A year or two ago, sometime in the throes of a NASCAR Cup Series season, Jodi Geschickter met an old friend and kept an old promise.
Well, it wasn’t a promise. More of an off-the-cuff comment, really. It was from over two decades ago, not long after Geschickter and her husband, Tad, started their first race team. Geschickter was working two jobs at the time — working in the race team office during the week and as a flight attendant on the weekends — and she’d invited a pilot she’d worked to tour her team’s race shop in Charlotte.
“He said, ‘I’ll make you a deal: When you get this going, and you have your airplane, I’ll be your pilot,’” she said in a phone interview Monday. “And I said, ‘Deal.’ And then I guess last year, the year before, we have a charter flight that leaves out of Statesville, and I walked out on a Tarmac to get on that charter flight.
“And guess who was the captain of that airplane? The same guy I worked with 27 years before. … He said, ‘I’ve always kept up with you, watched what you’ve been doing over the years,’ and I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re working together.’”
Geschickter laughed as she recalled this story earlier this week, a few days before she took off for Los Angeles to watch the 47 car (driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) compete in NASCAR’s second-annual beginning-of-the-season exhibition race dubbed the Clash at the Coliseum. The story seems to encapsulate the 29-season journey of Geschickter — who is a co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, and who has long been one of the few female owners in the NASCAR Cup Series, and who explains what has kept her in racing for so long with an expression that can only be delivered in soft-spoken Southern twang: “It’s kind of like dancing with a bear. When you’re dancing with a bear, it’s kind of hard to let go.”
The Charlotte Observer’s Alex Zietlow spoke with Geschickter earlier this week, and she discussed what it’s been like running a race team with her husband, Tad; her naivete as a young race team owner; the future of women in motorsports and more.
Here’s the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Jodi Geschickter beginning a career in racing
Zietlow: So you and your husband’s first season as owners was in 1994, right?
Geschickter: Yes, so this is is our 29th year. We started out in what was the Busch Grand National Series (now known as the Xfinity Series). … We started out with a driver named Jeff Fuller from Massachusetts. We’ve grown, we’ve contracted, we’ve changed series, but we’ve continued ownership in a series in NASCAR for 29 years. That’s telling my age. I was young when we started, though. They used to call us the whippersnappers, but we’re not the whippersnappers anymore.
Q: Were you always a racing fan? When did your love for racing begin?
A: Well, I had never been to a stock car race or a NASCAR race until 1989. I went on a date with my (future) husband to the Coca-Cola 600. And the team we were with won because (Darrell Waltrip) drove for Procter and Gamble, and it was the Tide car, and the Tide car won. And I thought, “Oh this is pretty easy: You go to the race, and you win.” Had no idea how difficult it was to actually win a race. So that was one of the first Cup races I went to, so yeah, the Coca Cola 600 was one of our first dates and my first race.
That was my first experience. And then Tad was working with a friend (Steve Plattenberger), coaching little league, and they sort of hatched the idea that they would start a race team. He was a crew chief and said, “I think I can handle the automotive part if you can handle the marketing.” And Tad knew it from the marketing side, and that’s kind of how we started it. We started it with a partner years ago.
Q: It seems like y’all went in with a whole bunch of naivete. Like, “Oh, how hard could this be?”
A: That’s exactly the way it was. (Laughs.) And our partner had a little building that was set apart from his house (in Waxhaw). This is out in the country. And he had chickens in it. He had some racecars in one side, and he had some chickens in another, and there was a little office in there, and we were able to set up the phone lines. You’d kind of have to walk through the chickens to get into the door of the office. And that’s how we started. And then we started making phone calls and started talking to potential sponsors that way.
Q: What was it like co-owning a race team in those early years?
A: We just kind of did everything ourselves. It was a very small group, support group of employees. We did it as we could afford it. We had to find a race shop and a place to operate out of. … The challenges were being competitive, learning the sport and supporting our sponsors. Learning how to do it.
Q: Making that jump up to the Cup Series, did that cause anxiety? Were you excited by those prospects?
A: It caused a lot of anxiety. Because we didn’t have a history in that sport individually. Our partners did, but we didn’t have any experience. And it’s the pinnacle of NASCAR, so to make that leap individually was very stressful. We weren’t sure about qualifying and how all that would work, and if we would even make it.
Thinking through some of the high points and low points of the sport — actually just high points, I don’t really like to think about the low points — a high point was qualifying for that first race and actually making it with our car. It was a go-or-go-home situation. Had we not made it, it would’ve been a significant financial hardship for us, if we hadn’t qualified for our first car.
Q: Do you remember which race that was?
A: Oh absolutely. (Laughs.) It was the Brickyard (in 2008). So we were racing Busch Series cars — or I guess maybe it was Xfinity by then — at the IRP, which is the small track at Indy, so we were attempting to run a limited schedule, and that first race was the brickyard, so we had to qualify to get in. And so, our motor blew during practice. So we really didn’t get any practice. So we had to just qualify cold. And get in it. So it would’ve been very difficult had we not made it in there.
Q: Seems like you remember it like it was yesterday.
A: I do because the Brickyard is such a massive track. And you could hear the cars go around. And I was with my husband and our partner, Brad Daugherty, who is a wonderful person by the way, and we were there together, and we said, “You know, it sounded fast. It looked fast.” But you don’t know until qualifying was over whether you were in or not. So that knot, that pit in your stomach as you’re watching it unfold. So you feel pretty good, but you’re just not sure. Lots of tears were shed by me when we were able to race our way into that.
Q: When you first started did you envision being owners of a team in the NASCAR Cup Series?
A: I think we did. But we thought the journey would be shorter, maybe? But it’s kind of like dancing with a bear. When you’re dancing with a bear, it’s kind of hard to let go.
Q: I haven’t heard that expression, full disclosure. (Laughs.)
A: You haven’t, but you’ve got a pretty good visual, right?
Q: You’re one of the few women Cup Series owners in NASCAR and have kind of occupied that distinction for a long time, as you’ve been in NASCAR for a long time. What do you make of that?
A: I think we’re all judged individually, on who we are, versus our gender. I think we’re judged by our peers based on our experience, our efforts, our knowledge, and to a certain extent, our tenacity. Because we don’t quit. I think that’s what people are judged on in this sport. And their integrity.
Q: What do you think the future of women in motorsports is?
A: I see women involved in more aspects of it, now more than ever. There are intelligent, hard-working women who are coming into the sport. And I think they’re welcomed. I don’t see any difference at this point in gender, I really don’t. I would love to see more women in this sport. It’s a small group right now, but I see it growing.
I think we all have different personalities, and we bring something different to the table, and see things from a different perspective, a unique view, and I think that would help the sport grow, continuing to see women entering into it.