Life in the fast lane

Ross Kenseth has perhaps the most interesting part-time job of any Clemson student.

During the week he is a typical 19-year-old undergrad, going to class by day, playing video games with buddies by night.

On weekends, Kenseth, the son of prominent NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth, drives late-model cars around bumpy quarter-mile tracks as a professional race car driver.

“It’s pretty tough,” Kenseth said of his schedule. “School is full-time gig, as well. I take a couple of math classes, physics. It’s pretty tough but pretty interesting. I just try to give my full attention to each thing while doing it.”

He chose Clemson over N.C. State for its engineering program.

If his dream of racing at the highest levels does not pan out, he hopes to be part of a NASCAR team.

And engineering degrees are now prerequisites in the sport.

But the dream is to land his own ride in the Sprint Cup Series — a dream he is chasing between classes at Clemson.

Kenseth has always been in a hurry.

He was 14 when his mother taught him to drive a stick shift in their subdivision in Appleton, Wis.

“I stalled it about two or three times,” Kenseth said, “but after that I got the hang of it.”

He races on a number of late-model circuits — the CRA Super Series, the ASA Midwest and Pro All Star Series — which are auto racing’s version of the minor leagues. And he has learned one of racing’s most valuable lessons — patience is the key to winning.

He learned that lesson during his first year of racing.

With three laps to go in a race, Kenseth was near the front of the pack when he made a risky pass attempt and misjudged the time and space required to make a successful maneuver. He ran out of room, was pushed off the track by an opponent and mangled his car. “The car was pretty torn up,” Kenseth said. “I think after that I realized how different I needed to be. After that race, I started winning a lot more and started tearing up a lot less stuff.”

Something dad had told him right from the start.

“To finish first, you first have to finish,” said Matt, who has been with the Roush team for 14 years. “It’s hard sometimes to bite your tongue, to not give too much advice.

“That’s the hardest part. One thing I’ve tried to pound into his head is I don’t like when he runs (too aggressively). I try to make it a non-contact sport. Pass people the right way, make your car faster than everyone else’s.”

It was a difficult first year in 2008, Kenseth’s first late-model tour. There were more crashes. More mangled cars.

“My dad kind of watched me struggle and watched me figure it out on my own,” Kenseth said. “The biggest thing this taught me is to be patient. You can’t win on the first lap. When I first started racing, we wrecked a lot of stuff. You live and you learn.”

Much has changed since his rookie year.

Kenseth won the late-model Big 8 Series title in 2009. He won the Rosebud 300 earlier this year in Anderson, Ind.

Kenseth grew up in Sprint Cup garages.

“I’ve seen all the work that goes into cars every week,” Kenseth said. “Not a lot of guys get to see that unless they are around it their entire lives.

“The engineers are more important than the drivers and the crew chiefs are. Usually the best car wins the race, not the best driver.”

When class is out in the summer, Kenseth spends seven days a week with his crew working in their garage in Charlotte. He has constructed cars from frame to finish.

“The most you learn is when you are working on cars in the summer,” Kenseth said. “Working in the shop with guys who know what they are doing. I think the most successful people in racing are the ones who can work on their cars and tell (their crew) what they need.

“Guys like Kyle Busch and my dad, who are really good each week, have that sense to call up their own adjustments and know what they need, and usually when they can figure that out they win a lot of races.”

Kenseth has proven to his team he can race. But there is still a cloud of NASCAR nepotism hanging over him.

To reach the top level in auto racing, Kenseth must secure sponsors and earn the trust of a team owner.

He can’t do that because of his name. He knows he needs to win races.

“Some people think stuff was just handed to (Ross) because of his last name,” said Kenseth’s crew member, Troy Smith. “It does motivate him. He understands the opportunity he has. He is humble about it. Obviously he can drive and his dad can drive. He has the right genes for doing that.”