- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2021

At a race track in Salisbury, North Carolina, the grandfather gave some advice to his grandson ahead of the boy’s first go-kart race: Just focus on making laps. Feel out the track. Don’t — do not — get too aggressive. 

But sure enough, on the very first lap, the grandson peeled out and soon hit the kid in front of him — spinning both drivers out to the infield. 

As Joe Gibbs recalls this story, all these years later, he can’t help but laugh.

“I said, ‘So much for that,’” Gibbs said. “I spent two minutes talking to him and it didn’t make one impression on him.”

Still, that experience behind the wheel for Ty Gibbs, the now-18-year-old grandson of the former Redskins coach, proved invaluable. As Ty got back on the track, zipping around lap after lap, he felt a rush of adrenaline that would fuel the years ahead. 

The story sheds light on why Ty chose racing over football, how passion became a career and how a young man’s determination led to a NASCAR Xfinity Series win.

Last weekend, Ty became the youngest driver to win an Xfinity road race when he took first at Daytona International Speedway — doing so in his NASCAR debut, no less. The victory, even to the Gibbs, was unexpected, but earned shoutouts from the sport’s biggest names like Bubba Wallace and Kyle Busch. An emotional Ty afterward admitted he didn’t yet know how to do a burnout — a standard of NASCAR victory celebrations.

Saturday’s win was an introduction of sorts for Ty to the general public. Ty is the first of Gibbs’ eight grandchildren to join the NASCAR empire grandpa has built with Joe Gibbs Racing. And while the family business has dominated racing with other drivers, Ty could be the first Gibbs to enjoy the team’s success from behind the wheel. 

“Once I kind of figured out the harder I work at something the better I’ll be, after figuring that out, I was like, ‘Man, if I really put my mind to it, I could be the one of the best to ever do it,” Ty said. “I’ve had that mindset. … I’ve watched my family do it and I’ve watched the best athletes in the world have that same mindset.

“And it’s worked out for them.” 

From a racing family

In Washington, Gibbs will always be remembered for winning three Super Bowls and coaching the team across two stints. But for Ty, racing was just as much as part of his life as football when growing up.

Even before go-karts, Joe Gibbs remembers a seven-year-old obsessed with all sorts of bikes — BMX, mountain bikes, you name it.

“He was, right off the bat, into racing something,” Gibbs said. 

The family business, no doubt, played a factor. 

Launched in 1991, Joe Gibbs Racing has grown into one of the sport’s top companies, with Gibbs’ sons J.D. and Coy playing major roles. J.D., who died in 2019 after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease, helped expand the business. Coy, Ty’s father, was also a NASCAR professional, driving in the Craftsman Truck and Xfinity Series.

Ty was “always around the race shop,” Gibbs said. 

At 13, Ty was hitting the track six days a week to race go-karts, with Sunday the only day off.

He was obsessed with the late Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, watching clips of the Formula One legend’s races on YouTube. He pored over interviews, looking for any potential sliver of advice. He marveled at the way Senna, the middle child of a wealthy family, was able to make a name for himself and become “one of the best to ever do it,” Ty said. 

As Ty practiced, he focused on driving as many laps as possible. But there was something else about those days that Ty noticed: He was often the youngest competitor on the track. He began to realize he had a shot at making himself into one of the best.

The football factor

There’s another reason Ty pursued racing over football: His size. At 5-foot-9, he lacks the height of his grandfather and father, who each played the sport before coaching.

Undersized or not, Ty suited up — and he credits the game with fostering a toughness that helps him on the track.

Specifically, Gibbs said Ty loved to hit. He remembers how his grandson screamed when Coy, overseeing the defense for a youth league football team, put Ty at cornerback instead of safety. 

“He goes, ‘I want to play safety! I’m Sean Taylor!” Gibbs said with a smile, referencing the late Redskins safety. “What he meant was he wants to get in and hit people. Part of Ty’s background is he is aggressive. He goes hard, I’ll put it that way.” 

That mentality carried over to racing, where Ty has a regimented workout schedule to prepare for races. In his home, the driver has a race simulator that allows him to practice courses and model the flow of a race.  

Such devices have come in particularly handy during the pandemic as Ty wasn’t allowed to practice with the actual car he used in the Xfinity Series because of NASCAR’s COVID-19 restrictions. 

Just the beginning

Ty will be the first one to admit he didn’t think actually winning Saturday’s race was possible. Before the weekend, the highest level he had competed at was the ARCA Series — two tiers below the Xfinity Series, which is one below NASCAR’s elite Cup Series. 

But the win was the type of performance that puts someone like Ty on the map. Despite the name recognition of “Gibbs,” Ty wasn’t seen as a rising star in NASCAR before the weekend, Fox play-by-play man Adam Alexander said. 

Oftentimes, forecasting NASCAR’s next star can be difficult due to the unpredictable nature of the sport.

“He has set an incredible baseline,” said Alexander, who called Ty’s win. “What makes it difficult to project so hard to project what the future holds is he’s so young and so inexperienced, you just don’t know what to make of the success he’s had. … Now that he’s won like he did on Saturday, there’s a validation of his talent that makes you believe there could be some really big long-term opportunities.” 

Grandfather and grandson cautioned that more work will have to be done before Ty moves up to the top level. This week, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Ty would participate in 14 more races this year at the Xfinity level and continue his normal ARCA slate. 

There’s also the matter of balancing Ty’s personal life: He’s set to graduate high school in the spring. 

Ty, though, said he plans to put off college for now.

“A lot of sacrifices have been made for my dreams and my goals,” Ty said. “But this is what I’m willing to do.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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