15 Questions with Joe Graf, Jr.
15 Questions with Joe Graf, Jr.
Joe, to say that this has been an amazing last 10 months might be an understatement…you had a great racing season and you are now a full-time college student. Let’s talk about New York University.
Q: How big a transition has it been for you after taking off a year from school to focus on your racing?
A: It’s been a culture shock. Living in North Carolina for about ten months and then moving to NYC has been a big change. New York City is so fast paced, with so many people, and add to that the transition of starting freshman year. Unfortunately there’s a whole lot less racing for me in New York City but things are going well. I am enjoying my classes and new friends. I am looking forward to racing next year. I really miss it.
Q: What has been the most difficult part for you?
A: Trying to do two things at a very high level is really difficult. NYU is a fantastic school that is known for academic excellence so i knew the workload was going to be tough. But to be honest, its a lot more work than I anticipated. I have to be so disciplined with my time because of my racing schedule. I am trying to complete 5 days of class, homework, and study in just three days.
Being away from the race team is also really difficult. The interaction with Mike Bliss, Paul Andrews, and Chad Bryant is severely reduced when I am in New York City. Being separated from the team the last few races was a challenge. I did so many things to prepare for my races when I lived in North Carolina that I can’t do in New York City. It’s a change of pace and a lot more phone calls instead of face to face conversations with my team.
Q: Why is your education so important to you?
A: Since I was a young kid my parents have always drilled into my head how important an education or a trade is. Both of my parents are from very blue collar families. In fact my dad grew up just 1/2 mile from the Ford assembly plant in Mahwah, NJ. Both of them are the first people in their families to go to college.
When i was a freshman in high school I asked my parents if i could be homeschooled so i could focus on racing. I pointed out the ongoing trend of promising racers to be homeschooled while they focused on racing. My parents gave an astounding rejection to my idea and then raised the bar. They told me if i didn’t maintain an A average I wouldn’t race at all. I am really glad they did that. As I look back, I am so happy I had the high school experience. My love of racing motivated me to get good grades and that gave me an opportunity to go to NYU. Also, I made some great friends and had a great experience in high school. I now see my education will make me a more well-rounded person…and to be honest there has to be something after racing to fall back on.
Q: Let’s change gears and talk about racing a little bit. In February you were running a late model at New Smyrna Speedway and two months later you came home a close second at Talladega Speedway running nearly 190 MPH in what has been called the closest race in modern stock car history. How did your transition to the ARCA Series come about?
A: We were running some Super and Pro Late Model races with Jamie Yelton’s race team. I mentioned to him I wanted to explore K&N or ARCA racing. He did a really good job taking us to meet several of the teams to discuss opportunities. I really connected well with Paul Andrews and Chad Bryant. Unfortunately, the team they worked for, Cunningham Motorsports was shutting down so I thought I was going to end up at a different team. I was really excited to get a call from Chad saying he was buying Cunningham Motorsports and he would like to discuss having me run a few races in 2018. Our goal was to find out where I was as a driver. That’s it. That was the deal. I did a little better than they expected and we decided to expand our six-race short track deal into 19 races. Nobody was more surprised by this opportunity than me. I am so glad I was given the opportunity.
Q: What were your expectations when you signed a six-race deal with Chad Bryant Racing?
A: To learn as much as I could. Although I had raced a late-model car the year before, I got so few races due to rainouts. Jamie Yelton and Josh Burchette taught me a lot but I just didn’t get enough seat time because of the weather. I knew I would need to accelerate my learning curve to be competitive in ARCA. I spent a lot of time on iRacing with Josh and my spotter and also went to Pit Stop School. It was a learning experience to get to practice live pit stops in ARCA stock cars. I wanted to be as prepared as I could be. I wanted to prove that I could be very competitive in ARCA and win. I ran a K&N race at New Smyrna in February to prepare for the my first ARCA race at Nashville. I knew then that I was going to be very competitive in ARCA. I am not sure anyone else did, but i believed.
Q: Tell us about the race at Talladega…
A: We didn’t plan on running Talladega, it is far from a short track. Chad offered me the ride only two days before the race. I watched a ton of film and worked hard practicing on iRacing. In January, Chad told me to be in Daytona for the ARCA practice and I drove that super speedway for 10 laps. That was an amazing experience. I knew I could race Talladega. Everything came our way.
Chad laid out the plan to me. The plan was to keep our nose clean the first 80% of the race and see where we were. I basically rode at the tail of the front pack for the first 80% of the race. In the last part of the race things just kept falling our way... and with one to go we were challenging for the win. The last lap was nerve wracking … My spotter and crew did and amazing job. I thought we won. I still have not seen a photo that shows that I didn’t win.
Q: You got a broken foot just before your ARCA debut, how did that effect you’re driving?
A: My ARCA debut was at Nashville and I broke my foot six days before the race playing basketball. It definitely hurt a great deal, but fortunately my adrenaline took over. Ironically my foot wasn’t the biggest challenge for me at Nashville. It was just the inexperience of being in an ARCA car and working with a new team. I raced really well at Nashville. I managed to work my way to the front and solidly lead laps in my first race. Unfortunately on a restart I had a gear in the transmission break. I just assumed we were done for the night so I pulled onto pit road. Man, that is the first time I ever heard Paul Andrews get mad. He tore into me over the radio and told me to get out there and drive the car. He makes the decisions to pit not me. I learned a lot in my first race. But the most important thing was that Paul is the boss.
Q: As the season progressed you got to close to the first win a few times. When you arrived at Berlin Raceway did you think you had a chance to win?
A: I knew we were going to win Berlin. I had been telling my father for weeks that I was going to win the race. I had no doubt. We were so fast in practice before we rained out the first time there. I also knew it would race similar to ELKO Speedway which I believe i should have won. Unfortunately, while leading the race with a few laps left I was knocked up the track by the car behind me. I learned a lot about ARCA short track racing that night. We still managed a third place finish but I was determined to win Berlin.
Q: When you were in victory lane sharing that moment with your team and family…what were you thinking?
A: There is no feeling like winning, especially at that level. I felt that I gave away a few races earlier in the schedule, but it felt great to get the first one. Again, in the situation to win I wasn’t going to let this one get away and I drove into the third turn as hard as I could, and it paid off. Even the ARCA announcers said it was the most exciting ARCA race in Berlin’s history. Pretty cool to win like that. I was really happy to get Chad Bryant Racing their first ARCA win.
Q: How would you rate your performance in 2018?
A: I thought it was a productive year and I learned an incredible amount. I hope to build off the experience I got in 2018. I believe that if I have the opportunity, I can win a lot of races next year and compete for the championship.
Q: What do you think are your strengths as a racer?
A: My strengths as a racer come from the fact that i was a grass roots short track racer from the Northeast. At tracks like Stafford, Waterford, Bethel and Wall Speedway the racing is intense and door to door. For whatever reason the fields seem far more balanced and that results in some great racing. Bump and run, cross overs, rubbing, etc. In that environment, if you want to win you must be aggressive. You must make the car do things it doesn’t want to do and you better know how to bump and run. As you have seen, when I need to I can drive a car in deeper than anyone else and make it stick. I can be a very aggressive driver when required. I think my competitors would agree with that. Chad Bryant always says he has never seen a driver like me. No matter how good or bad the race is going I always find a way to be up front and racing for the win at the end of race. I have been racing since I ten. I have won a ton of races and I am focused on winning a ton more.
My biggest strength as race car driver is my ability to learn quickly and get results for the team.
Q: Name an area that you think you need to work on to continue your path to the elite levels of stock car racing?
A: I need to close the gap on my learning curve when I arrive at a new track I haven’t raced at. I think that I improved dramatically this year, but that is something I want to focus on next year. Mike Bliss, who is my driver coach, has been a tremendous help to me in this area but I have so much to improve on. I also need to continue to surround myself with good people. When i look back at all the racing I have done I have always been surrounded by good people who have helped me move up to the next level.
Q: You have one month left in your first semester at NYU…what has been the most significant thing you have learned?
A: I have learned how much I enjoy learning. I like college more than high school. High school helped me build a general knowledge base. But college allows me to study topics i am very interested in. My economics, media, and marketing classes are super interesting to me. They correlate to the real world and my racing world. I can clearly see how they will help me on the business side of racing.
Q: Your Dad works about 20 blocks away from your campus…how important is your time with him?
A: It’s really important. I actually see him more now than I did in high school. It’s great to meet him for dinner and discuss family, school, and racing.
Q: Anything you would like to say?
A: Two years ago, I was a Friday night short track racer which was only a hobby for me. I think that I am the only driver that was racing Legends and SK Modifieds that short time ago and now I am racing on national TV. I still go back and race my short tracks where i brought up. I won a Legends race at Bethel Speedway last weekend. I went back to Stafford Speedway to race a Modified race car for Paul French’s Horsepower Hill Race team. I love going back to my roots. I am very blessed to have had great people around me. Matt Maring and Paul French were amazing mentors to me. They have helped me pursue my dream. Very few people have the opportunity to live their dream…I guess I am one of the lucky ones.