A year ago, rookie driver Cole Whitt almost got a kiss from 50 Cent. That would have been Whitt’s reward had he won the Daytona 500. The rapper and bottled water guru had collaborated with Whitt’s racing team and promised the kiss would be just like the immediately-mocked misfire he once gave Erin Andrews. Though Whitt didn't earn a smooch from 50 Cent, but he made a strong case for himself as a Rookie of the Year Candidate. A 22-tear-old, redheaded, baby-faced, 5-foot-6-inch, Crossfit maniac out of Alpine, Calif., his nickname helped raise his popularity. He is the “Ginger Lion.”
With a celebrity friend, a cool nickname and a hot start, Whitt seemed to have the momentum needed to break into racing’s top ranks. But there was one necessity he lacked: cash flow. A third of the way into the season, Whitt’s team folded.
“Racing is not a secure job,” Whitt says. “I tell everyone I could be out of work tomorrow.”
Turbulence would define Whitt’s first year in racing. He quickly signed on with another team and finished the year as a bona fide up-and-comer. Then he left that team, got surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, signed with the decently-funded Front Row Motorsports and rehabbed his shoulder just in time to be ready for the start of the 2015 season.
That brings Whitt’s story to today: The Daytona 500. Whitt will start the No. 35 Ford Fusion sponsored by Speed Stick in the 19th position. He explained to MAXIM why he’s wiser, humbler, tougher, fitter and ready to (almost) win.
You had a turbulent rookie season with your first team folding, quickly signing on with another team and then switching to a new team again before this season. What does this inconsistency say about the challenges of ‘making it’ in NASCAR?
The offseason was crazy this year for me, because you go from one team to another, and there's a portion there where you're not necessarily sure what you're going to do. You don't know if things are going to come back, and you don't know if you're going to be looking for a job before the season starts.
And then I also had to go through my shoulder surgery, so rehab through that. It was a lot to take on, and it was mentally wearing on me, for sure. And then come down here and have to qualify in, still, and you're not locked into the race. So there's a lot to juggle, but, you know, I guess having that mindset that I do just works out pretty good and keeps me a little more grounded to not go insane.
Trying to find a way to win races, to keep sponsors, to make more money. Honestly, what about that pain-in-the-ass process do people at home probably not understand?
Yeah, this sport, it's a weird sport, because like you said, money does buy speed at times. You can buy better things. But at the same time, it doesn't replace hard work, heart, and just good people. So we don't necessarily have the money that the big teams do, but we have that. We can control the people that we put on our team. I try to find guys like me, guys who, I wouldn't say "have a chip on our shoulder," but we want to prove something, that we can do something with a little. You don't have to have the biggest, best team out here, you know? We can come here with a car that we put a lot of hard work and sweat into as much as those guys, if not more, because we're a smaller team and had to accomplish the same thing.
But we're here. Now we can compete with them and make something out of it. You said "a pain in the ass" – I don't think it is. I think it's a good opportunity. I see it as an opportunity. Sometimes people see challenges and see hardship, and I always see it as an opportunity to rise stronger.
T. Star Walker
You’ve said that your whole season depends on getting into Daytona. Why is that?
A little bit, yeah. I mean, a big paycheck for our team comes from getting our cars into the Daytona 500. Payout is huge to us. That's part of how we budget our seasons. The sponsorships are also on the race, so Speed Stick is paying to be in the 500. Well, they're supporting me to be in the Daytona 500.
If we don't get in there, then what do we do with that? You gotta make it up on the end somewhere else. So do we give them two more races here? It's just different. I was speaking more of, it sets the tone for the season. You know, if we miss this race, we're out of points for the next following race.
In terms of the actual race, when you have to do 200 laps, what sort of preparation goes into that? That seems like way too many, to me.
I agree. [Laughs] It's a long time. It's more grueling mentally than physically, I'd say. You know? I mean, you're in a car that's 120 degrees.
And what do you expect for this Daytona 500?
I think we can run Top-25, have a good day, just go have some fun. I think we can enjoy it.
Why have such modest expectations?
Yeah, well, I don't know. Our team isn’t expected to win. Our team is expected to run 30th or around there. And if we can get in the Top-25 and run good, then that’s what we’re going to do.
Why wouldn’t you have a higher goal, like a Top-10 finish?
I always shoot for every position I can get, but I'm going to be realistic about our situation. I know where our team is ranked and where we’re at and if we can be five spots better than that, that’s a good day. Now, don’t think that if I’m running 20th, I’m going to be like, ‘Oh, this is all I’ve got.’ No. I’m going to push for every position I can get and I’m going to win the race if I have the opportunity.
The financial part of this sport is exhausting. You probably just want to get in the car and race, right?
Well, yeah. [Laughs] In a perfect world, you know?
But so much of this sport is so dependent on the finances. The idea that one of your early teams, Red Bull, folds, you land a deal with Swan Racing, then that folds—that seems like a pretty strange part of this sport. Especially when they have somebody on their team that is an up-and-comer.
And it doesn't even matter for our team, you know? Think of all of the people that even work at Hendrick [Motorsports] or Gibbs [Racing] or anything. Racing is not a secure job. It's not. I tell everyone, I could be out of work tomorrow. If that's what they decide to do, they can make that happen. Any moment.
I guess the biggest thing for me is, like, Speed Stick being involved with us. You know, being able to have that relationship with a sponsorship like that, our relationship kind of goes into the point where it's someone that I'm proud to represent, and their marketing and their style fits my lifestyle. And when that kind of correlates, it kind of just makes everything jive, makes it a lot easier, and kind of makes it more fun, really.
What were your hardest rookie contests?
Bristol and Richmond were the two races. For me, two wrecks in a row. I had good races going, and just gave up really good finishes, ended up almost dead last in both of those races, and it killed us in points. And I see what mattered. And I'd say, you know, what I learned out of those two - which kind of, you know, I guess is what you learn through your rookie experience - is just that if I could give up that one position for that lap and not fight for that, then I would have been able to maybe just come into the pits on the next pit stop, work on a car, make it look better, and I probably could have passed them - which is kind of the kind of stuff that happened towards the end of the year.
You spun out with Danica Patrick at one of those race.
At Bristol? You know, it was a good race where we were running about the same spot. And I was trying to pass her, and we were about almost the same speed, so it was just really tough to clear her. And as we come off Turn 4, I remember it to this day, so obviously it's something that sticks with me a little bit.
And it's just a mistake. I kind of got up a little high, and tried to clear her, and I wasn't quite clear and turned up. Obviously once you touch, you just kind of lose control half the time. And I thought I had her cleared a little bit, and as I squeezed up, and I realized I wasn't. By the time we touched, it was too late, so I ended up wrecking us both.
And what was the biggest crash you experienced in your career?
Watkins Glen was really good. Vegas was another good one, but Watkins Glen was probably more. You can find it on YouTube. You're going to see a car drive straight into a wall. [Laughs] I can tell you that. It's a road course, so it's a different kind of track. Driving down the front stretch, there's a long front stretch, and you do a 90-degree right-hand turn. And obviously at the end of a turn, there's going to be a catch fence out on the outside. Well, I went down in turn one and I had a brake failure. I had a brake failure, so next thing you know I was straight off the end of the backstretch and went straight into a wall. I just had no breaks.
What is it like crashing?
I mean, it hurts, but you, kind of, I guess you're used to it. I'd say it's like getting punched, but in your whole body at one time. [Laughs] Everything is getting hit in whatever direction you just hit. You hit forward and everything's getting thrown forward. I mean, we hit so hard in that kind of wreck, you pull 40 G's. It's big. That's a lot of pressure. All your organs, everything inside you, literally, you stop and a lot of things inside you want to keep going. So it's not the easiest thing.