Chandler Smith on managing pressure and balancing NASCAR life with parenthood: 12 Questions

Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Chandler Smith, who is currently third in the NASCAR Xfinity Series point standings with two wins during his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. This interview has been edited and condensed, but the full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. What is the No. 1 thing on your bucket list?

One thing would be to hike Mount Everest one day, but maybe that would be a little extreme. The most realistic thing is to keep chipping away at what I’m doing, being a decent race car driver and having job security and being competitive. Trying to provide for my family and still work on balancing work and dad life and husband life a little better. It takes time to really fine-tune all those things. So that’s not a bucket list thing, but a goal.

2. How much media coverage of NASCAR do you consume?

I stay off social media a lot, to be completely honest with you. So I guess a fair amount, but not crazy. Some other drivers live, eat and breathe it.

How do you avoid social media? That seems tough to be able to do that.

Social media is a great thing for marketing and for your brand, but you can also get yourself in really big trouble. Not only that, but some problems we have in society are because of social media. So there’s a fine line between abusing it and using it for a good tool.

3. Beyond winning, what is the best way to measure success in racing?

With our points format, making it to the final four. If you did that on a consistent basis, that’s a pretty hefty thing to do year to year — even if you don’t win. That takes a lot of consistency through the season, getting stage points and being in the right scenario.

And then having respect on and off the racetrack and being likable through the garage is a pretty good thing as well.

4. What is an opinion you have about NASCAR that you don’t think is shared by the fans?

It’s still more grassroots than it looks from the outside. When you look at the history of NASCAR and the way it’s trended, you’d probably be like, “Oh man, it looks like it’s losing its grassroots or where it came from.” We may be taking a different direction than what it used to be, but the core people who used to be around back in the prime grassroots days are still here today.

5. What is the biggest thing fans don’t realize about what you do for a living?

How much work people put in that you wouldn’t think. Like (hauler) drivers — they’re constantly driving all the time. When they go on the West Coast swing, they come back and get in on a Monday or Tuesday, load back up and leave on a Wednesday. Like it’s insane what they do. (Public relations), the amount of work they go through the week with lining up interviews and the sponsorship side of things — there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that not a lot of people see.

6. The next question is a current topic related to yourself. When you drive a JGR car, it obviously comes with high expectations from outside. And yet you’re in a situation where you’re still trying to grow as a driver and you’re trying to learn. So how do you balance the expectations people have with trying to just make yourself better each week?

I honestly don’t pay attention to it. At (Kyle Busch Motorsports), I felt the pressure of “Oh, Kyle is your boss,” and I felt the expectations. Then I got married during that time period and also had our first-born child toward the end of my career with KBM. Now I have two kids and I’ve matured a lot as an individual — as a professional race car driver, but also as a person.

I show up at the racetrack with my wife and kids every weekend and have a blast. I know this is a blessing from God that I can travel all around the country and drive fast cars for a living and carry my wife and kids with me and see all these crazy places. So obviously there’s times when I get nervous, but I don’t necessarily feel the pressure anymore because I wouldn’t be able to enjoy these things. I wouldn’t be able to take in the moments.

Like being here in Chicago, racing in the streets. I was doing the track walk with my wife and kids. We were going down the street and I was like, “We are going to be hauling butt down this street, and you’ve got this beautiful skyline. This is insane. That’s awesome.” If I had all this pressure on me, I wouldn’t be able to take those things in.

But to answer your question, I set realistic expectations. I don’t put a win number. We’re capable of racing for a championship, but you can almost doom yourself when you put a number beside that. Because you get halfway through the season and you’re not halfway to that number and you go into a full panic mode of “I’m not meeting expectations.” And then you start making mistakes and not being as consistent.

7. You have two young kids. How do you balance parenting and your career? You have your kids with you here at the track while you’re driving, but you’re still going to be a parent in the hotel and feed them dinner. How do you manage that?

Initially, there was a time I went through where I was not doing a great job going back and forth. But we just got through building a house up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina; we don’t live in Mooresville (where the majority of NASCAR teams and personnel are located). We got out of there, just because it was hard to separate yourself from work.

Now that we moved away, we’ve got 12 acres of land and it’s beautiful property. So it’s super easy (to balance); it’s like a light switch. That change was a really big deal. Don’t get me wrong when I say this, but going to the store and not seeing everybody you know every single time — having a little bit of separation was definitely good for myself and my family.

With moving, there are definitely sacrifices to be made. My Mondays are crazy as far as travel; I drive three to four hours between my house, going to JGR, doing sim. And then when you calculate how much time I’m on the simulator, my Monday is slammed. But after that, pretty much from Tuesday to Thursday, I am non-existent. You don’t hear from me. I’m off the grid.

So when my wife and I sat down and talked about it, it was like, “I’m good with it. I know this will be worth it in the long run.” And it damn sure was.

Chandler Smith

Chandler Smith and his wife, Kenzie, celebrate his win in the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond last March. Smith has three career wins in the Xfinity Series. (Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

8. What do you like about the place where you grew up (Jasper and Talking Rock, Ga.)?

Small town and in the country. I’m not a big city person. I respect city life and I enjoy visiting cities, but I couldn’t live there by any means. I like the freedom of being able to go in my backyard and do whatever I want. There was a lot of that in the country where I lived. So that was probably the biggest thing.

I was probably an hour north of Atlanta. I played basketball all the way until ninth grade, so I was a big basketball fan and the (Boston) Celtics were my team. When they would come and play the Hawks, me and my dad would go and watch. My mom and dad are divorced, so it was quality time me and him got to do together. I definitely have amazing memories from doing that with my dad.

9. What personality trait are you the most proud of?

That’s probably a better question for my wife to hear what personalities she sees. I’m really goofy a lot, and that helps me stay loose, so I guess that.

10. Which driver would you least like to be stuck with on an elevator?

I don’t really talk to a lot of drivers outside of racing. You could put me with any of them and I probably wouldn’t talk to them regardless. There’s a handful I’ll talk to: (Kyle) Larson, Denny (Hamlin), (Christopher) Bell. I always looked up to (Martin) Truex, so I get a little bashful around Truex.

11. What is a run-in you had that TV or the media missed?

Probably the Jeb Burton deal at Portland last year. I don’t think TV got any coverage of that (Burton said he punched Smith three times, but Smith later posted a tongue-in-cheek video debunking it). Long story short, we had a run-in on the track, didn’t agree on it and he came over to me after the race. That was the same day I either didn’t have a cool shirt or it failed, so I got out and was just trying to get my crap together (after being overheated).

I was like, “Listen, man, I’m all for fighting, just let me get my s— together. Let’s get off of a NASCAR surface and then we could go hash it out then.” And then obviously, it escalated.

12. Each week, I ask the driver to give me a question for the next interview. The last one I did was with Shane van Gisbergen and he says: You’ve been on two different teams the last couple years (JGR and Kaulig), so what has been the difference between the teams and why?

That’s messed up. He did that on purpose. (Laughs.) There’s a lot of differences. It would take too long to go through the differences, to be completely honest with you, but they both have their pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. I’m more at home at Joe Gibbs Racing because I was with Toyota for six or seven years and then when I went to Kaulig Racing, it was a different manufacturer for me. I loved my group I had there (at Kaulig) last year, but I’m more back at home now that I’m with Toyota, for sure.

Do you have a question I can ask the next person?

(Smith said he’d prefer to wait and see who it is before giving a question.)



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(Top photo of Chandler Smith at last month’s Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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