NASCAR driver Blake Koch started his 88th Nationwide Series race and his second Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend. Being a young driver without a major sponsor has its ups and downs, and, for Koch, last weekend was mostly the latter. On Saturday, he had to park his car after three laps into the Nationwide event because of vibrations (finishing 39th), and on Sunday, he finished 37th in the Sprint Cup race.
Koch has spent the past five years climbing through the ranks of the sport, starting out as a development driver for the regional K&N West Series before making the jump to the Nationwide Series (NASCAR's equivalent to baseball's AAA minor leagues). In 2011, he finished as the runner up to Timmy Hill for the Nationwide Rookie of the Year award.
Then, in 2012, Koch found himself in the middle of a controversy when ESPN decided not to run an advertisement in which Koch urged NASCAR fans to "rise up and vote" because the ad violated the network's stance against running commercials with religious or political messages.
Because the ad didn't advocate voting for a specific party or candidate, critics (like conservative bloggers and Fox and Friends) charged ESPN for discriminating against Koch, saying the network pulled the commercial because Koch's website prominently features messages about the driver's Christian faith. ESPN responded by saying they decided not to run the ad because the website of the commercial's sponsor, Rise Up and Register, heavily featured links to BeMyVote.com, a group focused on electing pro-life candidates.
While the blogs and Fox News slammed ESPN, Koch tried not to pour fuel on the fire, telling Sporting News, "I have nothing bad to say about ESPN. They can air whatever they want to air. It's their network. I watch ESPN all the time; I think they do a great job of airing our races," while also maintaining that, "one thing I'm not going to do is stand away from my faith just to please [someone]."
Koch talked with Jackalope Ranch about life as a NASCAR driver, racing without a big sponsor, and what life after the controversy has been like.
So I was reading that you didn't start racing cars until you were 22? Yep, about 21, 22 somewhere around there. I raced amateur for two years, then I raced NASCAR K&N series. My first start ever [in a K&N car] was here in Phoenix. It's one of my favorite tracks for sure, just because it's in the driver's hands a little bit. You can move around in the car -- it's not just a mile-and-a-half where you hold it open in a Nationwide car. You can move around a little bit and find some speed here.
You know, most guys start racing when they're five, six years old, so I got a late start, but I did race dirt bikes growing up. Dirt bikes helped me have the racer mentality: the attitude, the commitment, the discipline, and all that kind of stuff that you can't really learn quickly.
Do you notice any difference between the way you drive and the other guys who were in go-karts before they could walk? No, not really. Once you get to this level, everybody is so good that it's a real team effort. It's just how well their cars are prepared and how well they hit on the setup. There's not that much that us as drivers can do to make up on those things.
Now, when you're talking to an experienced driver, someone like Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski - a lot of those guys who race [Sprint] Cup and Nationwide - where they're going to shine is during the race, on re-starts. Just because they've done it so many times, and they're smart. They know what to expect, getting in and out of their pit stall. They've done it a lot more than a lot of Nationwide guys. Just knowing how to pack the air on different people and move that air around and mess with that.
But as far as raw speed, practice and qualifying, goes, there's only so much you can do as a driver to get the speed out of the car. The credit really goes to the team in how good of a job they do to get that car prepared. And I've got a really good team behind me, so I'm proud of them.
You race with a smaller team; you don't have a car that's made by the big guys (Dodge, Ford, or Chevy). What are some of the challenges with the kind of car that you're able to get together? In previous years, I have ran for smaller teams, but my new team that I'm with now, Tri-Star motorsports, we do have Toyota support, so we are backed by Toyota. We don't get every and all resources we need, but they help out a ton. What really sets us back from running up front, where we could and where we belong, is a big sponsor.
We race races with no sponsor sometimes, and that comes out of the owner's pocket. If you want to be a smart businessman, you can't spend your own money that often if you want to survive. If we had a big, fulltime sponsor, I think we'd be contenting to run up front every week. That's what we're lacking, but we have really good cars, we have good people. We get our engines from PME engines. So I think all we need is that financial support, that big sponsor, to help us run out front.
Where does that money go when you get that sponsor? That goes to everything from more new tires at a track; test days, where you on a track and you test; faster pit stops, where you have guys that can do pit stops for the Cup series and you can hire them to come do your Nationwide car; wind tunnel time; more cars. You know, to buy a car is very, very expensive. We have a limited amount of cars for each team and we have to be smart financially, but we would probably build some new cars. All those little things add up a ton. Money buys speed most of the time, and you've got to have quite a bit of it to run fast.
Your best career finish was 11th -- do I have that right? Yeah, at Homestead [Miami Speedway].
So what are you focusing on to improve that? Where are you trying to get the extra speed and the extra placement? The last couple years, I haven't been able to race that much. I've only been able to race some of the races, due to lack of sponsorships. So just to race more full races, better results will come, and more frequently. That 11th place finish at Homestead was only my ninth full race of that year. I've been able to qualify a number of cars - we qualified second for that race.
So as far as getting all the speed out of a car, I feel like I've got a handle on that, just because I've got a lot of experience qualifying cars. But when it comes to a lot of things in the race, I can still learn a lot, and that's going to be from racing more often. With that will come the results, because I've got the car behind me and the team behind me, so it's just the frequency of races. That's all it's going to take, really.
So a lot of people who aren't major race fans probably know you from a couple of years ago, when you got a lot of attention because you had a commercial ESPN decided not to air. All that's been covered and it's old news, but I'm curious. You're still very big about sharing your faith, I see, but I'm wondering if that affects how you're sharing your faith. That whole situation was a long time ago, and it hasn't affected me negatively in any way. I'm still very outspoken about my faith and my relationship with Jesus, and willing to share that any time I get the opportunity to. And I'm not willing to sacrifice that just because someone doesn't want to be involved with somebody who'd outspoken about that. So that's something I'm not willing to sacrifice. I said that three years ago, and I'll say it again today. If that means I don't get a big sponsor, that's fine, because it's more important for me in the big picture. Eternal life is the goal, and that's what I want to be headed.
You know, I also have learned a lot through that, too. I'm a big believer that God uses everything for the good. And in those situations when I lost my ride, I met new teams. I had to go to out and make races, unqualified for, and just perform at a higher level. It pushed me to become a better driver, a stronger person. I learned a ton from all that media exposure, too. Especially just the pressure, on the track, to perform, because I didn't have a sponsor. I had to make it on raw talent and raw speed and make the races.
One last question: What's one thing you'd like people to know about you that they don't already know? I think a big question is, How does it feel to be a NASCAR driver?
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I don't know if people know, but five years ago, I was pressure-cleaning roofs in Florida for my step-dad, and making stickers and signs. I worked for a sign company. And I don't feel any different now, being a NASCAR Nationwide driver, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, as I did then, when I was working 9-to-5, pressure-cleaning roofs. I'm still the same guy, just very thankful for my opportunities.
I encourage everybody to ask me whatever they want to ask me. I try to be as active as I can on social media, and they can follow me on Twitter, @blakekochracing.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.