Q&A With Cherokee NASCAR Driver A.J. Russell
A.J. Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and a pioneering NASCAR driver, has always had racing pumping in his blood. At the age of 7, living in Clovis California, he won rookie of the year racing quarter midgets. At 15, Russell stormed into the California Asphalt Truck series and won “Rookie of the Year." At 17, he stepped up into the 360 SuperModifieds and the 410 SuperModified series and took away two more“Rookie of the Year” awards. And at the prime age of 27, Russell made history at the F.W. Webb 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 24th 2011. Sponsored by Sacred Power Motorsports, the first Native American owned NASCAR team, and using three years of preparation, A.J. drove the No. 73 Dodge Ram in his Camping World Truck Series race debut. The 175-lap race on the 1.058-mile oval was the longest of Russell's career. Russell, who started 31st, gained valuable experience at the New Hampshire oval. Due to brake issues with his truck, he finished in 26th place. I spoke with AJ a few days ago, and below is our conversation:
Where were you racing at seven?
I was racing here [in California]. I actually had a home track here about twenty miles away at Medera speedway. I was racing what they call quarter midgets, which is much like a full sized opened sized go-cart. Very tiny. Made for the ages of 5 and I believe you have to get out at 16.
How fast do they go?
It’s a small car, so the tracks are really small, about 8 one mile tracks. The fastest car goes about 80 miles an hour.
That’s pretty fast for a little kid.
To a kid that’s about 7 or 8 it feels like 200 miles per hour.
What about your family? Is your family into racing? Are they fearful for you?
No, it’s actually one of those things where my family was more scared of me riding a skateboard around or playing football. Because once you are inside a car, you have a helmet on and all the safety gear. It’s really a safe sport.
What were you doing when the light bulb went off “ I want to be a race car driver.”
When I was real young around the age of 6 or so. I was sitting with my dad watching a AMA race. I wanted a dirt bike. I wanted a dirt bike so bad that I could taste it. And I wound up getting a dirt bike at 5. And anything with a motor, four wheels or two wheels, it didn’t matter. I loved it. would jump on it and would ride for hours. And I think at that point my parents thought we better get this kid into something. They put me into quarter midget. I started racing that, and I did really well at. The better I did, I moved up the ranks and pretty much where I got today. When I was racing amateur, I stepped back and said I want to do this for a living. I want to be a race car driver. I give up everything and started pursuing my dreams.
In NASCAR you are doing the Camping Truck series, is that correct?
That is correct.
Do you see yourself racing with anything else besides trucks?
Oh yeah, it’s one of those types of deals, where we start here at the Truck series. We are shooting to raise full time next year. We’ll grow as a team. You know when you get to this level of racing, it takes so much experience and time. To build a team overnight is difficult. So we are going to spend all next year building our team in the Camping Truck series. Hopefully after that we will move into the Nationwide series. We will spend a year or two there. Then after that, hopefully the Sprint Cup series.
What is your racing schedule for the Camping Truck series?
This year what we are shooting for is Las Vegas. We are still a few dollars short going to Vegas. So we are working very diligently to try to get the money for Vegas. We want to run Vegas, Texas, and finish up the year in Homestead, Homestead Miami.
You mentioned that you are a couple dollars short from going to Vegas. Like any sport it comes down to passion and money. How much does it cost per event?
It’s around $50,000 dollars or so in the Camping world truck series. As we grow and get more and more involved in the Nationwide series the money goes up as we climb the ladder. When you get to this level of the sport, sponsorship is not just about having your name on the side of the truck. It’s just one piece, usually the bonus piece. Usually what happens in NASCAR, there is so much coverage in that town, and when you are at the track with so many people with so many types of businesses and clientele that you usually pick up business at the race track or from the coverage of the race.
You did your first race recently in New Hampshire, how was your first experience?
It was really good. Because it was on short notice, our truck wasn’t as prepared as I wanted it to be. Our team had issues with the truck to handle right. It took us most of the day on Friday to get the truck decent. Then on Saturday we couldn’t put brakes ducts on front because it wasn’t NASCAR approved. So we had to take them out 10 minutes before the race. So I had no way to pull the brakes down. Nine laps into the show I had to lose my brakes. We just kinda cruised around and finished the race to insure that our name was on the track for the whole time so I can get my NASCAR license to move on to the next track.
What are some of the key things you learned about this race that you will apply to your next race?
One of the biggest things that I learned is patience. Patience and really trying to communicate with my team in what’s going on with the truck so we can get those issues handled as quickly as possible. Another thing that I learned is my competitors. The guys that I am racing with, they don’t know me and I don’t know them, so e are trying to build a relationship with my competitors so that they are comfortable around me and I am comfortable around them is probably the biggest thing.
What does the future hold for A.J. Russell?
I really hope we can really put Indian Country on the map and raise some awareness, and move up the ranks and get to the Sprint Cup in the next five years.