Noah Gragson speaks on the road ahead after NASCAR suspension for racially-insensitive social media post


It’s cliché but Noah Gragson has learned a lot about himself and the world around him the past four months. So much of his life this past decade has solely revolved around living as fast as possible that it simply took slowing down for him to realize it.

Gragson was suspended by NASCAR and Legacy Motor Club on August 5 after it surfaced that he had liked a post on Instagram that made light of the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Within the next week, the 25-year-old and team had parted ways with Gragson stating an intent to make his “family, team and fans proud of (him) again.”

In order to be eligible for a comeback, Gragson would need to undergo a NASCAR mandated sensitivity program (RISE). It was completed before Sept. 12 when he successfully applied for reinstatement.

“I was quite frankly uneducated and just ignorant,” Gragson told Sportsnaut on Wednesday during opening day for the Snowball Derby. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of different people, put in a lot of time and effort to learn and understand things that I just didn’t know anything about.”

Gragson has lived a full-send life for over a decade now, having raced since the age of 13, with a reputation for being singularly focused on driving race cars and having a good time. Gragson said he has lived with blinders over things happening around him “in the real world,” leading to a lack of empathy.

“The RISE program, they really took me step-by-step and allowed me to ask questions about things that I didn’t understand,” Gragson said. “Five years from now, whenever from now, this will be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

“To be able to educate myself and learn, to become more open-minded, and I really was so closed-minded, selfish and didn’t really take time to understand what other people were going through or their situations.”

What Noah Gragson learned after NASCAR suspension

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Gragson says he recognizes that he is generally “energetic” and “high-strung” and that the past four months has just taught him to be a better listener. He says he has really enjoyed this experience, “pushing (himself) to be more educated and open-minded” and that there is still a long way to go.

He doesn’t view that goal as being accomplished simply because he completed the program. Now he wants to apply those standards to his everyday life.

For Gragson, personal improvement doesn’t simply mean the things he embraced from the RISE program but also eliminating bad habits from a work-life balance standpoint. He credits a lot of that growth to his sports psychologist.

“My routine the past seven years has been going to the shop on Monday and Tuesday, workout days, my sim practice, all that,” Gragson said. “I kind of neglected my personal life and my personal habits being so focused on work.

“Another thing I’ve learned the past handful of months is just trying to find balance. I don’t know that I would use the word ‘relaxing’ but this time has allowed me a lot of time to self-reflect. It’s given me the space to build better personal habits, start working with a sports psychologist.

“That’s been good for me; ‘good habits, good results’ is something we talk about every week.”

Gragson has picked up a new hobby in reading for at least 30 minutes a day. It slows him down, makes him more introspective and allows him to create a healthy space outside of motorsports.

At the same time, it’s one thing for Gragson to talk about balance and good habits right now but another to apply those lessons during the grind of a full racing season.

“Definitely, and that’s something we’ve worked on,” Gragson said of his psychologist. “Like you said, it’s easy now when we don’t have a lot going on but if we get back on the race track, we need to build those consistent habits and find balance.

“So, in addition to working towards being more open-minded, this year has also been about work-life balance, home-life balance, relationships and managing those things better. It’s always been racing, racing, racing and I have not been present in my personal life in the ways that I’ve needed to be.”

Gragson also needed time to heal.

Rough rookie season for Noah Gragson

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Last year was not the Cup Series rookie campaign he had envisioned when signing with Petty GMS Racing the summer before. The company underwent a restructuring when Jimmie Johnson bought into the company and spearheaded its rebranding into Legacy Motor Club.

At the time, Gragson felt like he had backed into a “jackpot” of an opportunity going from a fringe contender to a team now associated with the lofty expectations of a seven-time Cup Series champion. It quickly unraveled.

In 21 starts, Gragson was 33rd in the standings with a 28.2 average finish at the time they parted ways.

“We had all the pieces of the puzzle but we just couldn’t put them together,” Gragson said. “I could have applied myself better and there were areas where the whole company could have been better, right? I don’t know that there was one thing that made it not work out but I’ve learned through this process that maybe this atmosphere might not have been right for me and the things I need. But I also needed to be a better leader, step up and overcome whatever things a team might be faced with and I think I understand better now what it means to be a leader.

“I thought I knew what being a leader was. It’s easy when things are going well, and you’re winning races like we did in 2022, and leadership is what you do when things aren’t going well.”

Gragson was visibly miserable last year. He would walk around the garage with sunken eyes and a weighted posture. He uncharacteristically crashed himself five times over those 21 starts.

“I took all this confidence I had in 2022, and when you have challenges, you start to second guess yourself,” Gragson said. “You lose confidence. I started to change my process. I worked my tail off for a month and I’m finishing 29th, 30th, 31st and I don’t know up from down.

“Then I try to get out the golf clubs and clear my head, work out, and the results are the same. It got to the point where, why keep working my tail off and physically and emotionally wear myself out if the results were the same? I know that’s not the right approach, and that things take time, and you have to stick to the process but I always ride the peaks and valleys. A lot of people say you have to stay centered but I’m an emotional guy and the highs are high and my lows are really low.”

It certainly didn’t help that the team was undergoing that shift from Petty GMS to Legacy and then Chevrolet to Toyota with a rookie driver in a second-year car.

“Myself, personally, I feel like I drive at 80 percent when the car is really good,” he said. “And I felt like I was driving at 120 percent this year and when you do that, you’re stepping over the edge.

“I wrecked a lot, had a horrible year and I will be the first person to say it wasn’t working. At the same time, I feel like I learned a lot from the opportunity. You can learn from the smartest guys in the room and you can learn from being the biggest idiot on what to do and not to do.”

Noah Gragson’s road ahead after hitting ‘rock bottom’

noah gragson

Gragson isn’t talking about next year beyond saying he hopes to prove himself worthy of an opportunity. Right now, he’s focused on the Snowball Derby, the biggest Super Late Model race of the year and one he won back in 2018.

“It’s the biggest win of my career,” he said.

That’s coming from a guy that’s won at Daytona International Speedway and has a combined 15 victories across the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series.

“It’s just, I got a text from Dale Jr. and that blew my mind, and then we come back for our next start and we missed the race,” he said. “I had to walk two miles because we DNQd and didn’t have a parking pass, three hours before the race.

“Watching it from that perspective made me realize how special this race is, how special it was beyond just me wanting to win it from behind the wheel. That’s why it’s my favorite race.”

What Gragson would offer about his future is that he views this past summer as “a wake-up call,” a “kick in the nuts,” and “rock bottom.” He doesn’t ever want to put himself in that position ever again. He enjoys racing so passionately but he wants to prove himself worthy of the fanbase and responsibility that comes with being a NASCAR driver.

“It’s been uncomfortable at times,” Gragson said. “There have been some challenges this year but I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. I don’t know that I would change anything that has happened because I have learned from it and it gives me a chance to be a better person.

“In life, you either win or you learn, on and off the racetrack. The wins have been great but you learn through the hardships and defeats. I am grateful to have good people around me and I’m working really hard every day to hopefully get a second chance and to make the most of it.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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