Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been making his presence felt within the stock car racing community since 2008 when he burst onto the ARCA RE/MAX Series as a 20-year old rookie. Four years later, he won his second consecutive Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series title, which led him to a coveted full-time Sprint Cup ride where he currently races for Roush Fenway Racing in the #17 car.
But when he’s not behind the wheel, it’s his relationships in the garage and back at home that matter much more than any success he’s experienced thus far. In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Stenhouse talks about his early beginnings in the sport, his close relationship with teammate Trevor Bayne, and how his faith helps him deal with the unpredictable nature of NASCAR:
Chad Bonham: Tell me about your friendship with Trevor Bayne.
Ricky Stenhouse.: He brings me out a little bit and I think I calm him down a little bit. It’s funny, people always say, “Man, you guys are so different.” But than again we’ve got a lot of things that are alike too. Obviously we love racing and we love the Lord, but we like action sports and lot of other things. We’ve just got different personalities.
Bonham: I saw a video of Trevor sharing the message at an MRO chapel service and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was something you might ever do.
Stenhouse: At Talladega, I got up and talked about the power of prayer. But Trevor is definitely a lot better at it than I am. I think that’s just where he is in his walk with the Lord. We’re a little different. Everybody can always grow, but Trevor is definitely the better speaker between the two of us, especially when it comes to stuff like that. But I have done it once. It’s funny, I don’t really get nervous about anything but I was definitely nervous doing that.
Bonham: How has your friendship helped keep you balanced during the significant highs and lows both of you have experienced this past few seasons?
Stenhouse: I think it started with our small group. I struggled at the beginning of the 2010 season. We struggled a lot and our small group kept building me up and not letting me get too hard on myself and really rely on God and prayer and asking Him to help me get through it. Of course you had your friends to lean on too. That’s where it all kind of started. Then after that, we had a really good year. It turned out to be an awesome year. Then Trevor wins the Daytona 500 the next year and starts pumping all of us up in the small group. We were all loving it. Then he gets sick and it’s like, “Dangit!” That’s not what we wanted. That’s not what we needed. But if anybody could get through it, we knew Trevor could. We knew that he would be the strongest out of any of us to be able to go through that. So we were there for him when he won the Daytona 500. We were there for him when he wasn’t racing. He was there for me when I was chasing the Nationwide (now XFINITY) championship and keeping me pumped up and helping me do as good as I can.
Bonham: What gave you the drive to get start racing at such a young age?
Stenhouse: I felt like I already knew how to race by the time I was four. I was always at the race track with my dad. I watched him race thousands of laps in a sprint car standing on top of a trailer watching him, getting down and cleaning the mud off his car. That’s just what I grew up doing. I was excited when dad went to victory lane. We’d take pictures and things like that. So that’s kind of when it started. I started racing go-karts when I was six. We started winning a lot and really enjoyed that. I just loved everything about racing. I was raised in a racing family and you don’t come out here to run second. And you want to get to the highest level you can. Did I ever think I would be here? I never thought I would be. I always wanted to. I always wanted to race for a living at the highest level I could. If that was going to be sprint cars, I would have been fine with that. But then I had the opportunity to come do this and I wouldn’t turn it down for anything. I think that when you grow up around racing, you just want to race for a living. It doesn’t matter what it is.
Bonham: What are some of your earliest memories of going to the racetrack?
Stenhouse: Oh man, I was probably six weeks old when I first went to the racetrack. But I remember if dad crashed, I’d be the first one out on the racetrack after the cars stopped, starting to take the car apart and getting ready for the next race. It was so much fun. We always did it as a family. We always worked in the shop. My dad was building engines so I’d be in the shop with him all the time. That’s just what we did and I wanted to be just like dad, even wear the same clothes he did. Anything he did, that’s what I was going to do. I think that’s what helps me today. He taught me a good work ethic. He’s got his own engine shop now and he works 16, 18 hours a day. That’s just what he does. He did that so I could race and then he does that now just for our family. Being around him is what gives me the drive for it.
Bonham: What was the experience like for your family, and in particular your father, the first time you went to victory lane?
Stenhouse: I remember our first ARCA race. He was pumped up. Obviously I ran sprint cars and I won races there and that was normal. He had won in sprint cars and we had won together in sprint cars. I raced for Tony Stewart and he got pretty excited about that. But after that first ARCA win in a stock car on asphalt, we met each other at the top of the fence. It was at Kentucky Speedway and that was pretty cool. He was watching from the grandstands so he could see everything. He was super excited. I’m kind of a calm person. I get excited but I don’t show it too much. He gets pumped up and definitely shows it. So sometimes I think he’s more excited than I am, but that’s just our different personalities.
Bonham: Things change so quickly in this sport. How do you prepare for the unknown?
Stenhouse: Trevor and I were talking about when he had to go through that situation where he had to be out of the racecar. It wasn’t a choice by him or the race team. It was just something he had to do. You say you think you can deal with it, but until you have to do it, it’s tough (to know for sure). After going through it with Trevor being out of the racecar, I think I could get through it a little better then what I could do say a year ago, for sure. Every day, you get stronger and closer and you build your relationship with (God) and it gets better and better. It’s always a tough thing when this is all that you’ve done.
Bonham: Does it boil down to priorities and perspective?
Stenhouse: Definitely. We wouldn’t be doing this if God hadn’t allowed us to do it. He’s the one that’s ultimately in control of everything. You can’t try to change things when they’re not meant to be changed.
Bonham: Can you imagine this place with Motor Racing Outreach?
Stenhouse: It would be tough. That’s one thing I look forward to on Sunday, on race day. (Chapel) is always a time I look forward to after the drivers meeting and just sitting around and worshipping God and getting into His Word before you go out and race. That’s cool to have those guys there whenever you need them. They don’t just preach us the Word. They’re there for anything we need. They’re there every weekend and they don’t get paid that much to do it. I think it’s cool that they put that much time into it.
Bonham: Wouldn’t you say that NASCAR is essentially a microcosm of the real world where you’ve got believers rubbing shoulders with a lot of non-believers in close quarters weekend after weekend?
Stenhouse: The NASCAR drivers are a very diverse group of people. It’s just a traveling city. You’ve got the same guys every week. You’ve got people that work in their trailers. You’ve got people that work in the media center. It’s just a normal life, living on the road. Our chaplains go through some of the same things people in the church go through, dealing with people’s problems in a regular city. It’s just a normal deal for us.
Bonham: As you try to live a certain kind of lifestyle in the public square, are you more concerned about your influence over other drivers, other people in the NASCAR community, the fans, or are you thinking about all of those people?
Stenhouse: I think it’s a combination of all of them. Trevor got put in a huge position to be able to show his faith to people. Winning the Daytona 500 just blew it up. He took full advantage of it and I think he did a great job of not letting it get to him and really showing that He believed God put him in that situation. That’s the great opportunity that we have as race car drivers that have fans out there. That goes into the garage and affects the crew members too. It’s a cool position to be in.
Bonham: There are quite a few believers out there, but there are also plenty of people that don’t. How do you make sure you’re representing your faith in a way that’s approachable?
Stenhouse: You don’t want to be overbearing, but I think when people see the joy that our small group has, I think they see from an outside perspective and start to wonder why we’re like that. You don’t want to be harsh on people, but when the time is right, it’s easy to play off of your faith. You don’t want to go out there and say, “Hey, you need to do this,” or “This is what you have to do” or anything like that. If we keep living the way we’re living and shining His light for Him then people will notice that throughout the garage and see that He’s the one that’s in control and He’s the one who’s making us like that.
Ricky Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne and 50 other NASCAR figures are featured in the book Faith in the Fast Lane.
(Photos: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images; Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images; Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images; Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)