Catching up with Dave Blaney: Champion, Hall of Famer, but most importantly, Ryan’s father
When it comes to Ryan Blaney, he definitely has followed in his father Dave’s footsteps as a race car driver.
Like father, like son. In fact, you might call Ryan a chip off the old block – engine block, that is.
While Ryan spent his youth growing up watching his father racing first in sprint cars and then in NASCAR, their roles are now reversed. Now it’s Dave who spends much of his time watching his son develop into one of NASCAR Cup’s rising young stars.
“I’m really proud of him, the type of person he is, his attitude and work ethic that has led to success in NASCAR,” Dave Blaney says of his son. “I think that would have led to success in whatever he tried to do in life.
“He’s a good kid, I’m loving it that he got a great chance in NASCAR early, at a young age, and took advantage of the opportunities he’s gotten. He has a chance to have a really good career. You’ve got to keep going and keep pushing and I think he’s up for it.”
While Ryan’s career has been ramping up the last several years, including the last 2 1/2 seasons with Wood Brothers Racing before shifting to Team Penske in 2018, Dave’s own career has shifted to part-time status the last couple of years.
Much of the reason has been by choice, to follow and watch Ryan’s own career develop, such as last season’s first career Cup win at Pocono.
“I’d go to a bunch of Ryan’s races and then race sprint car part-time,” Dave Blaney said.
But Ryan’s success has also served to whet Dave’s own appetite to get back to racing on a more frequent basis in the new year.
So instead of like father, like son, 2018 for Dave Blaney will be like son, like father.
While Ryan turned 24 yesterday (December 31), Dave Blaney is now 55. It’s almost like a role reversal: Ryan spent his youth watching Dave, dreaming of becoming a racer himself, while watching Ryan has prompted Dave to get back on short tracks from Connecticut to California in the new year.
“We’ll go to wherever it kind of fits,” Dave Blaney said. “We’ll go to a World of Outlaws race, All-Star race, an Open race, kind of jump around. But I’m hoping to do a lot more racing this coming summer. You get to the point where to get a little better, you have to do it full-time, just like anything.”
It may even be Dave’s last hurrah, but he’s going to wrap up an illustrious, Sprint Car Hall of Fame career on his terms.
“I don’t have much of a window looking forward. My window is only about a month at a time,” Dave said with a laugh. “I still love it. We ran a little bit last year and near the end of the year we got really competitive.
“I think we can do it (win more races), it’s just a matter of running more. I’ve got a good couple guys here to go work on them and go with me. We just take it a year at a time, but this summer, if we can get it put together, I’d like to go race more and see what happens.
“I’m 55 now, so a 55-year-old driver isn’t ideal but it’s pretty cool that he can still do okay.”
But Dave Blaney is also aware that even with his pedigree and decades of success behind the wheel, if he doesn’t get enough sponsorship for his own effort in 2018, he actually may go from a reinvigoration of his career to retirement in less time than it takes to do a frontstretch burnout.
“It could end up this year that I don’t race any, but I think I’ve got enough help put together to race quite a bit,” Dave said. “If I don’t race any, then I don’t.
“I’m kind of okay with if I need to stop or the circumstances get me stopped, then it’s okay. I’ve raced a long time, have had a lot of fun and made a living at it for a long time, so that’s more than I ever thought might happen. It’s all good.”
FOUR WHEELS: A FAMILY TRADITION
Ryan followed in the family business of being race car drivers. His grandfather, Lou, raced sprint cars in the Midwest and was part-owner of Sharon Speedway in Hartford, Ohio.
Dave followed his father with his own career as one of the best on dirt before moving to the NASCAR world, where he made nearly 475 Cup starts in 17 years. While he never won a Cup race, he had four top-fives and 28 top-10s.
Dave also competed in 121 Xfinity races, earning one win, along with 12 top-fives and 31 top-10s, as well as three Truck Series races.
It’s probably because Ryan grew up watching his father drive stock cars more than sprint cars that Ryan skipped the sprint car world and went straight to stock car racing.
“I think that was all geographic,” Dave said. “If I was still racing dirt cars in Ohio, I’m sure that’s the direction he would have went.
“But I was in North Carolina, running NASCAR, and for a youngster growing up, there was some dirt racing, plenty of go-kart stuff, and we started running quarter-midgets only because a track was put in really close to where we live and we kind of went from there.
“In another step, it was all pavement and we just kept going down that path.”
Father and son have raced against each other a handful of times over the years. Which brings about a couple of great stories from father Blaney, who recalled them with a laugh.
“We did a couple little exhibition things, I remember,” Dave said. “We ran some dirt modifieds one night in New York and I remember him beating me, where he won and I ran second.
“There were probably 8 or 10 NASCAR drivers there. If you want the truth, Ryan started at the front and I started at the back and I still almost beat him. But he’ll tell you he whipped me.”
And then there was the one regular NASCAR race where father and son butted fenders, the inaugural 2013 Mudsummer Classic Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway (owned by former 3-time NASCAR Cup champ Tony Stewart).
Dave started sixth and finished ninth, while Ryan started 23rd and finished 15th.
“We were teammates in the Brad Keselowski trucks,” Dave said. “I’ll always have it over him that I whipped him that night. That was the last time. I quit while I was ahead right there and never did it again”
FATHER TURNS TEACHER, SON IS NO. 1 STUDENT
Dave Blaney took to sprint car and midget car racing like a duck to water. Of course, having his father serve as his defacto in-house tutor didn’t hurt.
Dave learned so much from Lou during his teen years, absorbing information like a sponge. And when Dave decided to give sprint cars a whirl full-time, he proved he learned his father’s lessons well.
He was the 1983 All-Star Sprint Circuit Rookie of the Year at 21 years old. In 1984, he won the USAC Silver Crown Series national touring series championship.
He went on to win a number of the biggest sprint car races there are, including winning a World of Outlaws event at Eldora Speedway in 1987.
There also was his win in the 1993 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
He returned to Eldora to win one of the biggest sprint car races there is, the King’s Royal in 1995, taking home a then-princely sum of $50,000.
But the greatest moment of Blaney’s sprint car career came in 1997, when he not only won the sport’s Gold Cup, he also captured the sport’s biggest race of all, the Knoxville Nationals, in central Iowa.
It was shortly after that when Dave Blaney moved on to his own career in NASCAR.
“Just to go out and race and make a living at it, I thought was just the coolest thing ever,” Dave Blaney said. “It got to where I got to run pretty good, had a chance to win with these guys and that turned into winning some good races. Just getting a chance at doing it was almost as big to me as having success.”
When it came to raising Ryan, Dave followed his father Lou’s example. He didn’t push or force his son into racing.
But at the same time, if son showed any interest, father would do his best to teach him the right way. He didn’t sugarcoat things, but rather showed him the good, bad and ugly of racing.
And if son still wanted to go forward, father would do all he could to help him. It worked that way for Dave from Lou, and then worked that way for Ryan from Dave.
“It seems like pushing them at a young age most times doesn’t work out,” Dave Blaney said. “Ryan was pretty timid, honestly, but the more success he started having, even at nine, 10 or 11, then he would improve a little more with a little more success and get a little more confidence and it kept building.
“I’d say that by the time he was 14 and we stuck him in a Super Late Model on pavement and he ran incredibly good right off the bat. His confidence was real high and even I could see it. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s got a chance to do whatever here.’ By that point, I think he was pretty focused on keeping rolling with it. But it took a little while. It wasn’t from Day 1.
“Ryan grew up learning the basics and fundamentals at a young age and that gave him a head start. Me having a background in racing just helped speed up his learning curve is all that happened.
“He still has to have the talent to make this car go fast. He has to have the desire and the drive to want to keep learning and want to work at it, so that’s all on him. The one thing I always regretted when he was young, it got a little rough sometimes because teaching isn’t always the most pleasant thing.
“You can’t always just pat him on the back and say ‘you’re doing great.’ He had to learn, and by learning it, you’re pointing out the things he’s doing wrong or you’re pointing out his bad habits. There’s part of tearing him down and building him back up sort of. It was tough a little bit some times, but he never wavered through any of it, he was really good.
“Ryan ran good in the Trucks and got a good shot, now he’s in the Cup cars and is running good, but he quickly realized, ‘I’m in a really good Cup car here,’ but you can’t just go beat Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and all these top guys. It takes experience and he found out that he has to keep learning quickly to keep up with these guys.”
A PROUD PAPA DESTINED TO GET EVEN PROUDER
For a moment, forget about Dave the racer. Instead, think about Dave the father – and the fatherly pride he has that his son has raced for two of the most legendary organizations in motorsports: Wood Brothers Racing and Team Penske.
“It blows me away, believe me,” he said. “I was sitting here for the whole thing, the whole last 10 years and I still don’t know how it happened. He just got some chances and jumped on them. It’s the coolest thing ever.
“I remember the day, I think he was 18, when he signed a contract with Roger Penske. I was just blown away. I was scared to death that it was too much, too much pressure, too much everything.
“But he’s like he didn’t care at all, he was like, ‘Let’s go.’ They don’t know, they’re just ready to go. I was scared it was too much, too soon, but he did a good job.”
Dave and Ryan have always been very close, and even though Ryan is on to building his own career, Dave is always close by or a phone call away.
But Father Dave admits he does like to jokingly rub things in at times to his son, calling him, ‘Hey, big-time Cup driver.’”
In a sense, Dave Blaney is like a father who gives his teenager keys to the family car for the first time and trusts the youngster will do the right thing.
In other words, even with his own racing background and success, Dave is not a typical racing father. He leaves Ryan to his own devices and will offer advice when asked, but doesn’t want to interfere with his son’s development and rising star.
“I was probably at more than half his Cup races this year,” Dave said. “I’m just around. I’ve never spotted for him, actually.
“A lot of times, like for practice, he might tell me to go to Turn 1 and watch. Then I might text him what I see, but it’s mainly about what other guys are doing compared to him.
“Or he might tell me to watch from a certain corner for whatever reason. If I see something that sticks out, I might say, ‘Hey, you might think about this.’ But those teaching days are way gone. It’s just supporting and being there if he needs anything.”
But even with all the resources he’s had over the last few years, first at Wood Brothers Racing and now with Team Penske, Ryan still gives his father a thrill when he asks him for advice.
“It’s very cool, actually, that he’ll still ask my opinion, and there’s 100 percent no doubt in his mind I’m going to tell him exactly whether he’s doing it way better than everybody else in that corner, or way worse,” Dave Blaney said. “I’m going to tell him and give him the right information and he can take it from there.”
Where the younger Blaney goes from here with Team Penske is anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty clear the direction will definitely be further upward.
If Ryan was to win the Daytona 500 or the NASCAR Cup championship, it would be the realization of a joint dream held and shared by both father and son. But it also will be verification and vindication that Ryan learned his lessons well and Dave was an excellent teacher.
“It would just be cool to see his reaction, to see how happy he is, for all the work he’s put in it and it pays off,” Dave Blaney said. “That’s the cool part.”