Q&A with Jack Roush
by Tom Jensen August 26, 2020
As an engineer, entrepreneur and racer, Jack Roush has been a champion at life.
NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jack Roush (2019) has been a winner everywhere he ever raced, before and after he got to NASCAR. A college-educated engineer, Roush began drag racing while working for Ford Motor Co. in the 1960s and went on to win three national championships in that sport.
Moving to sports car racing in the 1980s, Roush won 24 national championships and 119 races in Sports Car Club of America and International Motor Sports Association competition. For 10 consecutive years, Roush’s cars won their class in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Since going NASCAR racing in 1988, Roush continued to post huge numbers. By the end of the 2019 season, Roush’s Fords had won 325 races, with more than 1,400 top-five finishes and 68,000 laps led in NASCAR’s top three divisions. Roush drivers have won eight NASCAR championships, including back-to-back premier series titles in 2003 and 2004 with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, respectively.
Prior to his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Roush reflected on his championship career and myriad accomplishments with Curatorial Affairs Manager Tom Jensen.
Tom Jensen: HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH FORD?
I hired in as a Ford employee in 1964 right out of college and I bought a new Mustang. I graduated from Berea College in Kentucky, working my way through school and working around the community. I worked on a lot of cars for the staff at Berea, trading cars as a senior. I had enough money when I graduated from college to buy myself a brand-new car. I ordered a Mustang without ever seeing anything but pictures of it.
That was May of 1964, less than a month after it went into showrooms. There was no Ford dealership in Berea, Kentucky, at the time. So I ordered one through a used car dealer who had an affiliation with a Ford dealer in Cincinnati. By the time the car was built in early June – I took delivery of it in mid-June – I was already (working) in the Ford plant in Dearborn (Michigan) working on education and quality control with that car.
YOU NEARLY ENDED UP IN THE AIR FORCE. WHY DID YOU DECIDE AGAINST IT?
When I graduated from college, I looked at the prospect of going into the Air Force. They wanted me to start off riding in the back seat of an F-4, being the navigator and the armament guy, working with all the systems in the airplane. I wanted to be the guy up front with his hair on fire.
They said, “Well, with your background in mathematics and physics, you’d be more use to us in the back seat than up front.” And so, we wound up at loggerheads over that. In the meantime, I’d had my second interview with Ford and decided to take the Ford prospect and follow my Mustang path with them.
WHAT LED YOU TO NASCAR?
Ford was anxious to have a large footprint and they asked me in ’86 or ’87 if I’d be willing to bring the same hand-in-glove approach to stock-car racing and NASCAR that I had to road racing. The success we had in road racing was unprecedented. It was unprecedented both in being able to bring forth talented young drivers and have success with them, and also the involvement we had with Ford for the things that were maybe beyond their vision sometimes. And taking the advice and consulting and engineering that they brought to the table and applying it in a way that was constructive and productive and won races.
DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHERE IT WOULD TAKE YOU?
When I started my NASCAR involvement 31 years ago, I never saw this as an end. I never thought about being involved for this period of time. I drag raced for 10 years and I road raced for 15. Twenty years looked like a big stretch. Now, in my 32nd year, I’m 76 years old. I was 46 when I started. I was already a middle-aged person, so the idea of being involved for another 30 years was beyond my expectations.
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have so many able and talented people to work with me and for me, and that I’ve followed for their leadership and inspiration. It’s been an amazing ride.
WHEN YOU STARTED YOUR NASCAR TEAM IN 1988, YOU WENT WITH A RELATIVE UNKNOWN DRIVER IN (HALL OF FAMER) MARK MARTIN (2017). WHY MARTIN AND NOT AN ESTABLISHED STAR?
I don’t know that there were drivers who had the skill to win initially who were interested in going with me as a team owner. I had some amount of rejection early on. I talked to (Hall of Famer) Rusty Wallace (2013). I talked to Kenny Schrader. I talked to (Hall of Famer) Bobby Allison (2011), who was a guy I really wanted to build my team around. He was at a point in his career where he was having success and a great deal of freedom with what the team was doing with the Stavola Brothers. So he saw the Stavola Brothers as the last team he wanted to race for before he retired.
Bobby pushed me in the direction of Mark Martin. Only one of the name drivers that I talked to early on agreed to go with me and I didn’t think his personality was going to be compatible with mine, so I said no to him and yes to Mark Martin.
WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL TAKE ON MARTIN?
When we sat down and talked in the fall of ’87, in preparations for my NASCAR entry in ’88, we talked for hours about how many times we’d test. “Now tell me again how many tires you’re going to buy?” Mark asked me. He wanted to know about the tires and he wanted to know about the people, how many times we could test."
I was driving back from the interview and I realized we hadn’t discussed how much money Mark would get paid as a driver. So he basically indicated he’d like to do it as a driver. He was all signed up for it based on the discussions we’d had about commitment on my part and his ability to ‘X’ all the boxes that he thought were necessary for him to have his best shot at establishing himself. Gary Nelson (then Team Sabco crew chief), Banjo Matthews (chassis builder) and Bobby Allison all agreed that Mark Martin would be my best choice for my first driver. I didn’t feel wrong about that and that’s the way we went.
HOW BIG WAS THAT FIRST PREMIER SERIES VICTORY AT ROCKINGHAM IN 1989?
In 1988 we didn’t win a race. We got poles, but we didn’t win a race in ’88. We did win at Rockingham in the fall race in ’89. That was a happy moment because that meant for both of us that we were on our way and could stay a while.
YOU AND ROBERT YATES WERE BITTER RIVALS AS FORD TEAM OWNERS. HOW DID YOU COME TO BE PARTNERS IN ROUSH YATES ENGINES, WHICH TODAY BUILDS ALL THE FORD ENGINES IN NASCAR’S TOP THREE SERIES?
Robert and I competed for space as siblings do in families and peers do in sports and business, if they’re in proximity. You compete for space, you compete for attention, you compete for support. The fact that it got heated and intense is not surprising.
In 2003, I made my decision to come to Charlotte and (set up an engine shop). At Atlanta that year, I felt someone tapping on my shoulder and looked around and it was Robert Yates. And I looked him in the eye and said, “OK, what’s on your mind?”
He said, “I’ve got a building that I’ve built that I’ve outfitted to build my race engines here that’s bigger than I need. And if it’s true that you’re coming to Charlotte, I’d rather have you be a partner all the way to the dirt than to compete against you. And if you’d like to think about that, if you haven’t already made your plans for building and have a competitive, separate business, let’s think about doing it together.”
I thought about that and the sting was still there from some of the things that had happened between us. But the thing I didn’t have was a son getting ready to graduate from college that had the interest and experience and the inclination I had seen from Doug (Yates, Robert’s son and now CEO of Roush Yates Engines). I’d had a chance to work with Doug a little bit and I was really impressed. I considered him to be an equal interest to my decision to go with Robert’s suggestion. I don’t know that I would have done that without Doug. If I’d have had Doug and Robert didn’t, I’m sure I would have stood pat and done my own thing in his face.
AT ONE POINT, YOU AND ROBERT WRECKED EACH OTHER’S RENTAL CARS AT RICHMOND? HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
Traffic was merging down from two lanes to one lane. And there was a conflict between us for space. Nobody lifted. I wound up knocking both side headlights out of a Jaguar and had contact with his (Yates’ mother’s van). It was a “Days of Thunder” moment, for sure.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER?
That I’ve had over 50 drivers drive for me and I’ve had 19 of them win races with me. And of that number, most of them won their first race with me. The fact that I’ve been able to bring young folks along, help them realize their potential and satisfy their ambitions by putting them in a format that allowed them to practice their trade.
AFTER ALL THE VICTORIES AND CHAMPIONSHIPS, WHAT DO YOU HAVE LEFT TO ACCOMPLISH?
It’s really the responsibility for the team that I’ve got today. They’re the folks that have made their commitments for the time being to give me their time. And there’s nothing more important that an individual has than their time, their productive thoughts. I’ve got a team around me that I feel responsible for, some of which have not won their first race yet. Many of which have not won their first championship yet and I’m trying to help them live out their dreams, the same as I have the group that’s preceded them.