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There’s perhaps no better example of a NASCAR driver’s unpredictable career path than Sprint Cup competitor David Gilliland. Since 2005, when he first made the leap from regional racing on the West Coast to the NASCAR ranks, Gilliland has experienced thrilling highs, devastating lows and long periods of time in limbo and equally long stretches in the grind.
Now driving the #34 Taco Bell Ford for Front Row Motorsports, the California native may not be racking up Cup wins and Top 10 finishes in an underfunded car, but he remains thankful for the opportunity and even more thankful for a supportive family that helps him keep things in perspective.
Inspiring Athletes caught up with Gilliland at the race in Kansas last month where he talks about his unique journey to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, how on-site ministry has impacted his life, what it was like playing golf with one of the game’s greats and why he’s better equipped to handle racing’s extreme highs and lows:
Chad Bonham: Your Nationwide Series victory at the 2006 Meier 300 in Kentucky unexpectedly rocketed you to Sprint Cup and set off a chain of events that could best be described as a rollercoaster ride. You probably know better than anyone about the ebb and flow that comes with being a NASCAR driver.
David Gilliland: There are definitely a lot of ups and downs in this sport. With the economy right now, everything’s kind of hurting right now. There aren’t as many competitive teams and there isn’t the sponsorship dollars out there that it takes to field 43 competitive cars. When we won at Kentucky, it was a deal similar to (the #34 Taco Bell team). It was a part-time deal and then we won. I had been talking to the Cup guys about doing some stuff and once we won that race, I could pick wherever I wanted to go, which was a good feeling. Now we’re back again clawing and fighting to be competitive on a weekly basis. It’s difficult at times but it’s also gratifying to help build something at Front Row Motorsports and to be part of getting it to the next level.
Bonham: Your family has grown since that life-changing win in Kentucky. How much do you have to rely on close family and friends to get you through these challenges?
Gilliland: It’s crazy. It’s tough. My wife is definitely my biggest supporter. She’s got to deal with me when I come home and I’m upset because we didn’t run as well as we want and we can’t run as well as we want to because of our budget and what we’re up against. At time, it’s very frustrating but we rely on good friends and good people like Bob Jenkins our car owner. He’s aware of the resources we have and what we’re up against, which makes it easier as well. He’s not expecting us to come out here and win races with what we have. Someday we’d like to and that’s what we’re here trying to build. But family and friends are definitely a key element in not just getting through this sport but getting through life.
Bonham: I keep hearing from other drivers that this sport is all about relationships. Is that true for you?
Gilliland: Yeah it is. It’s like a family. You’re here four days a week compared to being at home for three. We have two weeks off next year, so you’re definitely away from your family more than you’d like to be. With the crew members and my race team, it’s a business but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Bonham: How much do you appreciate having the ministry of Motor Racing Outreach at the track every week?
Gilliland: MRO is huge for us and for our family and my wife and kids. We’re big supporters of MRO. We love it. It’s great having someone to pray with you before you get in the car and having a place for our kids to go during the race when they’re here. We have a service after the drivers meeting every week. It’s good. I’m definitely glad they’re here.
Bonham: When you’re dealing with something like you did a couple years ago after losing your ride in the #38 car, do you utilize having the MRO folks around by going to them with your frustrations and your emotional and spiritual needs?
Gilliland: For sure. I’ll go to them for anything. They’re there 24 hours a day for us. That’s a good feeling to have. Whether you want to talk about death in the family or anything that’s bothering you, they’re there and we’ve gone to them on multiple occasions as a family. They’re always there for us and we really appreciate that.
Bonham: The cars are much safer these days, but is there still an element of uncertainty that makes that pre-race prayer and your personal faith more valuable?
Gilliland: With what we do, there’s a risk involved. I don’t personally think about that on a daily basis, but just praying before getting in the car makes a big difference for us. To have them here definitely puts your mind at ease and it means a lot.
Bonham: What got you into this sport in the first place?
Gilliland: My dad raced when I was a kid. So I grew up going to the racetracks. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I never played baseball or soccer or football or basketball. I never really wanted to. Racing is all I’ve ever wanted to do since as far back as I can remember. That drive is definitely what’s helped me get here. My son is 11 now and he’s playing soccer and everything else. He wants to race and he’s been racing since he was four, but I want him to try other things and make sure this is really what he wants to do.
Bonham: You didn’t play most of those traditional team sports, but you did play golf, right?
Gilliland: I did play golf. My dad owned an auto repair business and he was like, “You’ve got to learn to play golf. It’s so important for business stuff.” That’s why I tried to learn how to play. It was good that I learned because you do go golfing for charity events and stuff like that. It’s good to be able to at least hit the ball.
Bonham: And wasn’t Tiger Woods one of your teammates at Western High School in Anaheim?
Gilliland: We played together from fifth grade through 11th grade together.
Bonham: What do remember about that experience?
Gilliland: The biggest thing that sticks out in my mind over everything is how focused he was on golf. That’s how I was with racing. That’s what it takes.
Bonham: You see a lot of pictures of drivers right before a race and you can tell by looking at their eyes how focused they are on what’s about to happen. Is that similar to the kind of focus a golfer like Tiger Woods has when he approaches the tee box?
Gilliland: Definitely. You have to be a hundred percent focused on what you’re doing to do it right.
Bonham: Going back to your jump from Nationwide to Sprint Cup, were you prepared for the increased level of competition?
Gilliland: I was ready. I felt like I was ready. It was a little bit difficult because some of the tracks I hadn’t been to yet. It was definitely a lot to take in like the grind of the schedule. I came from part-time Nationwide deal so we weren’t racing every week. The competition at the Sprint Cup level is the greatest of any motorsport, in my opinion, and it was a lot to take in for sure. I don’t regret doing it. A lot of people ask me, “Do you think you moved up too soon?” And I don’t think so. The stuff I needed to learn, you can learn there or you can learn from a full-time Nationwide deal or a full-time truck deal. You were going to have to learn it sometime or another.
Bonham: Are you comfortable where you’re at now with this team and how confident are you that this opportunity will be around in the long-term?
Gilliland: With this sport, I don’t think you can be too confident. David Ragan doesn’t know what he’s doing next year. Roush is cutting back. RCR is probably going to cut back a team and (Clint) Bowyer’s moving. Dale Jr., can’t find sponsorship for his Nationwide team. It takes money to run in this series. Money is tight right now. With what it costs to run and the money that’s out there, it’s tough. Hopefully we can do it for a long time.
Bonham: From an emotional and spiritual perspective, do you think you’re better prepared to handle the uncertainty now than you were two years ago?
Gilliland: Yeah, for sure. The last couple of years I’ve had a ride and then I’ve not had a ride. I had a contract with Yates for three years and after two years they didn’t have sponsorship so I found myself without a ride. I’ve been through enough these last couple of years so that I can deal with it better now than I did before. I’ve been able to take a step back and see that I’ve got a beautiful family, great kids and a great wife. If something did happen and we weren’t able to do something, it wouldn’t be that horrible.
Stay up on the latest news from David Gilliland by visiting his official website HERE.