ELKHART LAKE — With three Xfinity Series wins already this season, including the last race in Atlanta, John Hunter Nemechek is far more likely than his father to be on the minds of a current-gen NASCAR fan.
But you can still find “Front Row Joe” at the racetrack. In fact, he’s busier than ever, working on vintage race cars and driving his own familiar No. 87 car, a 2007 Toyota Camry NASCAR, as well as whatever a client or friend will offer.
The 59-year-old Lakeland, Florida native won the 1992 championship and was twice voted the most popular driver in what was then the Busch Series. He made more than 1,200 NASCAR starts from 1989 to 2020 in all three National Series with four Cup Series and 16 Xfinity Series wins, as well as a total of 28 poles.
This weekend he’s at Road America, taking part 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 spoke about his relatively new passion for racing and a big dream he has for the future with his son.
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Q: Do you have fun doing this stuff?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It’s awesome.
Q: How much do you make?
Nemechek: I race every chance I get and I drive whatever I can drive. It’s been a cool couple of years, from racing old ’69 Camaros and Mustangs and big fat muscle cars to prototypes. I drive everything and have fun.
Q: How does a guy who spends his life racing decide that his life after racing is more racing?
Nemechek: It’s a good question. But right now our company, NEMCO Motorsports and Nemechek Motorsports Engineering, we’re restoring all these old stock cars and making them run fast and good and do whatever you want them to do for customers. We’ve probably done 15 or 20 now and the customers are happy, the gear is running well and everything is going fast.
Q: Do you buy old items, repair them and sell them?
Nemechek: They buy it or make me go buy it, or I have like 50 in the warehouse waiting to come out. Trying to get rid of it all.
Q: Of the cars you’ve had the opportunity to drive in recent years, what have you enjoyed the most?
Nemechek: Man, they’re all fun. … They are so much fun. The brakes aren’t very good on them. All. You have to lead them.
Right now all I drive is (stock cars). The prototype guys didn’t come and asked me to drive.
Q: But you have, in competition?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I have to drive at night in Sebring (Florida). The first night pass in a prototype. Ass hauled.
Q: If 59-year-old Joe Nemechek had told your 29-year-old version that one day you would do 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 felt like I would never get the chance to do this. Yeah, heck. One of these times, I hope my son, when he gets some of his stuff figured out, so hopefully we can do 24-hour errands or things like that. I would have fun doing that.
I love to race, man. I will drive anything. It does not matter.
Q: But a 24-hour race…?
Nemechek: Oh, yes, you need co-pilots. But yes, I completely agree.
Nemechek: Everywhere. Never mind.
Q: Le Mans?
Nemechek: Oh yeah. Everywhere. It’s perfect.
Q: What is your identity now? Are you Joe Nemechek the vintage racer, the ex-NASCAR guy, or the father of John Hunter?
Nemechek: Yeah…I am all of the above. But my biggest thing right now is the former NASCAR driver who is an engineer who knows how to take a stock car, put them together right, make them go fast, drive right and not break.
This is the key to vintage racing. These people spend a lot of money to come to the track and they have to race all weekend. When I first came here, man, everyone was cracking up. It was like, Holy Moly, I couldn’t believe it. I kind of got my hands on it, helped out a few people and, man, picked up a bunch of them and they never broke down. It’s kind of my trademark. …
Q: This matches your background. You were one of those very practical guys.
Nemechek: Oh, I’ve been involved my whole career. I’ve been building my own cars all my life and doing all of that stuff. I know what it takes to make them go away. We are up to date on all the technology from helping my son and building parts and pieces for all the other NASCAR teams. It’s perfect. We are in shape.
Q: When did you start flying these things?
Nemechek: I only really started riding them at 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 I was driving all kinds of different cars last year. It was fun. I’m telling you, on a normal weekend, everyone comes, says, “Go drive my car and find out what’s wrong.” So I do a lot of that, diagnose problems.
Q: How about coaching?
Nemechek: I do that too. Does everything.
I just have to manage my time. Because these events… I work on customer cars all the time I’m at home and so when I get to the circuit I have to work on my personal stuff. It is difficult.
Q: Back when you came through NASCAR, there were a lot of guys who viewed the two road races a year as a necessary evil. They would go there, but not like this. Where did you find your place?
Nemechek: Oh, I love road racing. We are close to winning Watkins Glen (New York) and we are close to winning Sears Point (now Sonoma Raceway). Busch cars and trucks at Watkins Glen back then, we sat on the pole all the time, we drove races. … We raced well in road racing, so that kind of integration.
But all these tracks are new. That’s all I’ve done is Watkins Glen and Sears Point. And now we do everything. I went to Watkins Glen last year for an event and will be back this year with NASCAR racing with 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 couldn’t make it… to Lime Rock. They have an event in New Jersey, let’s see if we can make it. There are events all the time. It’s just trying to manage time.
Then I have to run the store because there are only three of us there now. And we do all the work. So now we are gone for a full week, so nothing is accomplished yet.