Born Behind the Wheel

Ryan’s ¼ Midget Start

To say that Ryan Newman was born behind the wheel of a race car isn’t much of an exaggeration. He walked into his first day of kindergarten with a full season of racing already under his belt, and has been nonstop ever since. Ryan has been racing—and winning—for 35 of his 39 years. His career took off at the distinguished age of 4½, in a quarter-midget car he helped his father build in the family’s South Bend, Indiana auto repair shop. “I don’t remember my first race,” Ryan tells us, “but I do remember my first autograph. I was in the pits after a race, and a fellow asked for my autograph. I asked my dad, ‘what do I do?’, and dad told me, ‘just write your name, son.’”

Ryan’s raced his quarter-midget, around 1/20th mile “bull ring” dirt tracks, wringing all the speed he could from its single-cylinder 120cc engine. The tiny tube-framed racer may seem a world away from the 725-horsepower Chevrolet SS stock car that Newman races today, but Ryan never lost the competitive spirit he forged as a child fighting for pole positions on county fair racetracks across Indiana.

The racing life was in his blood. “Racing has been pretty thick in my family, even before I was born. My parents went to Darlington Raceway for their honeymoon, and my grandfather helped build the South Bend Motor Speedway.” In elementary school, Ryan’s weeks revolved around Sunday. “We’d leave Friday after school, qualify on Saturday, race on Sunday and come home Sunday night. I’d do my homework in the motorhome on the drive back,” he says.

Ryan’s father was the motivating force behind his early success on the racetrack.  “For me, I was just a kid getting to do what I loved,” he explains, “but my father, he had to sacrifice.” Ryan remembers the long hours after work in his father’s shop, preparing the car for Sunday. Sometimes, family friends would step in to help the team make a race. “On occasion, one of my father’s friends would loan him a gas card so we could get to the event. People who are willing to help out like that are special. You don’t find them every day.”

Moving Up to Midget Racing

At age 16, Ryan graduated to a full-size midget car in the All-American Midget Series, a 400-horsepower cherry red racecar that he ran on quarter and half-mile dirt tracks around the Midwest. Ryan took the circuit by storm, winning both Rookie of the Year honors and taking home the series championship in his debut season. By his senior year, he was racing for the USAC National Championship.

Ryan may have moved to the main event, but his father’s shop was still the heart of the operation. “My dad and I rebuilt the first midget together,” he says of the racer that now sits in the garage of his Statesville, North Carolina home. “I cherish that memory.”

Moving to the National Stage

A college education may not be a requirement for most NASCAR drivers, but Ryan’s mother was determined that her son would earn his degree. So after graduation, Ryan enrolled in Purdue University and began the rigorous coursework for an engineering degree in Vehicle Structural Engineering.

Not that he ever stopped racing. In fact, Ryan ran in 55 USAC races during his freshman year. Balancing the demands of the racing life with his education required discipline. “I never attended a sporting event, never went to a single party—I was entirely focused on my work, and spent every weekend at home working on the cars. It was always non-stop racing. I knew I could retake a class if I needed to, but that race—my chance at the trophy— would only come once.”

At the end of his freshman year, Ryan had his chance to race on the national stage when he qualified for the 52nd “Night Before the 500”, a nationally televised USAC event at Lucas Oil Raceway held the night before the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR legends like Jeff Gordon and Ken Schrader have won the event in past years, and the starting grid that night featured reigning USAC National Midget Series champion, Kenny Irwin. Ryan took the lead at the halfway point and never looked back.

Looking back on his path to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Ryan has no regrets. “Sure,” he says, “there are races I wish I had another shot at—crashes I should have avoided—but as far as getting where I am today, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”