Blake Koch: Faith and family guiding the search for sponsorship

It has taken time for Blake Koch to get his name out into the NASCAR world. He’s probably one of, if not, the most laid back driver in the entire sport. There is something different about this 28-year-old from all of the other drivers around his age group in NASCAR. He isn’t your stereotypical racer, however, and his journey is quite remarkable.

Have there been times where you were just so bored that you went on Google and typed in: How do I become a NASCAR driver? If so, you aren’t alone. As a 20-year-old attending the Northwood University located in Michigan, Koch wasn’t bored, but he really wanted to become a racecar driver.

“I was 20-years-old living in Florida – going to college,” Koch said over the phone on Tuesday afternoon. “My step-dad called me and said ‘I’m thinking of buying a racecar, would you want to drive it?’ I said ‘sure.’ He bought a Pro Truck and I went to race it in the Pro Truck Series in Florida. We raced at New Smyrna and tracks like that. I started racing and ran about five times. I won my first race and was running really competitive right off the bat. People were telling me that I have what it takes and that I can make something out of it. I took that to heart. I went on Google and Googled how to become a NASCAR driver and the results that came up were all driver development programs.”

“I didn’t Google how to drive a racecar, I just Googled how to get into the industry. From there, it has just been a lot of ups and downs, but more ups than downs. I have climbed the NASCAR ladder quicker than most, and I have stayed in this sport for quite a while. Obviously, I feel like it is a plan that G-D had for me to be here, and if he didn’t – I wouldn’t be here. You just have to continue to build relationships, become a better driver and keep learning.”

In the process, he came across Richard Childress Racing. The team had previously signed David Mayhew to a developmental contract in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. Moreover, they saw Koch’s raw ability and decided to give him a shot. As he worked his way through the stock car ranks, he has fought plenty of adversity. But that adversity is what has made him the man he has become today.

“There are ups and downs and you really have to appreciate the ups,” Koch said over the phone on Tuesday afternoon. “2011 was my rookie year and we raced the full season, and we had a lot of ups and downs. There were a lot of good runs and bad runs. You learn from it. A couple of years later, you are doing the same thing. It’s not exactly what you want to – you want to be winning races. You can’t take for granted that you are racing in a NASCAR series professionally and that can end any day. You really have to appreciate what you have.”

After racing for full-time teams, Koch bounced around with some smaller organizations. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent. However, a dramatic decrease in sponsorship dollars has made Koch race fewer full races than he would have ever believed.

There have been races in which he has raced fewer than five laps. Sometimes, he has raced just one lap. It’s not what he wants. It’s not what the team wants, either. But until he secures more sponsorship, Koch will have to keep starting and parking.

This season, the 28-year-old Florida native is racing for TriStar Motorsports. As a teammate to Mike Bliss, Eric McClure and Jeff Green – Koch has the ability to go to veterans for feedback. This weekend at the Chicagoland Speedway, he will be making his 100th career start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but he will park his car early in the race for the ninth time this year, and the 41st time in those 100 events.

“You get all of the Tweets and Facebook messages about why did you only run a couple of laps, and it is hard to explain it. It is hard to go to the autograph sessions and hear people telling you that they hope you win when you are a start and parker. That’s the hardest part about it – disappointing the fans. As a driver, it is tough because you can’t race the way you intend to on the weekends, but you have to make the race in qualifying,” he said on starting and parking. “My race that weekend is trying to learn more about the car to help my teammates and do anything I can because I know that I will have another race coming up soon. That is part of my job right now at this point in my career. I have to get out of the car with a smile on my face and wait until I get to race a full race.”

However, this year has been different – a good different. With TriStar Motorsports, there have been a few events that Koch has run without a primary sponsor. It is not the most ideal situation, but he has made the most of those opportunities. In five races while piloting the No. 44 Toyota, he has a pair of top-20 finishes and hasn’t finished worse than 24th. Although he has to swap seats to the No. 10 car when he can’t find funding to race a full event, Koch has made the most out of his situation.

Due to his perseverance, Koch made his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut last year – driving the No. 95 Ford for Leavine Family Racing. Once again, his day ended early. But there is nothing like getting some laps in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. All of his hard work paid off that evening, and it showed as he has earned more opportunities at NASCAR’s top-tier division after starting out in motocross as a nine-year-old.

“I realized how difficult the Sprint Cup Series is. It is not only how good the drivers are, but it is how good the team members are – the mechanics, spotters, crew chiefs, engineers and just everybody. I went to Phoenix this year with Front Row (Motorsports) and I felt like we got my car handling pretty well. In qualifying, I probably drove one of the best laps of my life and I was like ‘that’s all it has.’ They told me ‘alright good job, man.You qualified 37th – we made the race.’ I was like what, I thought that was a pole lap.

At the conclusion of the 2013 season, all eyes were focused on this young man. He had the opportunity of a life time. RAB Racing signed him to a one-race deal. It was arguably the most important race he has run up until this point in his career. At the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Koch qualified on the outside pole to Sam Hornish Jr., and ran inside of the top-10 throughout the race. However, he finished 11th. But that was OK. He proved he has undeniable talent, and if he had a shot to race on a weekly basis, those top-10s would certainly come.

“No matter what stuff I am in, I try to drive the car as hard as I can and give good information to my crew chief, whether it is for one lap or the entire race,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a start and park driver. I consider myself to have a job in racing and can stay sharp and be in the car every week. When I get to run the full race, I will be able to make the most out of it.”

Throughout his journey, he has signed multiple companies to sponsorship deals. Most of the time, the packages are only for a handful of events, if that. However, something is better than nothing, and this is where Koch’s faith comes into play.

“On race weekend, a couple of us drivers get together for a Bible study,” Koch said on his pre-race rituals. “We make sure that we get together and pray together and study the Bible together and learn together. When I get in the car, I just pray and thank G-D for the opportunity to drive a race car for a living.”

“When you have a relationship with G-D, you put G-D first in your life. Whether that is your family life or work life. When you talk with a Christian like me, you hear a lot about G-D because that is a very important part of your life.”

And that is the mentality that Koch uses each time he breathes. It’s the mentality he uses every time he straps into a racecar. Most importantly, it’s the mentality he uses when he is with his son, Carter, who was born in 2012.

Ever since his son was born, Koch’s life has changed dramatically. He has a different outlook on life now. Preceding his son’s birth, he already had a spiritual mindset. However, once Carter was born, Koch truly understood what his goal is in life outside of the race track.

“It has been the biggest change of my life. You see that baby and you never thought you could love something so much. You look at a child and you can’t believe it’s yours. On the other side, you have the responsibility now. You aren’t a kid anymore. You have a child to take care of. You are responsible for him growing up to be a great, young man,” Koch said as you can hear his enthusiasm increasing. “For me, I want him to be a successful, G-Dly young man as he grows up. That’s a responsibility I really want to take on. It has been life changing. When I get home from the races, on the flight home – I just can’t wait to see my wife and my son. When he runs up and yells ‘da da,’ it is a feeling you can’t explain to somebody.”

Now, the next part of this young man’s journey is starting to begin.

Even though this year is barely past the half-way mark, Koch has a lot to look forward to. He raced back-to-back events with Go FAS Racing at Charlotte and Dover – improving his results each time he was in the car compared to those in his first two career starts. Opportunities with smaller teams might not be what he wants, but he is just fortunate for the chance to do so after searching through driver development teams a mere eight years ago.

As of now, Koch is unsure of his plans for 2015. Nationwide Series teams usually plan out their driver lineup slightly later than the Cup Series organizations, which will give him a little more time to piece together funding. However, he has already begun to work on sponsorship packages for next year. If you look on Koch’s social media pages, you will notice he tries to mention all of his sponsors as frequently as possible.

With his newest sponsor, Celsius Energy Drink, he is taking part in their 10-week challenge. As an avid fitness guru, Koch works out approximately 1.5 hours per day during the week to improve his on-track performance. With the Celsius challenge, he has moved some focus over from training for triathlons to working on strength training. Twice a day, he will drink Celsius as he eats seven meals throughout a 24-hour span.

If he can convince companies like Celsius or Salt Life since he is an avid fisherman as well, Koch knows he can take those top-25s and turn them into top-15s and maybe even top-10s on a consistent basis. At this point in time, it is just too hard for a driver to sell a full season package to one company, so he is trying to sell a bunch of multi-race deals, and the more races he can compete within will give him a larger chance to race full-time in 2015.

“The most difficult part is probably that you get behind,” he explained on racing part-time. “Every year, I am able to go into Daytona with a sponsor because I have the off-season to work on selling it. I might have the first five races or so, but once you are at race four and you don’t have the sixth race sold, you are kind of out of time. By the time you close the deal, there are a couple of races that you have to start and park. Then, you have the next Daytona sold. By the time of Daytona, you are already backed up. The hardest part is just getting it all done early enough.”

“If you are a driver asked to come up with a certain amount of money to race, then it is pretty difficult to do it week by week. You have to sell most of your season before your season starts or else you fall behind. The good thing about my situation is that I’m with a consistent team every week. When I get to race, I’m with the No. 44 team and I can show what they are doing, where the results are and stuff like that. I can sell that program because it runs well. It’s tough when you are starting and parking and trying to race that car in particular.”

Joseph Wolkin