Erik Jones became just the second 16 year-old winner of the Snowball Derby, holding off Kyle Busch in a frantic 20-lap dash to the finish on Sunday afternoon at Five Flags Speedway.
Being among the youngest to do something isn’t new for Jones, who also became the first 15-year-old to compete in the ARCA Racing Series this past season. It’s been a quick maturation process for Jones, who has been racing in some form since he was 7, starting off in the highly-competitive quarter-midget sanctions in the Midwest.
In the following interview with Short Track Scene, Jones talks about his fast journey from obscurity to winner of the 45th Annual Snowball Derby.
Short Track Scene: When did you first get started in competitive racing? Did you kart or was it straight to the midget ranks?
Erik Jones: I started racing when I was 7 and started out in quarter midgets. My family had no prior history in racing but my grandfather was a bit of a gear head. My mom encouraged me to race and by 12 I was racing Street Stocks near my home at Owosso Speedway (in Michigan).
By 13, I was already in a full-bodied Pro Late Model, racing all over the Midwest in the ASA Midwest Series.
STS: Do you remember your first win?
EJ: Not really. I think it was my second or third start and it came in a quarter midget at Owosso.
STS: Are you surprised that you’ve been able to find this kind of success that so early in your career?
EJ: Definitely. What a lot of people don’t know is that we’ve had a hard time keeping some of the same crew members in place. And at the Late Model level that’s really important. We went through several crew chief changes before we were able to keep Rich Lushes and spotter Branden Lines on board. That consistency really helped us this season.
STS: You’re still in high school and taking online classes just to be able to race. That’s pretty different. How does that work?
EJ: Yeah, I started out in public schools and once I started racing, it got to the point that I was missing too many classes. So I was able to enroll in a private school about 20 minutes away from my house and that’s been a huge help.
They require that we come in once or twice a week just to keep track of my progress and offer tutors and anything else I need. It’s really a challenge because when you’re racing, that takes priority over everything else. So I really enjoy spending time with friends and family when the opportunity presents itself.
STS: Is your ultimate goal to compete in NASCAR? How about the short term?
EJ: From the time I started driving, I knew that it would be really difficult to make the 43 car field that races on Sunday. That’s the goal but I know that it’s not going to be easy. But I knew from the first time that strapped into a Late Model that NASCAR was the ultimate goal.
STS: You’ve always been amongst the youngest drivers in the field. You made your ARCA debut this season as the first 15 year-old to compete in that series and here you were racing against Kyle Busch for the win at the Snowball Derby. Do you find that aspect of your career intimidating?
EJ: Not really. Once you put on the helmet, we’re equals. Guys like Kyle Busch and David Ragan are competitive and so am I. We’re no different once we strap in.
STS: Moving on to the Snowball Derby, you were fast all week. When did you think this was a car that could possibly win the race?
EJ: We knew we could win from the moment we tested at Five Flags Speedway at the open test two weeks before the race. I don’t think we had to make one adjustment all weekend. And it showed in qualifying and on race day.
STS: You were on the outside of Kyle Busch for much of that final 20-lap sprint for the win. The surface at that track is so old that most drivers can’t pass on the top. You passed Busch on the bottom but successfully held him off on the top side. How did you do that?
EJ: You know, we always seem to restart on the outside of all these races, so I’ve learned to like it and make a strength of it. I’ve learned that you can gain a lot of momentum if your entry is right and that’s what happened when I raced Kyle for the win. I used up a lot of my stuff but I forced him to do the same and it worked out.
STS: Kyle Busch was one of the first to congratulate you in Victory Lane. What did he say?
EJ: He just wanted to congratulate me and talk about the race. He told me that he races guys the way they race him and that he would remember how clean I raced him at the end. It really meant a lot coming from him because I respect him and what he’s been able to accomplish.
STS: Did anyone else around the NASCAR world take notice and say anything yet?
EJ: A few but I understand that will come later. One of the things I thought was really cool was getting a tweet from Mark Martin. He congratulated me which was really exciting because he’s always been one of my favorites.
STS: So what’s next for Erik Jones? More ARCA and Super Late Model races? Are you looking at running for a championship in any particular series?
EJ: For sure. We’re looking at running select ARCA and Super Late races. We definitely want to come back here and defend our Snowball Derby championship and maybe run some NASCAR Pro Series East races.
Now that the minimum age for the Truck Series has been decreased, I would love to race in that Series too – but it’s all dependent on money.
You can follow Erik Jones on Twitter at @Erik_Jones.