After 40 years of racing, A.J. Sanders has achieved everything he ever wanted on the race track.
“I’ve done everything I possibly can do in local racing like this that a person could dream of doing,” Sanders said.
There’s no question: Sanders would like to add another national title to his resume.
“This year, we’re trying for it,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to get enough races to be able to do it. Hopefully we can maybe get into the top three. I’d love to win it, but hopefully we get into the top three in the national and win the regional and be able to go to the banquet.”
Sanders started racing when he was 13. His dad was also a long-time racer, competing until he was 71.
“I’ve had a NASCAR license for a long time, ever since I was able to get them,” Sanders said. “I wanted to do it at 13, and my dad built me a car and said, ‘Here we go.’ We raced against each other.”
Just like how he started racing with his dad, Sanders now goes racing with his own sons. His two oldest both race. His middle son, Stephen also competes in Stadium Stocks at Bowman Gray.
Sanders’ youngest son, Blaze, is his spotter. Blaze is believed to be the youngest regular spotter at Bowman Gray, calling races for his dad despite the fact he’s just 12.
“He’s good,” Sanders said of his youngest son. “That’s all he knows. Since he was a baby, he’s been at the race tracks.
“It’s great because it keeps your family together; it’s kept my whole family together. We know where each other’s at every week, and we’re together, we’re having a good time, and we enjoy it. We get to spend quality time at the track.”
Sanders has seen a lot of changes in racing over the last four decades. He tries to maintain the old school, blue collar way of driving, working on the car and funding everything himself. He’s passed that mentality down to his sons, too.
“I see the young kids nowadays come into the sport, and they don’t work on their cars and they don’t really appreciate what they have like the older racers do,” he said. “They don’t know what it is to struggle. I think a kid should struggle just a little bit to appreciate the wins and championships he gets later.
“You’ve got to be able to work on your car. You need to know what the car is doing when it does something to be able to fix it. You can’t just come in and say, ‘I don’t know, it made a noise,’ or, ‘I don’t know, it’s doing this.’ You need to know how to adjust the car or what to do to it, and the only way you’re going to know that is to have your hand in working on the car. And I think that makes a better racer is the ones who know how to work on their own stuff and come in and make those adjustments.”
It could be that old school mentality that has made Sanders a fan favorite at Bowman Gray. He’s also known for giving away his winners caps and even trophies to young fans after races, and he’ll typically leave his car out after races so others can look at it.
“They’re standing there looking at the car. I say, ‘What are you looking at it for? Get in it!” he said. “And they look at you and their eyes get bigger than their head.”
His biggest joy is passing his love of racing to the next generation.
“When you have kids come to you after the race and say, ‘I really love watching you race,’ or parents come down and say it, I get more out of watching the fans enjoy you. I try to represent myself well for the fans and kids, because that’s the future is the kids.”
With a full-time job as a truck driver, Sanders typically only gets about one day a week to work on his car. He relies on a lot of help from friends and family to be race-ready.
That’s why he works so hard to give back to those who have helped him for so many years, whether that’s those who support him in the pits, at home, or from the stands.
“I’ve always said the driver gets all the glory at the end of the night when he pulls into Victory Lane, but that’s not where it’s at,” he said. “It’s all the people that help you around you… It’s at team effort all the way around.”
Sanders said he may have to step away from his own racing if Blaze gets to the point where he’d like to get behind the wheel. Until then, he’ll be at the track as often as possible, chasing wins and adding more and more achievements to his resume.
“I’ve also put in a lot for this sport in 40 years,” he said. “If you take a man who’s done something 30 or 40 years, he’s sacrificed a lot to be able to do that. That’s where it gets overlooked sometimes… It’s a lot of dedication, a lot of all-nighters to make this work.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I tell people I’m a very lucky man to do what I do and how I do it.”