I interviewed NASCAR’s driver No. 17, Matt Kenseth, during the Sprint All-Star race in Charlotte, North Carolina. We talked inside the very shiny 18-wheeler truck that shuttles No. 17 racecars around the NASCAR circuit all over the USA. (Incidentally, Cowboy, the truck’s driver slash chef, is the only guy I spoke to in Charlotte who didn’t pretend he didn’t know what Playboy was. Props, dude!)
Matt Kenseth has won both the 2009 and the 2012 Daytona races — the 2012 Daytona was the 22nd cup race of Kenseth’s career. He came in third at the Sprint All-Star race later that night, following Brad Keselowski in second place, and Jimmie Johnson in first.
The Smoking Jacket: I’ve never been to a racetrack before, and the thing that surprised me most when I got here was how sharply angled the track is at the turns. What does it feel like to drive on such sharp slants?
Matt Kenseth: Actually when you’re on the track, you’re going so fast you don’t really notice.
TSJ: Do you go faster?
MK: Oh yeah, a lot faster.
TSJ: Like how fast?
MK: We average over 190. Average.
TSJ: How do you go back to driving a regular car after hitting those kinds of numbers?
MK: It’s actually really easy, because whenever we drive home we’re all stuck in traffic, so we go from doing like 200 to doing 2.
TSJ: Traffic? Wait a second. What about getting helicoptered in and out of the racetrack? I mean that’s what I heard — that you guys all get direct home to race helicopter service to avoid the crowds.
MK: Well, here we drive home. I haven’t done the helicopter in years. So I’m sitting in traffic with everyone else. I don’t like helicopters.
TSJ: I saw you do your practice laps today, what’s the difference between the practice run and the actual race? Specifically, is there a difference between racing during the day and racing at night?
MK: One of the interesting things about this is that we practiced yesterday afternoon at one thirty, and we race at 9:30 tonight, and this track, probably more so than any track on the circuit changes from day to night.
TSJ: How so?
MK: Mainly the grip level, and sometimes the balance of the car will change a little.
TSJ: Is that because of the heat on the track?
MK: Yeah, the heat on the track. Like yesterday practiced for qualifying and we ran a 29-second lap, and last night qualifying we had an almost 28-second lap.
TSJ: How does the Sprint All-Stars race prepare you for the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend?
MK: Mainly we get learn a lot of things racing at night, because for next week’s race there’s no practice at night. So we’ll get a lot of information that way that we’ll use for next week, for the longest race of the season.
TSJ: Do you prefer driving at night or during the day?
MK: I like them both. I like the Saturday night [race] — the excitement. Saturday nights, fans come out and they can do whatever they want all night and they have all day to get home. Seems like a nice night. Once the race starts you don’t really notice, but pre-race, driving around seeing all the people and the excitement for the race certainly gets you inspired.
TSJ: What does it feel like to drive for crowds of over 100,000 people?
MK: I’m kind of used to it, but for sure that was one of the most intimidating things when I got to this level, walking around and seeing all the people. It’s pretty crazy.
TSJ: How hot does it get inside the cars?
MK: Generally, on a day race, it usually gets thirty to forty degrees hotter than what it is outside.
TSJ: That’s really hot.
MK: Yeah, it gets really hot. You just sit in there and sweat.
TSJ: What do you get up to the day after a race?
MK: Tomorrow I’m actually taking a couple of buddies of mine and I’m going to rope them into finishing my kid’s playground. That’s what we’re doing. A friend of mine came down from Wisconsin to help me and I have a couple of other friends up, and we’re gonna go finish the playground. I promised them free beer if they helped.
Follow Matt Kenseth on Twitter here.
Be sure to tune in to watch the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 27, live on FOX at 5:30 p.m. ET.
Photos: Worldwide Copyright ©2012 Action Sports Photography, Inc. — at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Additional photography by Frederik Byrn Køhlert.