Rob Jones: Amazing African American Driver on a MissionBy Marty Tyler
With a little research to my credit I began the interview by asking him, with his varied accomplishments, why go racing and when did he realize this was what he wanted to do?
“I wouldn’t say I wanted to be a professional race car driver when I was a kid, but everything I watched on television involved speed, and I loved it. So as a child the love of speed was instilled early and I just built upon it from there. Pretty much everybody told me I was crazy (to want to drive race cars). I think it was a case of racing being a non-traditional career path to pursue, especially when I was growing up in the 90′s. There weren’t any examples of African American drivers to really emulate.”
Rob is one of a handful of current upper series racers who didn’t come to racing by the normal progression and exposure as a child. “I started following racing when I was young. Up until about high school, I thought I wanted to be an Open Wheel driver along the lines of the old CART Series. However, by the time I was approaching college, I grew away from the CART Series and started focusing more on NASCAR. My interest was peaked and I never looked back to Open Wheel. I was not afforded an opportunity to pursue racing when I was younger. I was an only child raised by my mother after my parents divorced. Though my mother’s love was supportive and unconditional, she did not encourage or share in my dreams of racing.”
In high school Rob was the typical jock. His plans were to play football in college and major in business. However, Rob’s aunt, who was a general aviation pilot with a flight instructor rating, spoke with him about becoming a pilot prior to graduation. “As hoki as it sounds, a few years prior, the movie Top Gun came out, and I started to get a little excited about flying. I thought if I can’t race cars, maybe this would be a good substitute.” After deciding to take her advice, Rob eventually headed to Delaware State University where he obtained a Bachelor Of Science Degree in Aircraft Systems Management. While in college his aunt introduced him to the Air National Guard. Rob, along with others from his program were invited to interviews. Subsequently, Rob was selected to train to fly the A-10 Warthog fighter jet. While serving in the Maryland Air National Guard, Rob was hired by UPS as a pilot, which is his current employer. My first conversation with Rob found him on the job in Taiwan.
Becoming a pilot has allowed Rob to go back to realize his true childhood, deep seated dream of becoming a race car driver. In high school he had three goals: to become a fighter pilot, to become an airline pilot, and to eventually become a race car driver. “I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough,” he explained, “to accomplish in some form or fashion all three of those goals. I’m obviously still working on the third one, but I’ve gotten to a point now where if this is as far as I go, then I can at least hold my head high. If opportunities and situations had been different when I was younger, I believe I would have (already) been successful.” The next step, he truly hopes will be to gain more seat time and experience and move to the upper ranks of NASCAR.
Rob knew he would have to rely on his resourcefulness in order to achieve his racing ambitions. Rob’s family had no personal ties of any sort in racing that would help to expedite entry into the sport. While in the Guard, his unit was in Las Vegas readying for deployment to Kuwait. While there, Rob went to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to participate in a ride and drive program in an Indy style car. This opportunity fueled his passion even more, despite the fact that it was, as he termed it, a “controlled environment” experience. When Rob returned home he kept telling his wife, “I know I can do this. I know I can do this.” So, he says, she just told him to “shut up and try it!”
A friend of his knew someone who had gone through Mike Loescher’s Finish Line Racing School in Florida and who was racing Late Models in the Charlotte area. “He actually had a similar background to mine,’ Rob continued, “He used to fly F18s for the Marines, so he told me about Mike’s school. I called them up, they invited me down and I went to a four day school. I was like a sponge. I asked as many questions as I could about how to break into racing. I went to the school around October and somehow got the idea to go to the Daytona ARCA Race the following February in 2005. That’s funny because I was just talking about that this past weekend with Chad McCumbee. He was there at that ARCA Race in 2005 with Dexter Bean, and they were both making their first Daytona ARCA start. (At the Daytona event) I wound up meeting Andy Hillenburg and hanging out with Dexter Bean’s family on top of the hauler watching them during the Daytona race.”
“Whenever Andy had a free second I was asking questions and he suggested I start out small and go Legends racing just to see if it was something I really wanted to do, and do it in a cost effective manner. I took his advice and when I got home I started calling around talking to people to try to find anybody who would rent me a car in the Legends Series. I was able to do that and ran about eight or nine races that year between Northern Virginia and Houston. These experiences instilled in me that I was committed to do this. So for the next year I volunteered at Andy’s Fast Tack Racing School just doing whatever they needed help with. The idea was to hopefully become a driving instructor for them the following year. That never materialized because I had another opportunity to fall in my lap where I was able to race in the ARCA Truck Series. That was the beginning of it and things just fell in to place one step after another to lead up to me racing here in the ARCA (presented by Menards) Series. It’s been kind of a long process, but at the same time a fairly quick process, too, considering how much ground I’ve covered in that relatively short amount of time.”
“My philosophy was to go to as many races as I could and stick around and introduce myself, I call it the grip and grin like a politician. I did this to as many people as I could and hopefully by being there people would start knowing my name and my face and give me an opportunity somewhere down the line. I was racing in the Super Cup Stock Car Series a few years back and the owner of that series suggested that I start looking at trying to go into ARCA. He knew a team owner in ARCA that had a couple of cars he normally took to the races. They weren’t top level cars but that could be a chance to get my foot in the door. The team owner was a former military guy, Wayne Peterson, so I thought we might have a bond there. I called Wayne’s son Mike and spoke to him while I was still racing The Super Cup Series. At the time ARCA’s rules only allowed one driver change, so we couldn’t put anything together, but at the beginning of last year ARCA changed the rules to allow multiple driver changes. The Peterson’s invited me out to the road course race down in Florida after Daytona last year. I met with them and got the chance to get a couple of laps on the road course and then they invited me to the short track race at Salem. I was only doing a start and park to get some seat time. My current car owner, Wayne Hixson, saw me and approached Peterson and asked if it was alright for him to speak to me about possibly driving for him. Having no contract with Wayne Peterson, and the fact that he could not put me in the kind of cars I needed to be in to get the exposure, he told Hixson talking to me would be fine.”
“At the next race I met with Hixson. He told me what he would like to accomplish last year and this year. He told me if I would run up to a maximum of seven races to maintain my Rookie eligibility for this year, he thought that I might be able to finish in the top 20 in points. If so we could hopefully use that as added fuel to get a sponsor to come on board for this year. We reached an agreement to finish last year and go to every race to use it as a poor man’s test session for this year. I could get some laps at the tracks that were going to be on the schedule for this year. It worked out last year. I finished 17th in the points. According to Wayne, that was the first time an African American driver has ever finished in the top 20 in points in ARCA.”
Rob is still working on getting the track progression requirements needed to make a move to NASCAR when the opportunity arrives. He has been in contact with his employer UPS for sponsorship possibilities, but that hasn’t worked out for various reasons. He had a meeting with Roush Racing in Texas last year, but money is always an issue and his age was discussed. To date no corporate sponsor has come on board, so no other other opportunity has worked out. “It’s a great sport,” Jones added, “but at the same time it’s a fickled sport. I look at Chad McCumbee and he has had some success, went to the Truck Series and had some Cup starts. Here is a kid that’s proven he can drive. He’s won a couple of races here and there in the ARCA Series with other success and he can’t even get a quality opportunity.”
Rob comes to racing a little older than the newcomers of today, but, perhaps that is a good thing in many ways considering some of the adjustment periods and behaviors that some of the current young guns have exhibited. He feels, however, that his age may be a factor in moving forward. “Whether I do or I don’t (make it in racing) I have a life. I’ve got something to fall back on and if I go out there and fall flat on my face, then fine” he continued. “I can live with that, go away and say this isn’t for me. But I can’t turn back the hands of time. Everything I’ve done I’ve been successful in and I have the confidence in myself to know that if I had the right opportunity I could be successful in racing too. The thing that I don’t like is that I can’t get the opportunity in equal equipment to determine whether I can make it or not, and that the only thing that may be holding me back is the date on my driver’s license.”
We continued to discuss the difficulty in landing sponsorship for minorities in racing. Rob offered his take on that. “Corporate America is not embracing the diversity initiative to the level that it needs to. Until there’s corporate sponsorship to open the doors, that’s going to get on board with one of these young kids who has the talent and the time to make it, it’s really an uphill battle. Right now with what I’ve done, and I’m not anywhere near where I’d like to be, one thing I can say is that where I am now I don’t answer to anyone so I can call it like I see it. With the Diversity Program there have been some names that have come and gone and there have been some African Americans (involved) who have been self serving and have set the diversity initiative back. All some did was come in, fill their pockets and leave and now they have set everybody else back three times more than where they were before. That is one of the things that is holding us back on our end. Then corporate America is like UPS, they’re not going to get onboard with anyone until their a proven commodity. Remember UPS didn’t come on board with Jarrett until the year after he won the Championship. It’s the same thing. Corporate America is not going to get onboard with anybody until after they become a star. Tiger Woods didn’t need corporate America to go to the golf course and become great. And the Williams sisters didn’t need corporate America to become stars in tennis, but to be in racing especially with the out of control costs as they are, we need corporate America to step up or we need rich parents to get you to that point to have success and be noticed. It’s a vicious cycle and until somebody can break through it’s never really going to change.”“One of the things I think that I could bring to the table that would be beneficial to NASCAR is my ability to bond with multiple demographic groups. Based off of my total background from start to finish, I don’t think that there is a single demographic out there that I couldn’t touch in some form or fashion. By doing so this would bring more exposure to ARCA, NASCAR or whatever racing series I’m in. For example, I don’t think this is true now, but in the past the typical perception of a average person who doesn’t follow racing is that it’s a bunch of good ol’ boys who are out there running around in circles and that is the fan base that follows them. From that bluecollar standpoint, I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and grew up in Gordo, which is a town so small you probably can’t find it on a map. Growing up from that area and not having a lot and then making a success of myself, I think there are people who can identify with that. Then from the standpoint of being in the military and my service, there is a demographic that is likely to follow that because it’s not just this kid who grew up in racing, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, never went to college and has never been exposed to anything but racing. I think there are people who can and want to break away from the “cookie cutter” mold of what the NASCAR drivers have become and can appreciate someone who has had military time and service, things of that nature. Then there is the demographic which is really the life’s blood of the sport now, which is Corporate America. Here is a driver who is educated, well spoken, and happens to be a minority, which could be used to improve their image from a diversity standpoint and everything else. So from bottom to top, across varying demographics, there’s something about me that someone can grasp and appreciate. I’ve been to races in places where I have been absolutely shocked to get support from. I ran a dirt track race in Tyler County, West Virginia and after the race there was a couple who came up to me and said they heard I was in the military and they wanted to come to shake my hand and thank me for my service. I’ve been in a couple of places in Ohio and it was the same thing, people said it was really great to see me out there and said hopefully there will be more people out there that look like me.”
“I was so very sad and disappointed to hear about Reggie White’s death in general but also because I think he had the right idea. He affiliated himself with one of the most trustworthy individuals in the sport that he knew from his previous life as a football player. He was out of football, done with it so he could pay attention and have the time to dedicate to learning this sport from someone he trusted. He was starting out with a couple of drivers at a late model level and it seemed like he was planning on starting a team, moving these guys up and growing his knowledge at the same time they grew their experience on the track so that when they did get to the point of being in the Nationwide or Cup Series he knew the ins and outs of the sport and what was required as a team owner. He obviously had name recognition and appeal to where he probably could have opened doors and approached corporate sponsors to be able to move up as they progressed. He was one of the few that was poised to do it the right way, but unfortunately it never came to fruition.”
There has been so much information to cover with this interview. Rob was extremely gracious with his time and I am very grateful to him, but there is just no time or room to cover it all, but I do want to include the following.
“I’ve only been able to run 2 races so far this year. One was a last minute deal that came together in 5 days, and I wasn’t expecting to run, which was Talladega. The original deal fell through for my car owner and he asked me to help him out. It was a short track car (with the wrong type of transmission for this race) and the engine was weak, but I had to deal with what I had. My teammate, Nick Igdalsky, was on the other end of spectrum with a new super speedway body and a leased engine. I went out and practiced and was extremely slow. Fortunately for me, for qualifying we went out and had engine problems so they had to do an engine change before the race. Since Nick was already in the race Wayne had an old RCR plate engine that he was going to use for Nick if they had to, so they put that in my car. As a result we were much faster but because of the engine change I had to start at the back of the field. I started 35th and wound up finding cars I could draft with and finished 24th. I was the last car on the lead lap and did it with a short track car that got thrown together in 5 days. It’s one of those things where you look at the finishing order and no one is impressed, but when you look at small teams and what we had to do to get there and what we were able to achieve, to me it is a big accomplishment. The other race was (at the time of this interview) this past weekend at Chicago. We started 22nd and finished 14th. I wish we had the opportunity to run better, but I’m extremely excited about finishing 14th considering the fact that all those other cars in front of us were high dollar teams that had a lot more money invested than what we had. At the same time I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t finish higher than where I did. But on the bright side it’s good to be in the position to be disappointed about finishing 14th versus the year I had last year.”
Rob has no firm commitments for other races this season without sponsorship. He has hopes to work something out for Michigan or some other televised race, but his run at Talladega pretty well used up his racing fund reserve.
In closing I asked him to speak to potential sponsors and to the fans.
“From the sponsorship standpoint, at the end of the day, it obviously has to make sense financially to be willing to come onboard to provide that infusion of cash that is needed to be able to run and be fast. ARCA is a great series but I don’t know if it can really garner the exposure that some of these sponsors are looking for. I’ve been able to get to a point where now I believe, especially after a strong run at Chicago, I am qualified to go to a NASCAR series. Maybe the trucks at a mile or a mile and a half track which is the bread and butter of NASCAR. I believe if I could go to NASCAR and get qualified on the bigger tracks, it would open up the opportunity for a sponsor or sponsors to get onboard with a driver like me. If someone is looking to think outside of the box and approach the issue of marketing and advertising from a standpoint that hasn’t really been tapped versus doing the same old thing of forcing a square peg in a round hole, then I think I am the person for them to approach and affiliate with. Some of these bigger companies and bigger teams inevitably cater to the sponsors, but at the same time sometimes the personal touches are lost. I’ve never had a sponsor. Everything has been out of my own pocket from day one. I know how difficult it is to obtain a sponsor, and one thing I can guarantee is that I will do everything I can to represent that sponsor in the best way possible. I’ll work to give them the maximum return on their investment to hopefully continue to work with me and progress as I want to progress.”
As for the fans: “It’s kind of funny. It’s proven itself over and over again. Everyone hates the champion. People got tired of the Chicago Bulls when they were winning all the time, they’re getting tired of Jimmy Johnson winning all the time so they’re always looking for a new underdog to root for, so when it comes to underdogs I don’t think there’s a much bigger underdog than me out there. There are tons of reasons why I shouldn’t be able to do this, or shouldn’t be out here. At the end of the day, the factor for me is that I have a love for the sport, and a desire to do it. For fans who want to get onboard and root for a driver, and hope to see the underdog come out on top eventually, then I think I’d be a pretty good choice for them to follow.”
Who better to tell the Rob Jones story than Rob himself? I believe he has done an excellent job. Here is a driver who has served his country, who holds a Bachelor Of Science Degree in Aircraft Systems Management, who has been successful in every arena of his life thus far, who is obviously well spoken and has all the passion and talent needed to become a success in racing. We are a diverse nation and the face of this nation has changed from the White House to Capital Hill, from Wall Street to the factory, and from farm workers to the fans viewing the races, whether at home or those in the grandstands, in the network booths for televised races and in the garage areas at each event. But in the cockpits and on the track the change is still moving at a very slow pace. Adequate corporate sponsorship for a driver like Rob will tap into the sale of racing related apparel and memorabilia, will equal dollars to the racing series, will attract fans who are proven to be sponsor loyal and the fans from many ethnic backgrounds. The racecar has no way to know who the driver is or how old the driver is. And the fellow racers don’t care whether that driver is Protestant, Catholic, or about what part of the country he or she hails from or what he or she looks like. The important issue is capability, experience, and drivers racing each other the way they themselves want to be raced. But in order for this driver to realize his childhood dream of moving to the upper ranks of NASCAR the true facts aren’t black or white, they are green, corporate money green.
For more information or sponsorship possibilities for Rob please visit his website at http://robjonesracing.net. You can also follow Rob on facebook. Do a name search and friend request.
I want to thank Rob for his time and the patience to endure this lengthy interview. I especially want to thank him for his service to our great nation and I genuinely wish him great success in racing.
Views expressed by the writers are not necessarily the views of Catchfence
Article Tags: ARCA, Hixson Motorsports