NASCAR star Erik Jones is one of the sport’s burgeoning young talents. In his second full-year on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Jones currently sits in 13th place overall. Last year, he was the Series Cup Rookie of the Year, and back in 2015 he won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship at just 19. He currently drives the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
If he wasn’t racing, Jones would currently be a college senior. Obviously, his professional sports career took him down a much different path, but this spring he has had the chance to get a taste of what life would be like as a college student. Jones is currently on what is being called his #CollegeTourExtravaganza, during which he has visited a few prominent college campuses, and some big-time football programs.
So far, he has made stops at UCLA, Auburn, and Virginia Tech. Out in Westwood, he was taken on a tour of campus and facilities by Bruins freshman quarterback Jackson Gibbs, the grandson of the legendary NFL coach for whom Jones races.
He has also had the chance to meet with big-time NASCAR fan Gus Malzahn, and has checked out the impressive engineering program at Virginia Tech, which has its own racing flair.
Jones is also a native Michigander, and a lifelong Wolverines fan. Ahead of his appearance at Talladega last weekend, we caught up with Jones to discuss his college tour, his thoughts on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football, and how he would approach being a college recruit and athlete.
Our Q&A with NASCAR star Erik Jones:
The Spun: So what inspired you to start your college tour this spring?
Erik Jones: No. 1 was my age, and No. 2, being in the Cup Series gives me a good chance to go those students and meet them, and introduce them to NASCAR, and also show that there’s someone they can root for and hopefully relate to in some way. And along with that, it’s cool for me because I enjoy getting to go see these schools.
There’s a lot of really nice campuses out there, and touring them and seeing the football programs has been really cool along the way.
The Spun: So far you’ve been to UCLA, Auburn, and Virginia Tech. Have there been any other ones since then?
Jones: No, it’s been those three. We’re trying to get the next one hammered in right now. Those have been three great schools, all of them different in their own ways. They’re all beautiful campuses and all have been pretty fun to tour.
The Spun: I saw that at UCLA you got a tour from Joe Gibbs’s grandson. You race with Joe Gibbs racing. What’s your relationship like with the Gibbs family?
Jones: I’m really close with Coach Joe. That was really the first time I got to meet his grandson. It was interesting to go on the tour with him. He’s on the football program there, so he was able to take us in depth and behind the scenes. It’s funny, I was walking around and he was introducing me to a few people, and a couple guys didn’t even know he’s related to Joe.
The Spun: At Auburn you got to meet Gus Malzahn. How was that experience?
Jones: He was a really good guy. I’ve always watched their program and seen how successful it’s been, obviously. He’s a big racing fan, actually. He’s coming out to Talladega this weekend and he’s going to be the Grand Marshal, so that will be really neat. He’s pretty excited for that; I don’t think he’s actually been to a race before, he’s only seen it on TV.
He’s a cool guy, he’s really interested in the sport, and it was fun to talk to him about being a coach, and what he has to deal with with his players, and how he goes about some things. It was fun to hear some of the similarities between our two different sports.
The Spun: Obviously racing’s a little different, it’s more solitary, but there’s a team aspect as well. Have you gotten a sense of what type of coach you would like to play for if you were a college football or college basketball player?
Jones: For me, having someone who would draw a hard line and was pretty structed is the one that I would want. There’s guys who are like that and there are guys who maybe give their players a bit more freedom, but I definitely like the more old school guy who’s really making sure you’re doing the right thing and being tough on you along the way.
The Spun: Your most recent visit was to Virginia Tech, and they have a very prominent engineering school. I saw you got to meet with some of those students, and that goes hand-in-hand with what you do. How was that experience?
— Richmond Raceway (@RichmondRaceway) April 15, 2018
Jones: Yeah, that was neat. They’re really big on their engineering program there, and meeting with some of them on their SAE program. Basically, they have rules with which they can build a car and race in a set-up course. That was cool, to hear some of their ideas, and how they built the car, and the processes they use are all things that are applicable in the NASCAR world.
It was interesting to hear their questions about NASCAR and some of the processes we use to set our racecars up, and how we go about the weekend. It was all new for them, and they had great questions, being integrated in that world already. So that was neat, and it was cool to see what they were capable of out of their engineering shop.
The Spun: So I know you’re a Michigan fan, being from there and growing up rooting for the Wolverines. Have you had a chance to meet Jim Harbaugh.
Jones: I haven’t. I’m hoping to go up to tour Michigan sometime this year. I’m friends with a lot of kids that go to school there. I haven’t had the chance to meet him, so hopefully I have the chance. He’s definitely one of my favorite coaches.
The Spun: What do you think about the job he’s done so far?
Jones: I think it’s been good. His first year was great, and from there he’s lost some players along the way. Now you’re going to see a lot of his recruits coming in and playing. It looks like they’re going to grant (transfer quarterback Shea) Patterson immediate eligiblity, so that’ll be very good.
It’s not an easy position he’s in. That’s a big job and some big shoes to fill there, coaching Michigan football, but he’s done a good job so far and it’s only going to get better.
The Spun: So if you were an athlete in a different sport, and were a perspective NCAA recruit, what do you think you would look for in a school?
Jones: For me, I would probably look for a smaller school. I wouldn’t want to be in a school with 30 or 40 thousand undergrads. I would want a little bit of a smaller atmosphere. Beyond that, if I was a football recruit the facilities would be a huge attraction. The three schools I’ve been to all have great facilities, and all are different.
I think looking for a nice facility, and a good group of coaches that I would like to be involved with would probably be big for me. I think the coaches would probably be even more important than the facilities. If I believe in the coaches and their mission, I think that would really drive me to pick one school over the other.
You can follow Jones’s tour of campuses across the country with the hashtag #CollegeExtravaganzaTour. He’ll be back in action this weekend at the KC Masterpiece 400 in Kansas City, Kansas on Saturday, May 12.