Six Pack of Pop: John Calipari
July 03, 2013, Staff report, NASCAR.com
Perhaps the most famous person in the Bluegrass State, University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari led the Wildcats to their eighth national championship in the 2011-12 season. One of only two coaches to direct three different programs to the NCAA Final Four, “Coach Cal” visited Kentucky Speedway, where he was slated to drive the pace car prior to the track’s Sprint Cup Series event.
How do you feel about driving the pace car?
This is a special day. To drive the pace car, I’m just worried about screwing this thing up. I thought I’d have to go 80 or 90 mph, and I thought, ‘I got no shot.’ Then they told me 45 mph, I thought, ‘I can do that. I can do 45 mph.’ But it’s a thrill. With the NASCAR fans, to be able to do that, is really big for me.
Did Kurt Busch take you for a spin?
What happened was, we came early and Kurt Busch took us out in that pace car. We went 90, 95. It was raining, and he talked and looked around the whole time. I’m white-knuckled, I’ve got two feet through the floor boards. I thought we were going to slide. He said, ‘You kind of glide up to the wall.’ I thought we were sliding up into the wall. He said, ‘You want to go one more?’ ‘No, that was good. That was good. Just pull this thing over.’ So when they told me 45 (mph), I’m good with 45. And Kurt thought we were going like a turtle. I said, ‘You really go this fast with this rain?’ He said, ‘Ah, we’re going like a turtle right now.’ Those guys are brave and they’re skilled and they’re quick-twitch, and they react. It was fun to be out there.
Have you ever been to a NASCAR race before?
I’ve been to some NASCAR down in Charlotte, and I’ve been to one other race here, so yeah, I’ve been to them. It’s neat. It’s a neat deal. What makes it nice is, you’ve got people who come the whole week. And they’re here, and they’re with families, and it’s a big deal. These drivers understand what they mean to the fans, and they’re great about it. So it’s a great thing.
Didn’t you ask for a NASCAR jacket before you agreed to drive the pace car?
I said, ‘If you want me to drive the car officially, I want you to make me a jacket.’ And so they made me a jacket, and I gave them some ideas of what we wanted on it. They came up and designed what we wanted on it, and left space for the drivers to sign it. … So I’m going to drive in it, and then you know what I’ll do, I’ll auction it off and the money will go to charity.
Were you really scared going that fast with Kurt?
When he was going 90 and 100 in that rain, saying ‘These grooves are great,’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I had my one arm on the mirror grabbing it, and my other hand was on the window. He was flying. I mean, these guys are used to it, but he was going fast. And it was raining. I’m like, ‘These tires, are they going to slide here?’
Do you have a favorite NASCAR driver?
Back in the mid-90s, Jeff Gordon and I, we did some stuff together. ‘Refuse to Lose.’ Ray Evernham had the Rainbow Warriors back then, if you remember. Ray Evernham had ‘Refuse to Lose,’ and they asked me if they could use it back then. I was at UMass and said, ‘Absolutely, but -- I’ve got to come and meet you.’ I just went and saw Jeff, and looked at him. He’s got a little gray now, and I’m looking at him saying, ‘I’m gray, you’re gray, you remember how long ago that was?’ And he remembered the year. He had just started in ’93 ….. It was ’94, ’95 when it was ‘Refuse to Lose.’ And he went from being booed everywhere, like booed, to now, where everybody knows how good he is, and some other people have taken on that mantle.