My favorite Noah Gragson memory from the Snowball Derby has nothing to do with the race. In fact, it has nothing to do with Sunday at all.
It took place on Thursday night, shortly after practice, when the 20-year-old sent a message asking me to find him at some point over the weekend.
Certainly, I had planned to interview him once the endless roulette of practice sessions had concluded, so it was no big deal. Even still, he picked me out of the crowd while I was running around, getting quotes for the daily recap and we started a conversation that has considerably more impact now that he kissed the Tom Dawson Trophy.
Gragson had been following the debate about the unnervingly low car count for the Super Late Model portion of the Derby.
He was curious about why the number was down, and if it was representative of those who felt they couldn’t make the show or if those who had made the show but still felt like it wasn’t worth the investment.
The conversation, which lasted well over half an hour turned into an exchange of ideas about how to improve stock car racing at every level from the Cup Series to Late Model Stocks.
It was impressive because regardless of how the weekend played out, Gragson’s future was secure. He recently signed a deal to join JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and seems poised for a long career at the highest levels of the sport.
He doesn’t have to care.
Gragson could have just as easily chased a trophy over the weekend, shrugged off any other responsibilities, and set sail for the next stage of his career once it was over.
But he didn’t because he lives for this and cares deeply about its longevity. And more importantly, he has ideas for how to improve it.
That element of his personality gets lost in the shuffle. Maybe, it’s the inherent awkwardness of his youth or the lack of polish displayed in victory lane. But Gragson is both a genuinely likable kid and one who is invested in the same outcome as the rest of us.
“I guess I’m misunderstood sometimes,” Gragson told me in Turns 3 and 4 well after the race and his ceremonial responsibilities had concluded. “People who don’t know me don’t seem to understand me. I feel like I really appreciate the people at the grassroots level because if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be in motorsports, you know?
“I’m always thinking about the people around me and how I can make them smile or make their day. I just want to help people out and that’s how I view the sport too.”
“My pulse is out of control,” Noah says pic.twitter.com/XWfaM5Y67K
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) March 18, 2018
Unbeknownst to many in the NASCAR community, Gragson tends to find himself at a race track every single week, even if he isn’t racing. Twice this year, he attended races as a crew member for his friend, Carson Hocevar, learning a trade that had nothing to do with driving.
Like any twentysomething, he wants to hang out with his friends, but he wants to give back to the industry too. Even at those races, at the Rattler 250 and Canadian Short Track Nationals, he posed for pictures with his fans and signed autographs.
Hell yeah I like that @Kenny_Wallace I seen @NoahGragson at the #Rattler this year not driving but doing tires, pushing cars running up and down pit road, busting his ass !!!! Myself I’m proud to have met @NoahGragson ,and proud to call myself a fan!!
— Jeff Holden (@jeffholden51) December 4, 2018
He was the tire guy for Hocevar’s No. 14 team in Canada.
“Carson is a great driver,” Gragson said. “But I go to those races because I want to prove to myself that I’m more than a race car driver. I don’t think people respect me. They just think I am a clown in a way, they don’t take me seriously.
“I feel like … I just want to prove people wrong, that I’m a normal person who has an amazing opportunity to drive a car on weekends.”
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) September 2, 2018
Gragson called the win the biggest of his career, which says something from a guy that owns a Martinsville Speedway grandfather clock and another win at Kansas Speedway in the Truck Series over the past two seasons.
It was a validation victory.
Success in the NASCAR Truck Series is difficult to quantify right now, especially on intermediate tracks and with the current engine and tire combination. But even with that said, and even having advanced to the championship race and finishing second in the standings, Gragson was disappointed in his season.
But he felt like he should have done more this season. It opened the door to the haters, critics and those who would downplay his ascension to Xfinity Series.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said in the moment. “But it will. I don’t know if I needed this, but I really wanted it. To come here, in what is probably my last start in a Late Model for a while. I wanted to win this race. I wanted to beat Ty Majeski, Jeff Choquette and Bubba Pollard.
“I wanted to do it for my guys at Kyle Busch Motorsports. We had unfinished business here and from this season.
“But more importantly, I had to beat this track. I finally figured it out. Actually, I don’t think I figured it out. But it was a team effort and we won the Snowball Derby. There isn’t a lot that beats this.”
He indeed won the Snowball Derby, won over some critics and won some respect from those in his favorite form of racing.