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  • On the move with the ‘Melon Man’
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  • On the move with the ‘Melon Man’

On the move with the ‘Melon Man’

In the haze of a happy night, he forgot to bring the dogs to the party.

Ross Chastain remembered to do everything else after his first victory at Daytona International Speedway on July 5. Remembered to slow down and wait for his teammates on the victory lap. Remembered, in a live interview broadcast throughout the track, to mention that he’d grown up in Florida and dreamed of winning here since he was a boy, back when his dad Ralph brought him to this track on this weekend every summer. And of course, he remembered the most important part of all, to honor the 12 generations of farmers in his family by standing over the start-finish line and smashing a watermelon to pieces.

Now the hallmark of his victories, the celebration has made Ross “Melon Man” Chastain one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, even though he doesn’t compete for points in the sport’s premier series. The act, by itself, isn’t what connects with people. It’s how much he means it. You can see it in the way he clenches his arms, screams, and smiles toward heaven before tossing the watermelon toward pavement.

Matt Sullivan | Getty Images
Matt Sullivan | Getty Images

The ceremony is scripted, for sure — Ross’s dad jokes he can’t count the number of watermelons he carried around waiting for a big victory — but the emotion is honest, real, contagious. After his Xfinity Series victory in the dramatic, rain-delayed Firecracker 250 that night in Daytona Beach, Ross had the look of a man who couldn’t believe he was here, wasting perfectly good fruit.

The 26-year-old is as much a throwback to NASCAR’s past as he is a face of its future. He’s a reminder of the days when young men worked on their family farms during the week and drove on weekends. He’s earned a reputation for making the most out of every machine. He’s started races on scuffed tires and still finished in the top 10.

He’s endured more setbacks in the past year than some drivers will in a career. He lost his Xfinity ride this past December when the company sponsoring him pulled out amid an investigation into its business. He regrouped and found several teams to help him piece together a 2019 season across all three NASCAR national series — Monster Energy Series, Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Like the weather, his troubles usually are out of his control. Like a farmer, he adapts. And like so many people in his generation, he rides the gig economy, racing in any series, for any team, wearing any number.

 
 

In June, about a month before Daytona, he did something practically unheard of in NASCAR: He changed his points declaration midseason, from Xfinity to Gander Trucks. That left him two months, less than half a season, to collect at least one victory and enough points to earn a spot in the playoffs, which start tonight in Bristol — and which includes Chastain in its eight-driver field.

RELATED: Gander Trucks playoff field capsules

Anyone who shifts that much needs something steady for balance. After the celebration at Daytona, Chastain walked into his quiet trailer and found two constant companions — Copper, his Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Gizmo, his girlfriend’s chihuahua. They’ve spent the year traveling with him, through victories and wrecks and sponsorship changes.

Com Rc Watermelon
Graphic by NASCAR Creative Design

Copper’s mom wandered up to the Chastain family farm at Christmastime in 2015; she gave birth to a litter before the new year. Ross snagged one, named him, and took the pup back to Mooresville, North Carolina, where he’d moved to launch his racing career in 2011.

Now here the driver was, his dream of winning at Daytona achieved, his social media feeds blowing up with congratulations from childhood friends and Dale Earnhardt Jr. alike, and his rescue dog thoroughly unimpressed.

“He doesn’t care,” Chastain says, laughing. “Good or bad, he’s always there. And that’s what’s cool about him.”

Around 3 a.m., Chastain took Copper and Gizmo down the steps and out into the quiet and dark speedway. He knew he still had work to do. Heck, he knew he still had to compete in the Cup Series race later in the day.

But for just a few minutes on that early summer morning in his home state, the busiest driver in NASCAR slowed down and snapped a few pictures with his dogs in Victory Lane with no one else around.

JAYSKI: New sponsor for Chastain

•  •  •

If things had gone a different way, Chastain might be smashing oranges.

Before any of this, before a road-trip summer in which he’s won an eye-popping three Gander Trucks races and become a title contender, before the switching of the points and the loss of a sponsor, before he ever even won a short-track race, Chastain was the infant son of a citrus farmer who needed a break.

Ralph Chastain and his brother are 11th generation farmers, and at least the eighth to grow watermelons. Somewhere in the 1980s and early 1990s, they had a hankering to do something else and bought an orange grove near their watermelon farm in south Florida.

The Florida citrus industry was booming at the time, so the purchase seemed sensible. Besides, change is good, right?

“I don’t know what it is,” Ralph Chastain tells me one recent afternoon. “It seems most people, whatever they’re doing, they want to try something different.”

It seems most people, whatever they’re doing, they want to try something different.

Ralph and his brother quickly learned one major difference between watermelons and oranges — the time it takes to earn a living. Watermelons take only 100 days to grow. An orange grove doesn’t produce sellable fruit for at least five years.

In the winter of 1992, Ralph had a newborn son and a reason to earn money faster. He and his brother traded the orange grove for a piece of land with a big, steel building where they could resume packing watermelons. One hundred days after planting, they had cash in their pockets.

For a few years, they sold the melons out of trailers. Sometimes, a long-haul driver backed right up and took a whole truck box. Other times, the watermelons went one by one. Some just went to rot.

Ralph and his brother knew that to make their business work long-term in a changing economy, they needed a distribution strategy. They formed partnerships with other watermelon farmers up the East Coast, from South Carolina to New York. Together they’d buy and help move product throughout the spring and summer, as the watermelon harvest season moved north. Eventually, they were selling everything they grew, and business stabilized.

Ralph figured he’d eventually pass it on to his children.

Each day after school in the spring, Ross and his younger brother, Chad, went straight to the farm, and they worked until their dad took them home. Ross learned to drive a tractor and a forklift before he learned to drive a car.

Chad had his mind set on a career as a farmer from an early age. Ross’ future changed, though, when he was about 10 and Ralph took him down to the local race track in Punta Gorda. Ross glimpsed the speed and saw that the track offered programs to teach children to drive.

After that, racing was all he talked about.

• • •

A little more than a week after the Daytona race in July, Ross was traveling from Mooresville to Kentucky in his Chevy truck, with his girlfriend and their two dogs and a trailer with a golf cart.

It was the start of a month-long drive that would take them from Kentucky to New Hampshire to Pocono to Watkins Glen to Michigan and, eventually, Bristol.

I called Ross’ phone as they rolled into the Appalachian Mountains. I told him I’d found the first newspaper clipping where his name appears. It’s from the Fort Myers paper in December 2002, and it lists him as one of Bayshore Elementary’s Students of the Month.

“You hear that?” he said to his girlfriend. “Bayshore Elementary Student of the Month.”

His accomplishments have piled up in the years since then. In the process, some of his stories have been mistaken. Ross would like to clear up a few.

Chris Trotman | Getty Images
Chris Trotman | Getty Images

Several years ago, he gave an interview where he said his grandfather was a mechanic, and that made it from one story to the next, and somehow it grew into an accepted fact that Ross is a third-generation race car driver. In truth, the only racing his grandfather did was nighttime street-racing type of stuff when he was a teenager.

Another note that pops up in stories and Wikipedia is that Ross was a figure eight boat racer. Never happened, he says.

His ascent is fascinating without any embellishment. After that night in Punta Gorda when Ross begged his dad to let him drive, Ralph called a friend with an old racing truck that had been sitting idle for years. The friend let him have it. Soon the boy was beating more experienced drivers who had better equipment.

“When you get to the point where the competitors are trying to protest you and tear you down every night,” Ralph says, “that must mean you’re doing pretty good.”

The next time Chastain’s name appeared in a paper was five years later, in 2007, when he was 14 and won the Fast Kids field at the 25-lap JunkYard Dog feature race. Just about every clip after that involves something he did on the track.

His father went with him whenever he could, supported however he could, but still he saw farming in his son’s future.

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“It was like any other activity, I thought,” Ralph says. “To me it was something to stay busy during high school.”

By the time Ross graduated, they both knew he should keep racing. Instead of enrolling in colleges the following fall, Ralph and Ross took a trip to North Carolina and knocked on shop doors.

They’d formed a relationship with Todd Bodine, and he helped them set up meetings with owners. They had one thing on their side: The National Watermelon Association agreed to sponsor Ross for a few races. Eventually they met Stacy Compton, who let Ross run a truck for Turn One Racing in Indiana in the summer of 2011.

Quinn Harris | Getty Images
Quinn Harris | Getty Images

Even then, Ralph, always level-headed, kept his expectations on medium. Sure, he told Ross he could win. But in his mind, Ralph figured Ross would finish 25th or 30th and they’d go home.

Ross finished 10th in his first NASCAR race at age 18.

Eight years later, he still hasn’t gone home to Florida full time. The next year, he packed his diesel-powered Chevy 2500 and moved to Mooresville, where another friend of a friend, Ron Hornaday Jr., opened a room for him.

“I thought it was going to be like how some people go off to school and have a little life of their own for a little while before they get into the business,” Ralph says. “And here it is years later, and he’s made a career out of it.”

• • •

Ross was having a fantastic Saturday last December when his phone rang.

He’d eaten lunch with an old friend and talked about expectations for the 2019 season. He felt somewhat secure for the first time in his career after signing a season-long deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. He’d won an Xfinity Series race for the team — his first Xfinity victory in 132 career starts — in September 2018.

After lunch, Ross went home to work on dinner. He and his roommate, along with the roommate’s girlfriend, made plans to cook steaks. The salad was in the fridge and they’d just pulled the meat off the grill when the call came in.

The caller, who worked with Ross, told him to sit down. The bad news was that his sponsor had to pull out of the 2019 deal because of a legal issue with its business. The trouble was completely separate from the racing operation, but that hardly mattered: Ganassi would fold the race team for the season, and Ross suddenly didn’t have a place to drive in 2019.

“I never ate dinner that night,” he says.

He called his father the next day and went home to Florida. He spent the holidays asking himself and his family hard questions.

“Do we keep racing? Is there a reason to keep racing?” he recalls. “Why are we going to keep doing it? And they all thought there was a reason and I agreed with them. And January 2 headed back up to Charlotte to figure it out.”

Is there a reason to keep racing? … They all thought there was a reason and I agreed with them.

Ross embodies many of the characteristics of the generation of Americans that launched into the working world in the years after the 2008 financial collapse. Call them millennials, if you want a label, but one undeniable trait is that it’s a generation that works in the moment. They take opportunities as they come, and unlike previous generations, they hold little faith that those opportunities might last a lifetime.

When I ask Ross where he sees himself in five years, he laughs.

“Man, there’s no way to know that,” he says.

When I ask Ralph a similar question, he chuckles, too. If the past five years are any indication, he says, who the heck knows? It’s sort of like farming, Ralph says.

“When we leave the house in the morning, we have a general idea of what we’re going to do that day, but it can change three times in a day. Your whole goal is to do the best you can that day,” Ralph says. “Ross, his deals have mostly been just handshake deals. We’ll go race, and if it works out, then we’re gonna go race next week.”

There were times when they didn’t believe next week would happen.

Ross remembers one encounter with a crew chief and owner he held in high regard.

“They actually said, ‘Go back to the farm,’ ” Ross says. “At times I’ve thought the system was broken and (wonder), why am I even here?”

He was on the brink of giving up at least once, in 2014 and 2015, before he got what he calls his biggest break. Johnny Davis and Gary Keller of JD Motorsports gave him a team to join. He still credits them with saving his career.

To some degree they did it twice.

After that ruined that steak dinner last December, just a few weeks before the season started, JD Motorsports announced it would sign Ross for some of the Xfinity Series schedule.

Now, Ross’ website says he’s the busiest driver in NASCAR, and it’s no hyperbole. Earlier this year, he ran 36 consecutive races across the sport’s three national series, destroying the old record of 22, set by Kyle Busch in 2008. He did that while driving for a patchwork of teams — JD Motorsports and Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series, Niece Motorsports in the Gander Trucks and Premium Motorsports in the Cup Series.

He jokes that he’d like to get a hat made with all of his numbers on it, but he’s doing more than simply keeping busy. Learning, to him, is a survival instinct.

“Nobody wants to go qualify 33rd in a Cup race and go the whole first fuel run and be in 32nd. Nobody wants to do that. But my idea is, I had to,” he says. “I was able to meet people, stay relevant, and learn. I mean, every restart. You learn more restarting 30th in a Cup race than you do restarting on the front row of an Xfinity race.”

• • •

On Aug. 7, a little more than a week before the Gander Trucks Playoffs, Ross was high-tailing it out of the airport in Buffalo, New York.

He’d spent a couple of days in Mooresville after the Watkins Glen races, before taking an early-morning flight back to meet back up with his girlfriend and the dogs. (His girlfriend asked not to be named in this story.) They’ve been moving all summer, but they had one day, this one glorious free day, before going to Michigan. Then they’d be on to Bristol.

JAYSKI: Chastain weathers highs, lows

Sometimes, Ross wonders what a more conventional life might look like. He’s 26 now and compares himself to friends and family. His younger brother, Chad, for instance, is just 20 and already building a house and helping run the 400-acre farm.

“People I’ve met who are my age who, are so far ahead of me in life,” Ross says. “They have a house, have a family, have kids, have retirement plans. I don’t even know where you start one of those.”

If a day-to-day approach is ideal for any two professions, though, they’d probably be race car driver and farmer. In the Watkins Glen Xfinity race, Ross twice tangled with Justin Allgaier. Then, in the Gander Trucks race at Michigan in the last primer before the playoffs, Ross won the pole and led for 23 laps before a wreck on pit road ended his day.

I know you can’t win every race. But I want to try.

Ross knows that he could take a less-aggressive approach to the playoffs. After all, he already was locked into the field heading into Michigan. But he can’t imagine throttling back in any competition.

“The term ‘points racing,’ people still use it, and they find ways to justify running seventh with race-winning equipment,” he says. “I know you can’t win every race. But I want to try.”

Quinn Harris | Getty Images
Quinn Harris | Getty Images

Maybe that, more than any watermelon-smashing show, is what makes Ross Chastain so appealing to so many. He drives as if each race will be his last, as if he has no idea where his career will go or how it will end. And who among us hasn’t had the same questions?

We talked for a half-hour on his drive from the Buffalo airport that day, nearly a month after I started checking in with him and trying to track his whereabouts. The road trip, like all road trips, had odd moments. One day he took a Greyhound bus 150 or so miles from Watkins Glen to Ohio to run a dirt-track race because he didn’t want to pay for an expensive flight. His father picked him up there and drove him back to New York, only to get a flat tire a few miles from the track.

After that race, he flew back to North Carolina for two days, and now he was back in Buffalo. He was obviously eager to get to where he was going.

Before they would drive to Michigan, and then to Bristol, and then wherever it is this wild summer of 2019 might take them, he had this one day with his girlfriend and those two dogs who could care less whether he wins or loses in a race car. And the busiest man in NASCAR was off to spend it at Niagara Falls, sitting and watching the water rush over the cliffs.