ELKHART LAKE – With three Xfinity Series victories already this season, including the most recent race in Atlanta, it is more likely than his father that John Hunter Nemechek will be in the mind of a current generation NASCAR fan.
But you can still find “Front Row Joe” on the track. In fact, he’s as busy as ever, working on vintage race cars and driving a trusty No. 87 car himself, a 2007 NASCAR Toyota Camry, and whatever else a client or friend has to offer.
The 59-year-old Lakeland, Florida native won the 1992 championship and was twice voted the most popular driver in the then Busch Series. He has made more than 1,200 NASCAR starts from 1989-2020 across the three National Series with four Cup Series wins and 16 in the Xfinity Series, as well as a total of 28 poles.
This weekend he’s at Road America, racing in the WeatherTech International Challenge, which has drawn more than 500 cars of all types and ages to the same rolling 4,048-mile course where John Hunter and the Xfinity Series will race in two weeks.
Between track sessions on Friday, the elder Nemechek talked about his relatively new passion for racing and a big dream he has for the future with his son.
Question: Do you enjoy this kind of thing?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Absolute. It is awesome.
Q: How much do you do?
Nemechek: I race every chance I get and I ride what I can ride. The past few years have been cool, from racing the old ’69 Camaros and Mustangs and the big, heavy muscle cars to prototypes. I drive everything and I’m having a good time.
Q: How does a man who spends his life racing decide that his life after racing is more racing?
Nemechek: That is a good question. But right now, our company, NEMCO Motorsports and Nemechek Motorsports Engineering, restore all these old stock cars and make them go fast and drive well and do all the things you want them to do for customers. We’ve probably done 15 or 20 now and the customers are happy, the stuff rides well and they’re all going fast.
Q: You buy old stuff, fix it and sell it to them?
Nemechek: They either buy it or let me buy it or I have like 50 in the warehouse waiting to break out. Try to get rid of all this stuff.
Q: Of the cars you’ve had the pleasure of driving over the years, which have you enjoyed the most?
Nemechek: Man, they’re all nice. … They are just so much fun. The brakes are not very good for them. Everything. You have to control them.
At the moment I drive alone (stock cars). The prototype guys didn’t ask me to drive.
Q: But you have, in competition?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Must drive at night in Sebring (Florida). The first nighttime stint in a prototype. Drawn donkey.
Q: If 59-year-old Joe Nemechek had told the 29-year-old version of you that one day you would be doing an overnight stint in a prototype at Sebring, what would he have said?
Nemechek: Man, at the time… I knew what they were, but it was like I was never going to get a chance to do that. Yes, damn it. One of these times, hopefully my son, if he figures out some of his stuff, then hopefully we can do some 24-hour races or something. I’d love to do that.
I like racing, man. I drive everything. It does not matter.
Q: But a 24-hour race…?
Nemechek: Oh yes, you need co-drivers. But yes, I’m all in.
Nemechek: Everywhere. Does not matter.
Q: Le Mans?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Everywhere. It’s all right.
Q: What is your identity now? Are you Joe Nemechek the vintage racer, the former NASCAR man or the father of John Hunter?
Nemechek: Yes… I am all of the above. But my biggest thing right now is the former NASCAR driver, an engineer who knows how to take a stock car, put them together correctly, make them go fast, drive them well, and not break them.
That’s key in vintage racing. These people spend a lot of money to get to the track and they have to run all weekend. When I first first came here, man, everybody was breaking. It was like, holy moly, couldn’t believe it. I kind of got my hands on them, helped out a few people and, man, I picked up a few and they never broke. So that’s kind of what my trademark is. …
Q: That fits your background. You were one of those guys who was very hands-on.
Nemechek: Oh, I’ve been hands-on my whole career. I’ve been building my own cars all my life and doing all these things. I know what it takes to let them go. We are on top of all the technology from helping my son to building parts and pieces for all the other NASCAR teams. It’s all right. We’re in good shape.
Q: When did you start racing these things?
Nemechek: I didn’t really start racing with them until the beginning of last year. And then I went undefeated for – I don’t know – 28 events or something that we ran last year. And last year I drove all kinds of different cars. It was fun. I’m telling you, on a normal weekend everyone comes and says, “Go drive my car and find out what’s wrong with it.” So I do a lot of that, diagnosing problems.
Q: What about coaching?
Nemechek: I also do that. Do it all.
I just have to manage my time. Because these events… I work on customer cars all the time I’m at home, so when I get to the track I have to work on my own personal stuff. It is difficult.
Q: In the era when you came through NASCAR, there were a lot of guys who considered the two road races a year a necessary evil. They would go there, but don’t like it. Where did you fit?
Nemechek: Oh, I like road racing. We are coming close to winning Watkins Glen (New York) and we are coming close to winning Sears Point (now Sonoma Raceway). The Busch cars and the trucks at Watkins Glen back in the day, we were on the pole all the time, we were leading races. … We’ve been riding well in road races, so these kind of fit.
But all these numbers are new. That’s all I ever did was Watkins Glen and Sears Point. And now we do everything. I went to Watkins Glen last year for an event and we’re coming back this year with the NASCAR race doing a support deal. We go everywhere from VIR (Virginia International Raceway) to Sebring to Road Atlanta. I had too much work this year so I didn’t make it… to Lime Rock. They ha
ve an event in New Jersey, we’ll see if we can make it. There are events all the time. It’s just trying to manage time.
Then I have to keep the shop running, because now there are only three of us. And we do all the work. So now we’re gone for a whole week, so nothing is being accomplished at the moment.
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This article originally appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: NASCAR’s Joe Nemechek races vintage cars at Road America