Brad Daugherty Took a Long and Diverse Road to Winning the Daytona 500
The Daytona 500 victory for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came 34 years after Brad Daugherty’s rookie season as a team owner.
The former NBA star handled a wide variety of roles while pursuing a sport he fell in love with while growing up in Black Mountain, N.C., near Asheville, including working as a pit crew gas man.
When it comes to diversity, Daugherty has stayed within himself, doing what he could to push the envelope while working inside NASCAR.
At seven feet tall, five-time NBA all-star Brad Daugherty has always been a standout, but never more than after this year’s Daytona 500.
The victory by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the JTG-Daugherty Chevy put the little single-car team of Daugherty and his partners Jodi and Tad Geschickter at the pinnacle of stock car racing and made him the first African American team principal to win NASCAR’s biggest race.
The victory came 34 years after Daugherty’s rookie season as a team owner and his first win in NASCAR with driver Robert Pressley in a Busch Series race on the tiny oval at Rougemont, N.C. in 1989.
An upset in some eyes, the victory at Daytona was not a surprise given past performances by Stenhouse Jr. and his team.
“With five laps to go last year, we were leading and we thought we were going to win the thing,” said Daugherty, who co-launched the JTG-Daugherty Cup team in 2009. “To actually have the opportunity to win, you look back on how difficult it is to get that last lap completed under any circumstance. It was just a monumental day for our little race team and our single car company and as far as being an African American owner.”
It doesn’t just come down to the Next Gen car creating more opportunities for newcomers or smaller teams. JTG-Daugherty took its first victory with A.J. Allmendinger at Watkins Glen in 2014. The team, which uses engines from Hendrick Motorsports, built its own cars up until the changeover to universal parts and was a contender, especially on the drafting tracks of Daytona and Talladega where Stenhouse Jr. has been consistently fast throughout his career.
“We should have won Talladega three years ago,” said Daugherty. “Ryan Blaney beat us by 1/1000ths of an inch. I thought we were the best car that day. Then last year (at Daytona), we’re leading on a restart with five to go and Brad Keselowski just punted us. To finally get it done, it is a big deal for a small team.”
“We felt like last year on mile and half tracks, two or three times we were incredibly fast,” he continued. “Without a mistake here or there, it would have worked out. So, we’re hoping that after winning the biggest race of the season, to validate that even further. We think we're capable. It’s just a matter of the stars lining up and us executing.”
The former Cleveland Cavalier handled a wide variety of roles while pursuing a sport he fell in love with while growing up in Black Mountain, N.C., near Asheville, including working as a pit crew gas man. Daugherty’s current duties include media and sponsor relations and using his experience from his college basketball days as an all-American playing for UNC basketball coaching legend Dean Smith to motivate his driver and team members.
“I spend a lot of time trying to talk to our guys. (As a single car team) I try to keep the guys and gals motivated. We’re pushing uphill and we’re fighting.
“Coach Smith taught us as players, that you have to control your own narrative. You can’t really try to meet expectations that are burdensome. When you start trying to chase other peoples’ expectations of you, that’s when you get way outside of yourself. We know how hard we work and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
After getting penalized in his Duel qualifying race for speeding on the pit road, Stenhouse Jr. drove a smart race in the 500, staying out of trouble, saving his decisive moves for the closing laps. That’s what Daugherty and others on the team have been coaching him to do.
“Ricky’s a very, very aggressive, aggressive young man,” said Daugherty. “In the past he’s put himself in bad situations and wrecked race cars. We’re just trying to get him out of that. I think he showed that. He’s 35 years old and I think he’s starting to realize, ‘I’m really talented, but I’ve just got to put myself in the right position to utilize that talent. Otherwise, I’m in over my head all the time.’
“A little bit of a psychological thing. I think that’s the important thing (for him). If you’re a professional in basketball, baseball, whatever, everyone’s good. You have to do something to separate yourself. All of us have been chirping on him the last couple of years and I think he’s there.”
When it comes to diversity, Daugherty has stayed within himself, doing what he could to push the envelope while working inside NASCAR. He’s been a guiding light for Black athletes from other sports interested in working on pit crews, many of whom are now going over the wall on the pit road. He’s tried to find sponsorship for talented Black drivers like Bubba Wallace and before him Bill Lester. But, he says, “there were always road blocks.”
It’s not until recently that NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has gradually opened the doors to more opportunity for Black drivers as well as other minorities.
“We’ve tried to help so many young African-American drivers,” Daugherty said. “You can’t race out of your pocket. We’d always have a hard time back in the 1980s and 1990s getting sponsorship funds. You’d sit with corporate folks and they’d ask, ‘What does NASCAR think of all this?’ I’d say, ‘Whatever, they don’t care.’
“I talked with Bubba Wallace when he was with Jack Roush (in the Xfinity Series) and thought about putting him into my race car and to figure out the funding side of it. I was real interested in that, because I knew he had the interest and the talent, but I didn’t know if I could give him a lot of resources. We needed somebody who had some experience to get us where we wanted to go (at JTG-Daugherty).
“I’m so glad Michael Jordan came along,” he continued. “I’m so proud of him. It’s a huge commitment financially, obviously. He’s made that and now we have Bubba and Rajah Caruth and these young men are going to have opportunities that are significant instead of having to scratch and claw.
“It's long overdue. No doubt about it. When you’re in the middle of people doing it and doing the right thing, it’s easy look back and say we should have done this a long time ago. You get to the 21st century you just have one African American with an opportunity to get a good ride and it had to be created. It’s tough. But I love racing, always have. I’m a huge NASCAR fan as well as a team owner. I keep trying to do my part.”
That includes inviting African American kids into the JTG-Daugherty shop and showing them that there’s more to racing than driving the car. “We have engineers and all kinds of jobs throughout this industry that you can be part of,” he said. “We just try to encourage that.”
Black visitors to JTG-Daugherty’s shops will now find the Harley J. Earl trophy presented to the winners of the Daytona 500 as well as words of encouragement. Above all, Daugherty’s a racer who’s looking ahead and not behind—except when it comes to his style of racing.
“We’re throwback racers,” he said. “It’s been a long bumpy road to get here. I think Daytona was a culmination of that and we’re looking to forward the next 35 race weeks and to winning another race if we possibly can.”