Erik Jones on run-ins with Corey LaJoie, hunting and growing up in a small town: 12 Questions

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Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Legacy Motor Club’s Erik Jones, who is in his fourth season driving the No. 43 car. This interview has been condensed, but the full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. What is currently the No. 1 thing on your bucket list?

Last year, I would have told you it was skydiving. But I did that last year and knocked a big one off. I’ve gotten more interested in hunting, and I would love to go do a real backcountry hunt where you pack out for 10 days in the backcountry and tent camp. I would probably only want to do it one time, but that’s my hang-up right now on my bucket list. It’d be a day ride out on horseback. Even if you don’t get anything, it’d be an experience.

2. How much media coverage of NASCAR do you consume?

Probably more than I would like to admit. I stay up pretty good on it and what’s going on. It’s probably the most of what I consume compared to other sports media or even world news.

I can tell from your posts on X here and there that you’re chiming in on what’s going on.

I don’t always stay involved with posting all the time on what’s going on. But I usually stay pretty involved on what’s happening around the sport. Sometimes you feel like you want to disconnect, and it’s easy for a lot of guys to say, “I don’t look at anything.” But it’s almost detrimental in a way. You’ve got to stay involved in what you’re doing and even know what other guys are doing. You’ve got to know what’s going on in the sport.

3. Beyond winning, what is the best way to measure success in racing?

My opinion has changed greatly on this. Early in my career, it was 100 percent all about winning. If we weren’t winning, that was a failure. At that time in my life, I was probably scared of failure. I was worried about not winning and worried about not succeeding in Cup and making it in Cup.

That has changed as I’ve gone through different teams and performance levels in my career. The fear of failure naturally diminished through that, because I’ve been through a good chunk of failure in my life to this point.

Currently, my measure of success is year-to-year improvement. And that’s challenging when you go from 2022, to where we had a surprise year and win a race and very close to making the playoffs and then we go to 2023, and it’s totally the opposite, not in contention to win and a real down year.

So having those marked numbers in improvement has now been what I see as success in the situation I’ve been in, trying to build a team back.

4. What is an opinion you have about NASCAR that you don’t think is shared by the fans?

The one I see a lot is they’ll post a picture of a guy from the mid-’80s and I’ll go to the comments just to see what fans are saying and 90 percent of them are like, “Ain’t nothing like these crybabies today out there.” Or “These boys today, they couldn’t hang with them.” It drives me nuts.

It’ll be like Alan Kulwicki reading a set of plugs or something, and they’re like, “These guys today, they don’t even know what he’s holding in his hand.” And it’s like, “Well, where do you think we came from?” I would say 90 percent of the guys in the field grew up working on their own cars and doing maintenance on their cars, setting them up and doing all that. We worked just as hard to get to this point and be here as what those guys did.

For sure it’s different now, but it’s not that much different where we’re like this gentrified group of drivers in the Cup Series who don’t know a thing about the car.

5. What is the biggest thing fans don’t realize about what you do for a living?

The grind of it. I meet people in life who are fans of the sport but have never really known anyone in the sport. And then they see into my life a little bit, and they get a taste of the schedule and the travel and maybe they come and spend a weekend at the track with me and see what it’s really like when you’re in there. And man, the grind of it is not as glamorous as what people think.

It’s easy to say from the 100-foot view, “Man, that guy has got it great.” And for sure, we have a really good life. We get to go drive race cars, we get paid well to do it, and we get to do a lot of cool things. But man, 38 weeks on the road, the time away from home, traveling back and forth — it’s a lot on yourself, on your personal relationships, the strain of the team relationship from you to them — especially when performance is tough.

And I don’t want this to come off as complaining. I’m not. It’s how the job is, and it’s what I wanted to do. But it is a lot different than maybe what it looks from the outside.

6. For this question, I’m asking each person about something current related to themselves. You just had your honeymoon, I understand. You went to Switzerland, Greece and Italy. How would you rank them in terms of which one you’d want to live in?

My favorite place we went and visited was easy: That was Venice, but I would not want to live in Venice. Outside of Zurich had some awesome rural communities in the countryside. We went from Zurich to Lake Lucerne, which was maybe an hour away, and in between there were some just awesome little towns, and I would 100 percent be able to live in one of those places. Great scenery, mountains are kind of an hour away. City was the other way, so you’re right in between. I like the climate; I like having a winter and summer. I don’t want summer all year. I don’t really want winter all year.

7. This is a wild-card question. I heard you went mountain-lion hunting in Idaho. Personally, if there was a mountain lion and I was anywhere near that area, I’d be going the opposite way. You’re like, “No, I’m gonna go in there and try to get it.” Can you explain what that experience is like?

It was incredible. … I’d never been to some of the Western states — Dakotas, Montana, anywhere out there. We drove out there, and we get to Idaho, and I see it for the first time. I’m like, “Wow.” You’re driving on these little narrow logging roads, and at first, it was freaking me out. It was covered in snow and these roads are really narrow and you’re on these steep cliffs. …

But yeah, incredible animals. Learning about them and their habits and what they do and how vicious they are. They’re solitary animals. They live their whole life by themselves.

Our guide was a big Ryan Blaney fan. We had radios and our channel number was 12. He has a boombox he uses to listen to SiriusXM and listens to the race every Sunday. So that was pretty cool.

… Hunting, for people who haven’t done it, it’s not really always about the hunt. That’s obviously what we go there to do, but the experience of spending time with people you know and also meeting new people through it at camp is almost bigger than the hunt itself.

Erik Jones

“It’s different now,” Erik Jones says of today’s era, “but it’s not that much different where we’re like this gentrified group … who don’t know a thing about the car.” (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

8. What do you like about the place you grew up? Byron, Michigan.

I love it. I actually have a place there now that I bought almost two years ago. I get up there as much as I can. It’s challenging with the season, but I spend my winters up there a lot of the time.

I appreciate it more a lot now than I ever did. When I was a kid, I wasn’t in a hurry to leave, but I wanted to get to Charlotte and I wanted to be around racing and be a part of the scene. As the years clicked by, after my first couple of years in Cup, you start missing home. I started spending more time in the offseason back there.

When you talk about small town, most people think, 5,000 or 10,000 people, right? Our small town is 400 or 500 people. Just seeing all the people you grew up with, literally everybody knows everybody. That’s good and bad in some ways. But the support they’ve brought on in racing — every time we go back there for the Michigan race, they do a cool little sendoff in town where they bring the fire department in and send us off on race day morning. I stay back there during the Michigan race weekend and drive in on the race days (it’s approximately 90 minutes from the racetrack).

I’ve just come to love the quietness of it and the slow pace. It’s 20 minutes to the grocery store. You go back there, and it’s just quiet and relaxing and people don’t know how to really find you sometimes. You can kind of get off the grid for a minute and just relax.

9. What personality trait are you the most proud of?

I’m a very genuine person, and probably to a fault at times. In racing, there’s a lot of times you’ve got to build relationships that sometimes you don’t always want to. I just have honestly never been great at going in and trying to do the whole glad-hand thing and foster those relationships and grow them and get them better. And it has hurt me at times.

But I’m proud of the fact I’m genuine and do it my way and am who I am.

10. Which driver would you least like to be stuck with on an elevator?

Probably Chase Briscoe. I really don’t know him at all, to be honest. We may have a ton in common; I have no idea. But just trying to start a conversation while being stuck on an elevator would be challenging, because I don’t know him at all. So that would be the guy to pick.

That’s random. I would have thought at some point you guys would have crossed paths.

Yeah, it’s weird. I honestly never have spoken maybe more than five words to him. So it’d be an awkward conversation. We’d probably get along fine, but I just don’t know him.

11. What is a run-in you’ve had with a driver that TV or media missed?

Man, Corey LaJoie and I went back and forth for years. The media kind of caught onto some of it because Corey has his podcast and said it. I think we’re OK now. We’ve been racing each other good since Michigan last year. But they did miss a lot of it on the track because honestly, we were battling farther back. It’s not like we were having run-ins running in the top five; we were running like 20th and putting each other in bad situations.

There was a good two-year stretch of it, and I don’t know really where it stemmed from. Probably a lot of it is because we were racing each other a lot in similar equipment for 20th. And that’s not a fun place to be racing in the Cup Series for multiple reasons. So it went back and forth for a long time, just running into each other and putting each other in bad spots.

Finally, last year it came to a head at Atlanta in the summer race. He ended up getting turned around and it was kind of a racing deal. I was coming up the hill, he was coming down the hill and he ended up getting the worst of it. He spun out and wrecked and he saw me on pit road and he said, “You’ve got one coming” or something like that. And I just stopped him and told him what I thought about the last few years. Like, “Hey man, this has been going on this long and I’m just tired of it.” We had a conversation there for a couple of minutes and I think we saw where we both stood. And ever since then, it’s been good.

12. This is awkward, but each week I ask a driver to give me a question for the next person — and the last interview was with Corey LaJoie. I promise this is a complete coincidence how I scheduled these. But his question for you was “Do you know any good elevator mechanics?” because he picked you for his elevator question.

(Laughs) I almost picked him for my elevator answer! I don’t know any good elevator mechanics, but I did almost pick him for the elevator question as well. But we’ve been on better terms lately, so I skipped him for that.

Do you have a question I can ask the next person? It’s Jesse Love.

How has the transition been to the Xfinity Series so far? Do you feel like you have more responsibilities than before, and what’s more challenging about it?

(Top photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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