With an NHRA Pro Stock championship in hand, Tanner Gray looking to make mark in circle-track racing.
Taylor Gray says he and older brother Tanner are these days absorbed 100% with NASCAR.
The brothers agree there is no sentimental tug at all to the straight-line sport.
It’s just 45 minutes before the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series engines fire up, and driver Tanner Gray is in street clothes, sitting comfortably in a director’s chair at his No. 15 Tricon Garage pit at Phoenix Raceway, casually chatting with an old acquaintance.
At age 24, he still is Jimmie Johnson-look-alike handsome, and he has Johnson’s calm confidence. But he has something even more valuable—wisdom and humility.
The wisdom comes not from winning an NHRA Pro Stock championship at age 19 in just his second season as a professional drag racer, but rather from recognizing that life isn’t always that easy. The humility comes from being the new kid on the block, no longer being the front man in a family-run operation, and trying to master a new task with a steep learning curve.
He also has younger brother Taylor, 18, who at age 12 was maintaining superchargers for NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and talking about maybe one day racing an 11,000-horsepower dragster. (Eldest brother Bryce Gray used to race, as well.)
Going different paths in drag racing, where father Shane Gray raced a Pro Stock car and grandfather Johnny Gray competed in both the Funny Car and Pro Stock classes, Tanner and Taylor Gray reunited in NASCAR racing. They’re teammates for Toyota-supported Tricon Garage (formerly known as David Gilliland Racing and Team DGR). Johnny Gray is co-owner of the organization.
And while both brothers still have close friends in drag racing – Tanner mostly with childhood pal Cody Anderson, son of 103-time Pro Stock winner Greg Anderson, and Taylor with his buddies from Torrence/Capco Racing and with Pro Stock racer-turned-crew chief Dave Connolly. However, neither brother keeps up with the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series’ Countdown to the Championship that will wrap up this coming weekend at Pomona, Calif.
What had been all-consuming for so many years for his family is but a faded memory for the Gray brothers. They’re comfy in NASCAR, happy to be racing in circles, feeling no sentimental tug at all to the straight-line sport.
“I haven't watched. I'll look at results just to see how Steve [Torrence] does most of the time. I'll see it on social media, and he's one of our Toyota teammates now. So you hear something through the kind of grapevine, but not a whole lot,” Taylor Gray said. “Seriously, I can't tell you the last time we sat down and watched the drag races. I mean, [truck racing] is your life, 24/7, just all NASCAR.”
Tanner Gray said, “I don't pay attention to any of it, honestly, other than just trying to support Greg and Cody and them,” Tanner Gray said. “You're so submersed in this, and you try to put so much time and effort into it that it's tough to keep up with all of that.”
With a brand-new, gleaming series-championship in hand and a dream to excel in circle-track racing, Gray got an indifferent reception in NASCAR.
“When I first came in, I was so comfortable with what we had built over on the NHRA side. I'd been around those guys my whole life. You just felt like the new kid at school when you first showed up,” he said of his NASCAR initiation with the K&N Pro Series East / ARCA Menards Series. Once again, when he joined the Craftsman Truck Series, Gray said he had that same insecurity.
“When I first came into the Truck Series, it was an eye-opener, and it was just kind of an uneasy feeling,” he said.” You didn't know anybody, and you're the new guy and you're trying to learn it all on the fly, and you're kind just expected to go out there and run. You knew that the potential was there to do it. It was just a matter of putting it together. Yeah, it was fun, but it was definitely a little bit uneasy at first, just I'd never been in a situation like that. I feel like now I have a really good relationship with all these guys in the shop and really close with a lot of them. So I don't feel that way anymore.”
Tossing a bit of an emotional monkey wrench in his progress was his return to NHRA for a cameo appearance, substituting at Reading, Pa., for COVID-sidelined Pro Stock driver Deric Kramer. Unlike the Tanner of Old, he confessed back in September 2022, “I'm nervous. Yeah, I'm really nervous.... I've been very disconnected from this side of things for a little bit now, just because I've been trying to focus on the truck stuff. When you disconnect yourself from something like that, you feel like you kind of lose touch with it. [I] just probably have some pretty low expectations for myself.”
So what had been so easy wasn’t anymore, not even back in drag racing. And it wasn’t easy in NASCAR’s ladder series, either. But Tanner Gray said he’s starting to put the puzzle pieces of his new career together.
“When I was drag racing, I got in, and I was good immediately. And here, my first year, I showed signs of having really good runs, and honestly, it felt like at the end of my first year, I was really close to winning a race, and it was like we just tailed off and felt like I didn't necessarily improve or keep progressing the way that I felt like I needed to or wanted to. And a lot of it was just trying to find the right people to have around me. And this is honestly the first year that I feel like I have the right people around me and feel like I see constant improvement. And that's exciting,” he said. “So I really feel like going into the next year will be better and more prepared and just kind of understand how to manage things a little bit better.”
Gray described this Truck season as “up and down, not as good as how we started out and not as good as what we had planned coming into the year. I think we had some goals that we wanted to meet that we didn't quite meet, and just kind of been a little bit too inconsistent throughout the year. And [I] kind of fell into a slump when it mattered most. So it definitely hasn't been the year we wanted, but I feel like the past couple races, it started to come around. I don't feel like the results show that, but it's definitely been better the past couple of races for us.”
Tanner Gray, in the Cometic/Factory Canopies Toyota Tundra, started 25th and finished ninth in Friday’s crash-and-bash calamity. Taylor Gray started 12th and came in 23rd with his Dead On Tools Tundra.
“I've really enjoyed the path that I've taken, and it's been a learning curve for sure. I still feel like I have a lot to learn and still [am] trying to catch up, but I really enjoy what we're doing. To be able to race with Taylor now in the same series, it's a lot of fun. So, it makes coming to the track each weekend exciting,” Tanner Gray said, despite thinking he “would definitely still have a lot to prove for myself, I feel like. It's a lot of fun, though.”
His goal, he said, “is to obviously advance and keep progressing. I feel like right now my main focus is just being as good as I can be in whatever I'm driving. So if that's a truck, then I need to figure out how I can be competitive each week in that and contend for wins and provide results.”
Taylor Gray, who seems never to be out of his comfort zone, just walked right into the Torrence camp, made himself useful, and fit right in. “Give them no chance to not like you,” he said. Like his brother, he learned that adjustments are inevitable, but for Taylor Gray, the adjustment is on his peers. He said he tried that approach on the Truck competitors, with mixed results. “I tried. I mean, there's definitely some people that don't like me, but It's OK,” he said.
The family’s once-powerful presence in drag racing has dwindled to a footnote. Eric Latino and his associates purchased Gray Motorsports’ assets, merged with Greg Anderson’s three-car-strong KB Racing, and rebranded it KB Titan Racing. It added young Camrie Caruso to the stable with young guns Dallas Glenn and Kyle Koretsky. Meanwhile, it’s black and white for the Grays – they’re staying in NASCAR.