Noah Gragson spent a lot of time alone in the aftermath of his NASCAR suspension with nothing to do but self-reflect.
It was a lot of lonely time and challenging moments, but Gragson embraced the opportunity to better himself. Gragson, 25, cost himself his job driving the No. 42 at Legacy Motor Club after liking an insensitive meme on Instagram about the death of George Floyd. The team suspended Gragson from competing in Michigan the weekend of Aug. 5 and NASCAR suspended him indefinitely.
A month later, Gragson and Legacy parted ways. Gragson was reinstated by NASCAR in early September.
“It’s been a different change in pace, for sure,” Gragson told a small group of reporters on Wednesday morning. “My routine obviously had changed, going to the racetrack every week of the last seven years since I started truck racing. It’s been different, but in a good way. It’s been change and it’s allowed me to learn more about myself, self-reflect, and work and develop habits that weren’t the best.
“I’m seeing a psychiatrist, meeting with different folks. I’ve had a tremendous amount of support throughout this whole process and ultimately, I’ve been focused on just bettering myself through the whole process.”
NASCAR-mandated sensitivity training was a part of the reinstatement process. Gragson admitted that saying he was uneducated is an understatement, and he called the program “very impactful.” Given the opportunity to ask questions and learn about things he didn’t understand left an impression. Those points were driven home when Gragson visited civil rights museums in Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina, trying to put himself in other people’s shoes to comprehend how they were treated.
Gragson also reached out to Kyle Larson, who went through a NASCAR suspension in 2020 after using a racial slur on iRacing. Larson also lost his ride and was suspended, but was given a second chance with Hendrick Motorsports.
Bubba Wallace was another individual Gragson called. Gragson said he’s learned a lot from Wallace and looks up to him.
“I appreciate his support,” Gragson said.
Gragson said he put Legacy Motor Club and NASCAR in a position of needing to react when made aware of the post he’d endorsed.
“Ignorance,” Gragson said of liking the post in the first place. “I had a lot of garbage on my feed. I was careless when I first got on social media and would accept friend requests from different people and all of a sudden, you’re friends with people you don’t even know and you’ve got garbage on your feed. I’ve become a lot more aware of other people, and I was very selfish in the past and only wanted to do things for me. Through this whole process, I’ve learned how to acknowledge others.
“Everyone is going through stuff. Everyone is going through battles and has their challenges in life, and it’s allowed me just to be open-minded to other people.”
Since August, Gragson has also become a reader for the first time. It was something Gragson always hated and he’s dyslexic, so he never got far into a book. Gragson “got by” in school with required reading, but now he’s actively choosing to do so.
There are other newly-acquired good habits, most of which Gragson summarized as self-awareness.
“Thinking a lot more and using my ears more than I use my mouth,” Gragson said. “You have two ears and one mouth, use your ears more than you use your mouth. I always become a chatty Cathy, pretty talkative, but it’s been impactful to me and a good change of pace to work on solely myself and developing better personal traits and better habits.”
Grags on will begin driving the No. 10 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing next season, replacing Aric Almirola. He will work with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.
The organization already feels like home to Gragson, and he is open and ready for the structure it will bring. Stewart-Haas Racing employs over 300 people.
“There’s a big difference between love and accountability,” Gragson said. “It might not make sense, but if you have love for someone, it’s hard to keep that person accountable because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Or if you’re only accountable with somebody and you’re just telling them everything that comes to your mind, they’re not going to like you because they’ll think you’re just digging at them the whole. So, finding that balance. I think a big thing I’ve learned is balance and having that structure around myself.
“Meeting with Drew, the rest of the team, Greg Zipadelli, they’re all really good people, and I feel comfortable there and like it’s a family environment. So for myself, I feel that’s the right space for me. But also, they want to win races, and they have a vision and a goal to win those races.”
In seventh and eighth grade, Gragson attended military school after his parents said he needed “a little bit of a tuneup.” It’s a time Gragson looks back on with fondness because his days were structured.
“I need that in my life,” Gragson said.
Gragson has spent nearly every day at the Stewart-Haas shop since he’s been in town. The training program and the amount of people dedicated to specific jobs have blown Gragson away.
“There’s a lot of people to hold me accountable and a lot of people to lean on as a resource as well,” he said.
Being on the sidelines for the final few months of the season while someone else did his job was “not fun.” But it helped Gragson grow a new appreciation and love of the sport and now, his passion for it is higher than it’s ever been.
Not only does Gragson recognize he’s getting a second chance but with a championship-winning organization. There is no denying the pressure he faces not to screw it up.
“Absolutely,” Gragson said. “It’s the best opportunity I’ve had and I’m grateful. And it’s not just my hard work, there’s been a lot of people involved, and I appreciate everyone’s supp ort and hard work behind me. Because it’s not just about me, it’s everyone involved.”
There should be an expectation of a personality or attitude change for Gragson next season. One of the more lovable drivers in the sport because of his candor, wild celebrations and engagement with the fans, Gragson has gone through an experience that was a “big wake-up call and growing up” period.
But he knows actions speak louder than words, and he needs to walk the walk. So, don’t expect to see the boombox on pit road in the future or a bowl haircut because he lost a bet. Gragson is striking a balance between having a personality and being more mature.
“And I’ve worried about that,” Gragson said. “Everybody has an opinion, right? I still continue to be myself, but I’m sharpened. Iron sharpens iron, and surrounding myself with better people. I haven’t really done much to think about a race car, but racing the super late model races I’ve been in the last couple of months, I feel so much more present behind the wheel.
“At the Snowball Derby, I was the most prepared I’d ever been. More than any Cup race, Xfinity race, any race of my career. It didn’t feel like work; I just want it so bad. I would go up in the lounge and start taking notes and an hour later, we’d have to get back in the car and I’d be typing, finishing a word to type, and running out the lounge doors. It’s allowed me to be a lot more present behind the wheel and clear-minded, and that’s just working on my personal life. I think it’s translated to the racetrack.
“I feel like I have the focus. I’m satisfied with myself and my focus right now. Before it probably looked like I was screwing around and not taking it as seriously, I still felt like I worked really hard throughout the week behind closed doors, but maybe when (everyone else) saw me, it looked like I was screwing off. But balance is a great word and that’s what these last handful of months have taught me in my personal life and work life.”