Racing

NASCAR'S Ryan Blaney is racing toward history

Ryan Blaney is only 23 years old, and he's already living the American dream.

The third-generation NASCAR driver gave the storied Wood Brothers Racing Team its 99th victory on June 11 when he took his first checkered flag in a Cup race in the Pocono 400.

Now he’s hoping to trip the odometer to 100 for NASCAR’s longest tenured race team, which has notched wins in each of the past six decades. And what better place or time than in Daytona, Fla., in the Coke Zero 400 over the Fourth of July holiday weekend?

Blaney isn’t flashy. He didn’t burn rubber on his way to Victory Lane at Pocono, and when asked how it felt to get his first Cup win, the High Point, N.C., native said simply, “It was nice to get that done for the Wood Brothers…. To get the 99th win is pretty special.”

“Ryan’s got a little old school to him,” Eddie Wood, a second-generation co-owner of the family team, said in an interview. “He understands the history of the sport and why things happen…. He grew up to be a race car driver, probably didn’t have a choice. He gets it.”

Wood laughed and added, “[Ryan]’s just real laid-back. If he walks in a room and didn’t have on racing-related stuff, you wouldn’t know he’s a race car driver. But he’s a driving somebody!”

And that’s all Blaney really wants right now. He says he’s not looking down the road for any legacy.

“We’re just getting started,” he said. “I don’t want to be known for much. Enjoying the sport and being successful is all you can ask for right now.”

NASCAR, on the other hand, is asking for much more. Despite his quiet demeanor, Blaney is a key cog in a youth movement that is generating excitement in his sport.

“It’s been a good year for younger drivers,” Blaney said. “It’s a great mix in NASCAR between younger drivers getting their first win or coming up in the sport, and there are veterans still winning.… It’s what [the sport] needs. It’s exciting and I’m excited to see where it leads.”

The road has already led him to a place he never saw coming: Hollywood. NASCAR has helped many of its young drivers land roles in films and TV shows, hoping it can convert young viewers into racing fans.

One of those young drivers is Austin Dillon, 27, who got his first NASCAR cup win in the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., over the Memorial Day weekend. Dillon was cast as a getaway driver for the bad guys in TV’s “Rosewood.”

And this summer’s “Cars 3” features voiceover work from Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace and Blaney alongside iconic racers Jeff Gordon and Richard and Kyle Petty.

“It was a lot of fun to do,” said Blaney, who will also have a part in “Logan Lucky,” which will feature half a dozen NASCAR drivers. “I’ve never done anything like a voiceover for ‘Cars 3’ or a screenplay in ‘Logan Lucky.’ You’re pretty nervous at first, but once you loosen up and relax, it comes a little more naturally.

“It’s neat to be in the ‘Cars’ movie. It was one of my favorite movies as a kid. To be in something you enjoyed as a kid, now as an adult, is very special to me.”

Hollywood has “got to help,” Wood said. “Kids and millennials like movies, action and things that move fast and are unique, and I think Ryan brings all that to the party. You want young kids to pick out a guy that’s someone to look up to, and [Blaney’s] that guy.”

But right now, Wood and Blaney have their eyes on 2,500 miles to the east: Daytona. Wood recalls the days of the old Firecracker 400, when the race was always held on the actual Fourth of July, and it began at 10 a.m. to avoid the afternoon heat and thunderstorms.

They run it at night now — and it will take place on July 1 this year, not The Fourth — but Wood says it still conjures up strong emotions.

“It’s pride in America,” he said. “July 4th is an America holiday with everything that it represents, and it’s a neat time to be racing that weekend.”

And it would be a great time and place to notch his team’s milestone win. “If I could pick a place, if you’re fortunate enough to win 100, my pick would probably be Daytona or Martinsville — that’s our hometown track,” Wood said. “Daytona’s an iconic track, and it’s special to us.”

CHASE ELLIOTT IS LEADING THE NEXT GENERATION OF NASCAR DRIVERS

Blaney said he’s looking forward to racing under the lights and engaging with the fans who camp at the track all week long. And he’s happy the race will be on Independence Day weekend. “NASCAR does a great job supporting the troops,” he said. “It’s special to meet the families of the troops at the races.” 

He said he’s been proud to help Brad Keselowski’s Checkered Flag Foundation, which promotes jobs for veterans, and Fisher House, which provides housing for military families close to hospitalized service members.

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve done,” Blaney said. “They had a charity event trying to build a Fisher House in Michigan, and it was neat to meet the soldiers and their families. It was pretty cool to talk to them and see the Fisher House. It’s a pretty amazing organization.”

When the race is over, Blaney said, he’ll race home to spend time with his family.

“It’s nice to be at home, to spend July 4th with your family and stay with them,” he said. “We travel so much, it’s nice to spend a whole day with them and be at home and see everybody — grandparents and aunts and uncles will come down —  and to spend it all together.”