Porsche for your return to racing?

Luck: In 2016, I started looking for the right series. I looked at Trans-Am, I looked at the Porsche Cup program, and those were the two that I was really serious about.

Then, I moved to car safety. Where would I find the safest car? I felt like Porsche was the safest car in that regard.

Then, I went to the team. I wanted to find the best team on car prep, a match of business values, 100% professional people who do this for a living and are at the top of their class.

John Wright [team owner] was awesome to bring me on back in 2017 for my first year. This makes five years and I’ve come a long way.

Allaway: You came back to racing after what amounted to a 30-year break. In that time, you raised a family and tended to business. But what drew you back after all that time?

Luck: I believe that there is something in all of us that is uniquely special to you. That is an interest or a talent. For me, it’s always been in either motorcycle or car racing.

I remember being young and people asking me, “Well, when are you going to get this out of your system?” I would say, “It’s not going to get out of my system. It’s in the system.”

During the 30 years raising [my] family and running the business, I always hoped that I’d be able to return to motor racing. I knew it wasn’t going to be stock cars, so it was probably going to be sports cars.

I think [the desire to race] will be in me until I die. It’s like asking a gymnast or professional swimmer or biker that question. It’s supposed to stay in the system because it fills your bucket [of energy].

Allaway: You ran full time in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 1983-1986. […] Describe what the series was like back then, because it is wildly different today.

Luck: First off, there was no technology. You had a stopwatch and a tire temperature gauge. None of the technology you see today on these Porsches.

The cars were also front engine cars with brakes that weren’t nearly as good as what we have now. The downforce on them was a whole lot heavier. We couldn’t do any of that with the Busch car. It was pretty much day and night as far as carryover was concerned from the Busch days of 1983 to 1986 to this.

Allaway: You had your own family operation back then with Luck Stone sponsorship. How large was the team that you had at the time?

Luck: We had two to three full-time people. Then, we had eight to 10 volunteers. We’d come to the shop, and we’d start working at 6 p.m. and go to midnight. Then, on the weekends, that same group of volunteers came to change tires, fill the car [with fuel] and all those things.

Frankly, we didn’t have the money to have more than three full-time people. Couldn’t afford them. But we were competitive, and I was super-proud of what we did in NASCAR for the time and experience that I had. It was a great memory.

Allaway: Your last year in Busch was an unusual year in regards to the cars. In addition to the V6 engines beginning to come in, General Motors started introducing the A-bodies like the Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, etc., to the series. You had an Oldsmobile Ciera. What went into that move? Was it an edict from General Motors?

Luck: That was a turning point. All the engines were V8 engines, then the whole idea of bringing in V6s was that they were more fuel efficient. That was coming out of all the big manufacturers. They wanted to see smaller engines and wanted to see them in racecars.

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They also shortened the wheelbase on the cars. All of this happened the last year that I ran in 1986. Also, this was the only year that I got to race on a road course before my comeback.

We got to race at Road Atlanta that year. We had a short wheelbase car and a V6 engine. We had Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and a lot of the top drivers at the time [in the field]. We actually ran really well for having never been on a road course before. It actually reminded me of motocross racing since it was up and down hills and left and right-hand [turns]. I loved it.

The 1986 Food Giant 300k at Road Atlanta was not televised, but an enterprising fan showed up at the race with an old-school video camera and shot some footage that is now on YouTube.

If the audio is accurate, it does not appear that Luck had a V6 in his Ciera that day. However, he was quite competitive, leading three laps at one point and finishing ninth. In the video above, he can be seen battling with Dale Jarrett. Waltrip ultimately won by 9.5 seconds over Terry Labonte, followed by Earnhardt in third and Haskell Willingham in the best of the downsized cars in fourth. L.D. Ottinger was fifth. Luck’s Ciera was the second highest finishing A-body that day.

Allaway: After 1986, you were done in NASCAR. Was that a situation where you had to focus on the business, money issues due to the various changes going on or a personal choice?

Luck: At that point in my life, I looked at the future at the NASCAR [Busch] Grand National or Winston Cup level. I knew that at 26 years old, I would need to be active in that level of racing for five to 10 years.

When I thought about our family business, I did not want to return to the family business and not be skilled and competent at it. Had I stayed in NASCAR, I thought that I would have been [that way] had I returned to the business in my mid-30s.

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That was one of the drivers. Another was the fact that those guys were gone 250 days a year. I grew up with a really close family. Lisa [Luck’s wife] and I wanted to build a close family ourselves, have children and do things with them. I knew that wouldn’t be possible if I were a professional racecar driver.

Allaway: Was The Luck Companies a lot smaller back in the mid-1980s as compared to today?

Luck: Yes. We are probably three or four times the size today that we were then. I went through a training program. Then in 1995, I was promoted to president, and my dad became the chairman.

We’ve done a lot of cool things with our values-based leadership culture and we’ve grown. At that time, we were in one state (Virginia). Today, we’re in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.

Allaway: Even with your racing, you still have your substantial roles with The Luck Companies. How are you able to balance the two?

Luck: I’m president and CEO of the company now and have been during this racing window. What we’re talking about here is seven weekends of racing, then we test and do a lot of training on the weekends and early in the mornings. It amounts to about a 20-hour a week job for me, not counting the business side. That has to happen either early or late in the evening for me. The support that I have at [The Luck Companies] in regards to scheduling and logistics is second to none and that’s been a major [factor] of me being able to do this.

Allaway: In recent years, NASCAR has added a lot more road races to their schedules. If the opportunity ever arose to compete in a Xfinity Series road race, would you take that opportunity?

Luck: I’d say no. I think that at my age [62], you have to specialize. The sport has gotten so demanding and so high-performing. If you watch some of the NASCAR drivers come and drive in the Rolex 24, they have trouble trying to make the transition.

In general, most people don’t make that transition well. For me to go back and try to start from scratch with the current car that they’re running, it doesn’t make sense to me. I need to continue sharpening my skills here in this division.

Allaway: For this season, you have your driver coach and son-in-law, Jan Heylen, as your teammate. First off, how is it to have Jan as your teammate?

Luck: I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jan super well through the coaching relationship. He started dating my daughter a couple of years ago, so I obviously got to see the personal, social side of Jan as well.

Here at the track, Jan is very focused and very determined. He’s got extremely high standards and high expectations, and all of those things have helped me be a better driver. I would say that I have tried very hard to be a good student and to be open-minded and apply what he has been teaching me. I couldn’t ask for a better relationship.

On a good day, I’m about two seconds off of Jan’s pace. If I’m not doing a good job, I might be three seconds slower. It is a bit of a metric that we use. Also, the Pro drivers here, like Jan, started racing go-karts at four years old. He’s got hundreds of thousands of hours behind the wheel, and he can feel the smallest things. He is so incredibly talented as a professional driver, and I respect that.

Allaway: Last year, you raced a similar car in GT America Powered by AWS, so the transition to the Pro-Am class wasn’t as big as it could have been, just longer races and the driver changes. How was the transition into the GT3 R last year from the Cup car?

Luck: I say that that the Cup car was like wrestling a greased pig. It is a fairly difficult car to drive, quite frankly.

When I tested the [911 GT3] R for the first time at VIR [Virginia International Raceway], I fell in love right away. There is so much downforce on the car that it’s just planted in the asphalt in a much more secure fashion.

There’s no question that the four years I spent in [the Cup car] made me a much better driver in this series. I would never be able to do what I can do with the GT3 R had I had never driven the Cup car. I would say that about any driver in the series.

You also see drivers in this series that never did [Porsche GT3 Cup] and some of those fundamentals [of racing] aren’t there. I would never trade the Cup experience. It is a fantastic experience, a great learning ground and super intense.

Allaway: There are two more full rounds, plus the Indianapolis 8 hour after [Watkins Glen]. What do you [think] this team is capable of for the rest of the year?

Luck: What I like to think about is an equation that says: A+B=Results. A-factors are things that you can control. B-factors are things you cannot control, like blowing a motor or rain. Results are what most people spend all of their time thinking about.

The catch is that if you focus on the B-factors or the results, you won’t get the results. You only get the results by focusing on the A-factors. That’s how you drive, how you physically prepare, what you eat, how you train and exercise.

That’s where 100% of my focus is. Clearly, we’re in second in Pro-Am points right now, and my execution this weekend is one lap [and] one corner at a time. At the end of the season, the points will come out where they’re supposed to come out.

Watkins Glen was a very successful weekend for Luck, Heylen and Wright Motorsports. Despite not being all that quick in qualifying 12th, Luck was able to make significant progress forward during his time in the Porsche.

Heylen was able to continue the forward progress and capitalized on a series of tire issues that plagued the leaders. That gave Heylen the overall lead and he was able to hold off Colin Braun to claim his and Luck’s first overall victory together.

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Jan Heylen, Charlie Luck Claim Wild Watkins Glen GT World Challenge Race No. 1 Victory

Race No. 2 the next day was not quite as successful, as the duo ended up fifth in the Pro-Am class. Through eight races, Luck and Heylen are second in Pro-Am points behind Braun and George Kurtz.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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