Vegas Rules: How Brendan Gaughan keeps racing from defining himself
FORT WORTH -- Brendan Gaughan has two names.
The one race fans know was given to him on July 10, 1975, by Michael and Paula Gaughan.
It’s the name that’s been displayed on the side of every race car he’s driven since he began off-road racing at 15. It’s now on his No. 62 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series that he will drive for Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.
That name is the one an older fan wants him to sign on a “hero card,” a request that briefly interrupts an interview earlier this month with NBC Sports in the garage area of Texas Motor Speedway.
Despite being raised in Las Vegas and having his diaper changed by at least three dozen of the employees at his father’s casino, South Point, not everyone in “Sin City” knows his face or his occupation.
But Vegas is Vegas. Sometimes you have to take on another name when the situation arises.
“I most of the time lie to people about what I do for a while,” Gaughan says. “Especially in Las Vegas. I’m not going to tell you my fake name. But I had a fake name. It was one of my best friend’s growing up. It was my fake ID for a number of years.”
Whatever the name, that’s how he introduced himself to his future wife, Tatum, in 2005. Though both are Las Vegas natives, their paths crossed in a tourist bar one night.
“I was in town with some friends of mine from the military that wanted to go out and party and she was with her brother’s ex-girlfriend that was just turning 21,” Gaughan recalls.
He was accompanied by his Camping World Truck Series crew chief in addition to his military buddies. But for a little while, they were none of the above. Because in Las Vegas, “you have to make up a good story,” says the driver.
“We told her we were hot air balloon racers,” Gaughan says. “When they chuckled and said ‘OK, what do you really do?’ We said there’s a NASCAR crew chief, a NASCAR driver and two special forces military, she looked right at us and said ‘OK, where’s the hot air balloon race?’”
“That was more believable than the truth.”
Brendan Gaughan’s truth comes from having three families. The one he’s related to, the one he played basketball with and the one he races with.
The journey to becoming comfortable with himself began with his father.
While Michael Gaughan’s hobby was off-road racing, he allowed his children to figure out who they were and what they were good at with his endorsement. Brendan Gaughan took advantage of the perk.
“I’m a second-degree black belt in karate,” Gaughan says. “I loved karate. I was good at it, so I did for a long time.”
In the Gaughan family, there was no pressure on Gaughan or his siblings to be “phenoms” in any sport. At Bishop Gorman High School, the “small Catholic school” he attended, everything was on the table.
“When the swimming team was in, you swam,” Gaughan says. “When the volleyball season was in, you played volleyball. When the baseball team was playing, you played baseball. I played everything. When you were good at stuff, you did it.”
Was there anything his dad didn’t approve?
“I still to this day say if I wanted to be a ballerina, my father would have looked at me, gritted his teeth, bought me a tutu and taken me to class and hoped that I didn’t do well,” Gaughan says.
Even with a young racing career underway, including winning his first competitive race in the SNORE Midnight Special, the main thought in Gaughan’s mind was football. Recruited as a kicker, he had scholarships offers to Nebraska and Notre Dame .
But an injury led to a course change, landing the Las Vegas kid in the nation’s capitol to attend Georgetown University to play football.
However, it would be the basketball court in the Capital Centre that would leave the biggest impression on Gaughan.
A basketball court overseen for 27 years by legendary coach John Thompson.
ONE SHINING MOMENT
Gaughan remembers the shot well.
Outside of three free throws, it was the only shot he made in three seasons of playing basketball for the Georgetown Hoyas. It came in his junior year.
“Everybody loves making fun of the one basket,” says Gaughan, who played guard and wore No. 13. “It was a preseason NIT (game) vs Colgate. It was over Adonal Foyle, who played for the (Los Angeles) Clippers forever.”
At 5-foot-10, Gaughan put the shot over Foyle’s 6-foot-10 frame. He may or may not have seen the ball go in the basket.
“To this day, Allen (Iverson) and much of the team tell me I need to open my eyes next time,” Gaughan says. “But it was a beautiful bank shot, on (ESPN), with Bill Rafferty making the call.”
The moment is immortalized by framed screenshots sent to him by a friend, though it’s in storage while he renovates one of his houses.
“If you’re only going to make one basket, you’re probably going to have some memories of it,” Gaughan says.
Another thing he remembers is a motto.
The motto, instilled by Thompson, is represented by the little known symbol for the men’s basketball team - a deflated basketball.
“That deflated basketball comes with a statement that John Thompson has been saying since the 1970s, which is, ‘Don’t base your life on eight pounds of air,’ ” Gaughan says. “I always understood the meaning of that logo, and I’ve never let racing be what I was going to survive with.”
At age 40 and 19 years into a NASCAR career that began the year he graduated from Georgetown, Gaughan has figured out what he doesn’t want to be.
“I don’t want to be one of those racers from the ‘70s and ‘80s where (their kids) said they never saw their dad,” says Gaughan. “I play Mr. Mom during the week and come here on the weekends and sleep.”
But he’s eager to get back to his boys, Michael James, 5, and William Ryland, 3. But they’re not in North Carolina, where many NASCAR families reside. They’re in Las Vegas. Gaughan returned to living there permanently in 2014 when he couldn’t stand being away from his family for too long.
“I was spending 18-20 hours apart from my family pretty regularly,” Gaughan recalled the day before in the TMS Media Center. “Luckily for me at RCR, there are seven guys on my race team that have been with me since 1999, 2000, 2002; they’ve been with me since I was in my early 20s. Life was getting difficult and they said ‘go home.’ ''
Gaughan believes going home worked. Within a short time, he won the Xfinity Series race at Road America --his first NASCAR victory in 11 years and his first Xfinity win in 98 starts. Thirteen races later, he was in victory lane again, at Kentucky Speedway.
“It’s actually what helped us win those races at the end of 2014 and what made us run so good last year,” Gaughan says. “My home life was much happier.”
When his children can’t be at the track, Tatum sends her husband video of them watching him race on TV. During the summer, the family relocates to North Carolina, but Gaughan only goes to his team’s shop when he’s needed.
Two decades into his NASCAR journey, the prospect of retirement is a tricky one for Gaughan.
“Every year I almost retire,” he says. “But it’s always been the same strategy in my eyes. If I can’t win races, I don’t want to be here and there was a stretch of my career where I didn’t win any.”
When he finally goes through with it, he’ll do what he did under the supportive watch of his father and the Las Vegas sun.
He’ll try something new.