Get to know Ross Chas­tain, NASCAR’s wa­ter­melon farmer driver

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY ALEX ANDREJEV aan­drejev@char­lot­teob­server.com This in­ter­view has been lightly edited for brevity and clar­ity.

Chip Ganassi Rac­ing made a long-awaited an­nounce­ment Mon­day morn­ing in which the team named Ross Chas­tain as the driver of its No. 42 Chevro­let for the 2021 sea­son.

The move wasn’t to­tally out of left field since Chas­tain’s had a re­la­tion­ship with the Ganassi or­ga­ni­za­tion since 2018, in which he earned the pole po­si­tion, won a race and fin­ished in se­cond place in the three Xfin­ity events he ran for CGR that year.

Still, the 27-year-old has just five wins in NASCAR’s lower level se­ries and beat out other full-time Cup driv­ers for the cov­eted 42 seat, which was also of­fered to Bubba Wal­lace this year be­fore Wal­lace an­nounced he would depart his Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports team af­ter the 2020 sea­son.

Chas­tain, who races full-time for Kaulig Rac­ing in the Xfin­ity Se­ries, said he knows he has big shoes to fill as Ganassi’s re­place­ment for top Cup driv­ers Kyle Lar­son and Matt Kenseth.

“Of course I’m ner­vous,” Chas­tain said. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”

The eighth gen­er­a­tion wa­ter­melon farmer will have new team­mates to lean on for the tran­si­tion, though. Chas­tain said he plans to tap on the knowl­edge of cham­pi­onship driv­ers and CGR team­mate Kurt Busch in the No. 1 Cup car and Jim­mie John­son, who will run IndyCar races for the or­ga­ni­za­tion next sea­son.

Chas­tain even re­ceived an un­ex­pected text from John­son this morn­ing: “He said, ‘Hey man, con­grat­u­la­tions! I guess this means we’re team­mates.”

Chas­tain spoke with The Ob­server on the af­ter­noon of the big­gest news in his NASCAR ca­reer about smash­ing wa­ter­mel­ons in Vic­tory Lane, tex­ting John­son and how he plans to jug­gle mak­ing an Xfin­ity cham­pi­onship run while prepar­ing to launch in the Cup Se­ries as NASCAR’s next No. 42 driver.

Alex Andrejev: Big news for you to­day. Did you go into the shop at all or have you been tak­ing calls at home?

Ross Chas­tain: No, just sav­ing up my time there for hope­fully when it’s all a lit­tle more nor­mal.

AA: That makes sense. You were asked af­ter the Xfin­ity race Fri­day if you would ac­cept a ride for Ganassi, and you said, ‘Of course.’ Did you

know at the time those would be your plans?

RC: No, I didn’t. It came to­gether quickly and very re­cently. I knew that I wanted it. Like I said af­ter the race, ‘Of course.’ I think ev­ery Xfin­ity driver and a lot of Cup driv­ers, a lot of peo­ple in this world, would give a lot to sign with a guy like Chip and the team he’s built, and Chip has been good to me since I first came into the team in 2018.

AA: How did you learn you were get­ting the ride and what was your ini­tial re­ac­tion?

RC: I was speech­less. It was a sim­ple call from Chip (over the week­end). He called and ob­vi­ously I had his num­ber stored and we ex­changed hel­los and he said, ‘I want you to drive my 42 car.’ And I said, ‘Chip, I want to drive it.’ I did go to the shop to sure up a few things, but he got it all done in a few short min­utes.

AA:

RC: There’s a lot that is still be­ing fig­ured out. The main thing was that Chip Ganassi Rac­ing and Ross Chas­tain wanted to work to­gether, so we wanted to tell the world that we are work­ing to­gether, and be­yond that, the sales team at Ganassi and me as well, we’ll go out and try to work with as many part­ners as we can, but no plans right now of what, who or how.

AA: One of the rea­sons I’m ask­ing that is be­cause a lot of fans as­so­ci­ate you with your Wa­ter­melon scheme in the Truck Se­ries. Is there any pos­si­bil­ity we’ll see a wa­ter­melon paint scheme on the 42 car next year?

RC: I would love it. I was for­tu­nate to drive a wa­ter­melon car with Ad­ven­tHealth for the Day­tona 500 and the Coke 600 in No. 77 car, which was a part­ner­ship with Chip Ganassi Rac­ing and Spire Mo­tor­sports. The bot­tom of the car was a wa­ter­melon de­sign, so any­time we can in­cor­po­rate wa­ter­mel­ons into some­thing ... I fully em­brace, ob­vi­ously, my fam­ily, our his­tory and what puts food on our ta­ble, and that’s wa­ter­mel­ons. We’re get­ting our fields ready for the spring. I’ve got an un­cle and cousins that have wa­ter­melon plants in the ground right now. Just to give you a lit­tle back­story, my brother was up all night with my un­cle and cousin at the field in South Florida last night. There was a re­ally bad lit­tle trop­i­cal de­pres­sion that kind of popped up and swirled over our farm and just about drowned out the fall wa­ter­melon, so they were up all night dig­ging ditches and try­ing to keep wa­ter out of the field. We have like a perime­ter of dirt, a dike, and it busted and wa­ter came in. It was a long night for them, so any­time I can work with and put agri­cul­ture and wa­ter­mel­ons on some­thing, I’m def­i­nitely all for it.

AA: You worked on that farm grow­ing up, right?

RC: That’s right. My brother and I are eight­gen­er­a­tion wa­ter­melon farm­ers. I live in the Char­lotte-area for NASCAR, but my fam­ily is all in South Florida. The Chas­tains have farmed for 12 gen­er­a­tions. It’s all that we’ve ever known. My dad’s grown other veg­eta­bles and tried (grow­ing) cit­rus, tried an or­ange grove, and then hit on wa­ter­mel­ons again, which is what the fam­ily had al­ways done. So the fam­ily has just dug into wa­ter­mel­ons for a long time and we’re proud of it. It’s kind of our lit­tle niche in the agri­cul­ture world. There are other farm­ers that are big­ger than us and grow more, sell more, do more, but we do a lot and are proud of what we do.

AA: So you have this tra­di­tion of smash­ing a wa­ter­melon in Vic­tory Lane when you win a race and I’ve al­ways won­dered, like, do you just carry a wa­ter­melon around the track with you?

RC: It de­pends. I’m not per­fect. It’s been a lit­tle all over the place, but I was re­ally for­tu­nate for the Fourth of July Xfin­ity race we won last year at Day­tona at my home track. My brother has a sin­gle en­gine pi­lot’s li­cense and he was work­ing for a farmer over in South Ge­or­gia, and he bor­rowed the farmer’s plane, flew over to Day­tona the day of the Fri­day race and brought in one wa­ter­melon just to have (to smash), and if not, then to have to eat. That was the one I was able to smash on the frontstret­ch, and it meant a lot with how cool it was that my 20-year-old brother flies a plane over, and the farmer let him have the af­ter­noon and the next day off. But some­times I stop at a gro­cery store. When I’m out west in Phoenix, Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, I don’t know peo­ple out there, so yeah, I just stop by the gro­cery store on the way to the track and carry it into the garage. It’s some­thing that peo­ple know why I’m bring­ing one in, right? They know it’s for when we win, so I’m proud of it. My guys get fired up. They see me walk in with a wa­ter­melon and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah. That’s right.’ So it’s re­ally a good morale boost for all of us.

AA: *Laugh­ing* OK, that’s great. Tran­si­tion­ing away from wa­ter­mel­ons, though, you’re a sta­ple in the Xfin­ity and Truck Se­ries. Do you plan to keep run­ning events in those se­ries or will your fo­cus be Cup next year?

RC: Def­i­nitely the fo­cus is the 42 car. I re­al­ize what I’m up against. I re­al­ize that not only is there the phys­i­cal side of these Cup races be­ing longer, be­ing tougher to drive, but men­tally as well. I’m still work­ing on con­trol­ling my emo­tions. I can’t hide from it, right? I’m 27 years old. I still have a long way to go when it comes to han­dling my emo­tions and re­ally be­ing where I want to be in­side my head, let alone what I show on T.V. or pub­licly on so­cial me­dia, what­ever it is. Josh Wise is some­body I work with at Ford Rac­ing. He was a for­mer driver and is a driv­ing coach ... So we’ll just talk. Like I talked with him last night as this (news) was get­ting ready to come out about how to stay fo­cused. I have an Xfin­ity race this week­end to go win, and a play­off run to make in our Xfin­ity car. This is the big­gest op­por­tu­nity by far. It’s the Cup Se­ries. It’s Chip Ganassi Rac­ing. How do I bal­ance this? And we’ll just talk through it and look at the pos­i­tives and we also look at the neg­a­tives. There’s def­i­nitely a bal­ance to be had for the rest of this year. I lean on Josh a lot for that and that’ll tie in with how many Xfin­ity and Truck races I do. The fo­cus is def­i­nitely on the 42 car, but I’m not say­ing no, be­cause I def­i­nitely see the value. I think in 2019 I ran some­where around 77 races across NASCAR’s top three se­ries. Let’s just say I’m not go­ing to do that.

AA: Do you know who will be your crew chief next year? Will (No. 42 crew chief) Phil Sur­gen stick around?

RC: I don’t know for sure. I’m the driver. There are a lot of smart peo­ple at Chip Ganassi Rac­ing to fig­ure out all the de­tails now and guide me, but I know that 42 team is ca­pa­ble. I do know Phil a lit­tle bit. I know a lot of the guys. I’ve worked with the pit crews at the 42 car when I drove there in 2018 and both Chip Ganassi Rac­ing pit crews also pit for Kaulig Rac­ing this year in the Xfin­ity se­ries. So the way it worked out is I have one (CGR) crew this year on the No. 10 car and the (other CGR pit) team is on the No. 11 car. But I worked with the 42 team two years ago for those three races, and I’ve ac­tu­ally worked with the jack­man on the 42 car back in 2012 when I started in the Truck Se­ries full-time, so it’s def­i­nitely a lot of fa­mil­iar faces.

AA: It’s ob­vi­ously an or­ga­ni­za­tion you’re com­fort­able with, but the Cup Se­ries full-time is a big step up. Where’s your head at in terms of be­ing “that guy” for the 42. Are you ner­vous?

RC: Of course I’m ner­vous. I’m not gonna lie to you. But one of the best things about this is that it is Septem­ber 21st and we go to Day­tona in Fe­bru­ary. For bet­ter or worse, I have time to think about it and time to plan. I know it won’t all go ac­cord­ing to plan, but it’s not like we’re do­ing this and just jump­ing in to­mor­row. I can watch Matt (Kenseth). I can watch how this group works to­gether. Matt Kenseth is one of the best race car driv­ers that’s ever ever been in the sport. We know his wealth of knowl­edge, so I’ll pick that. I’ll be team­mates with Kurt Busch, a cham­pion in this sport who’s done so many things. It’s hard to wrap my head around that I have these guys to lean on. And then I get a text from prob­a­bly the last per­son I thought: Jim­mie John­son is now a team­mate as well. He’s go­ing to be run­ning one of Chip’s IndyCars next year on the street cour­ses on the road cour­ses. He texts me like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re team­mates now.’ Like, holy cow! You’ve got guys over there like Dario Fran­chitti and Scott Dixon, who are just in­cred­i­ble idols of mine even though it’s IndyCar and a lot of NASCAR peo­ple might not pay at­ten­tion. They are race car driv­ers, so I’ll lean on those guys. I’ll prob­a­bly bug them, but it’s some­thing that I’m look­ing for­ward to just im­mers­ing my­self as far into this thing. But yes, I’m ner­vous. There’s no doubt about it.

AA: What ex­actly did Jim­mie’s text say? Was it just a con­grat­u­la­tions thing?

RC: Yeah, he said, ‘Hey man, con­grat­u­la­tions! I guess this means we’re team­mates.’ He was one of the first ones to fire it off when­ever it came out this morn­ing.

AA: Sounds like you’ll have some solid re­sources. Is there any­thing I missed?

RC: I truly am just a wa­ter­melon farmer. That was the quote from our first win to­gether (with CGR) in 2018. But I’ve gone so much far­ther in the sport than I ever thought and it makes all this so much sweeter. It’s what I wanted, but I just never knew and ex­pected it to truly come through like this. So I’ll just keep work­ing, same thing we’ve been do­ing. I’ve got a great group in and around me. I’m just a wa­ter­melon farmer and now I get to go drive Chip Ganassi’s 42 car in the Cup se­ries. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL AP

Ross Chas­tain cel­e­brates in Vic­tory Lane af­ter win­ning a NASCAR Truck Se­ries auto race in New­ton, Iowa, in 2019. Chas­tain will drive the No. 42 car next sea­son.

STEVE HELBER AP

Ross Chas­tain is in­tro­duced to the crowd be­fore the NASCAR Xfin­ity Se­ries auto race Sept. 18 in Bris­tol, Tenn.

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