NASCAR’s Next Generation: Jesse Little
Jesse Little won’t be watching the latest scary movies this Halloween season.
“I’m not a fan of horror movies at all. I’m terrified,” said Little, the son of former Sprint Cup driver Chad Little. “My girlfriend and I watched the ‘Insidious’ movie that came out, I think, last year and I left. I’ll be honest, I got out of the theater and left, I was so terrified.”
Little’s girlfriend wouldn’t follow for five more minutes.
The 18-year-old driver shared this with NASCAR Talk while he prepared for last weekend’s K&N Pro Series East season finale at Dover International Speedway. Dover also gave Little his scariest moment as a driver.
During his first K&N practice session on the 1-mile track in 2012, Little was attempting to merge into traffic after two cars had passed him.
“I was relating myself to them and knowing where I was losing speed at and the first time I ever really went up to speed the car got a little loose,” Little said. “I didn’t even try to save it, I just slammed on the brakes and chased it all the way up the track. At the time I remember thinking, ‘wow, I guess this is why they call it ‘the Monster.’”
The following Q&A with Little, who is a part of the NASCAR Next program that spotlights the sport’s emerging stars, has been edited and condensed.
NASCAR TALK: Do you remember what you were doing when you got the call about being part of NASCAR Next?
JESSE LITTLE: Yeah, I was at school. I had just gotten out of calculus and was walking to my gym class and Jessica, who is in charge of the program, texted me and said, ‘Do you have a minute?’ Luckily my gym class teacher was pretty lenient and said, ‘Yeah, go ahead’ and I walked out of the building for a second and took the call. Came back in with a big smile on my face and a big sigh of relief.
Note: Little graduated from Banby High School in Claremont, N.C., in the spring and will begin attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in January.
NT: What degree are you looking to pursue?
JL: Definitely something on the business side. Finance, economics. Something in that category. Right now I’m looking at international business.
NT: What drew you to that?
JL: My dad went to college in Washington state and graduated in business administration and I just enjoy it. Seeing all the opportunities it’s given him after his driving career, it’s something I certainly feel is a good field to go into to get a good knowledge base and background. At the same time, I love traveling. I was fortunate enough to go to Europe after I graduated high school. We traveled around France and Italy for two weeks and just fell in love with it. It’s something I’m passionate about and excited for at the same time.
NT: In Europe, if you would tell someone that you were a NASCAR driver, would they recognize what that was?
JL: It’s funny you say that, because one of the waitresses at one of the restaurants we ate at in Rome was actually a NASCAR fan. The touring series over there has the NASCAR (Whelen) Euro series. She was a pretty heavy follower of that. She rattled off a couple of names of some of the active drivers in that series. I told her ‘I race very similar cars in America’ and she got a kick out of that. It was pretty neat to see such a strong American-based sport is also popular over there.
NT: Going back to the college thing, is that something your dad really wanted you to do or do you see that as your back-up plan or is it your main plan?
JL: A little bit of both. My dad definitely puts a heavy emphasis on education and I see why. I’ve grown up and kind of realized that best-case scenario I might be able to make a career out of racing, but the chances are kind of not really in my favor, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it my career. But if not, I want to have a good background to fall back on and continue to have a successful life, and I think college is the easiest path for me to do that. Plus, I want the education and I want to do everything I can to further myself.
NT: Ryan Newman has an engineering degree but I don’t think it’s commonplace to find NASCAR drivers who have made it that far with college degrees. How many drivers do you know that have degrees or how many drivers do you know say they wished they’d gotten their degrees?
JL: I know a lot more that are in that second category, for sure. It’s a tough thing to say, if I do land a full-time ride and I’m able to win races and make a good, successful career out of this, then I might look back and say that was a waste of four years, but I highly doubt that. It’s something that I want and am passionate about. I love racing, but at the same time I know I’m not going to be doing it forever, so why not have something that’s a successful thing to fall back on?
NT: What’s your earliest memory of racing?
JL: I was five or six years old, I remember My dad had just retired and had gone to work for NASCAR. I remember he took me to the Charlotte race. I unfortunately don’t have any memories of him racing. I was so young, he retired I think in 2004 or 2003. A couple of years after that, I remember going to (Charlotte) and pretty much everybody we ran into or walked by said ‘Hey Chad, how’s it going?’ and talked to him. I remember seeing how cool it was that everybody knew my dad and everybody was talking to my dad. The older I got the more I wanted that, the more I wanted to follow in his footsteps and have what he had and make a career out of it.
NT: After two full seasons in the K&N East Series, how do you mentally navigate a season where, without any full-time ride, you’re not guaranteed a race every week?
JL: I work in the shop every single day. Since I graduated in the spring, I’m down at our shop every day, 7 to 5, and being around it so much and building the cars, putting together and understanding the suspension and what adjustment makes the car do this and understanding all that, I think, gives me an edge to not being in the seat every week. I feel when I go to a K&N race, I’m really able to fine-tune the car even though I haven’t raced for a month before because I know when we adjusted this in the shop it changed the wedge this way. I’m able to focus on those little things, and I think it helps me a lot. Especially in relaying it to the crew chief.
NT: Earlier you said chances aren’t really in your favor of having a very long racing career. Is that something you’ve come to terms with recently, or is that something you recognized a long time ago?
JL: A little bit of both. (It) was always in the back of my mind a long time ago, but here recently I’ve really noticed, OK, not having the financial backing of some of the other drivers, it’s going to be really difficult to transition to that next level and be successful. But I think it’s something I can make up for with my talent, and I hope to meet the right people. That’s what it’s going to come down to, having somebody that believes in me and gives me a shot. To do that, I’ve got to prove that I’m capable of it.