Exclusive-Catching up with 2016 Truck Series Champion Johnny Sauter

by Briar Starr On Tue, Mar. 19, 2019

Photo by Rachel Schuoler for SpeedwayMedia.com.

Johnny Sauter is a racer’s racer, a 23-time race winner, 2016 champion, a future NASCAR Hall of Fame member and a tell it like it is, race car driver.

In this interview, we talk everything racing including how Sauter got his start, his return to Thorsport Racing, the NASCAR schedule and recent rule changes, what race car part he would be and if he would retire now, would he be satisfied with his career?

Necedah, Wisconsin is where you will find the famous racing name, the Sauter family. The Sauter name has been a big name in racing, just like any big name in racing. Tim Sauter, Johnny’s brother, and Jim Sauter, Johnny’s dad all made their mark in NASCAR by making starts in several series.

Growing up, he was not your typical sports kid. He was always interested in racing from a very young age, like most race car drivers nowadays. Sauter did not spend time Friday nights watching high school football games or basketball games. Instead he was focused on racing and spending time with his family at the racetracks.

The Wisconsin native talks about what peaked his interest in wanting to become a racecar driver.

“I couldn’t help, but take an interest in it (racing), going to short tracks with my old man,” Sauter said. “You know, growing up in a small town, I really didn’t get into too many sports or any other thing, like that. I kind of always wanted to be around racing. So I would go to the racetrack with my older brothers, work on the car during the week and in the summertime, I spent my time going to the track.”

He recalls his first few memories of being at the racetrack at such a young age. He remembers being aggressive and people not being happy with it.

“I remember being pretty aggressive and a lot of guys wanting to kill me,” Sauter said. “Early on, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a very fast car. I made a lot of contact. Those were some of the earliest memories, but I was able to figure it out really quick and had success being able to win races pretty quick.”

“I just remember it being a lot of fun,” he said. “Back in those days, you did all you could to get to the racetrack and then when you got there, there’s nothing like it. Those are some of the earliest memories for sure.”

Before his time in NASCAR, he competed in what is now the defunct ASA National Touring Series, where his first start came in 1998, by racing in seven races. The series was known for building drivers before competing nationally.

He talks about how he started racing in ASA and why it led him to where he is today.

“I was having a lot of success in the ASA Series, which was a national series,” the 2016 champion said. “It was responsible for developing a lot of guys like Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace, the Allisons, and you know, all these people. Unfortunately, it’s not here anymore.”

“I was in that series in 2001 and won 10 out of 20 races, won Rookie of the Year and the championship all in one season,” Sauter told Speedway Media. “That’s kind of how it catapulted my career to get the opportunity to go south and race for a living.”

With the ASA gone for several years now, Sauter thinks it could come back, but it would have to take the right people.

“I miss it (ASA),” he said. “I wish there was something equivalent to others. The unique thing about ASA, it was a national touring series, but it focused on short tracks. You went to Milwaukee, which was a mile, to me the biggest track you could ever think about going to. Just a lot of your grassroots short tracks. I don’t know if there is really anything that focuses on that, like ASA did. So obviously, I was a big fan of that, I would love to see something similar come back, but it went away for a reason I guess it was not sustainable. It’s pretty unfortunate.”

“I think it could come back,” he continued. “It takes the right people, like anything. What I see nowadays, a lot of times, the short track world with just so much division with the rules. You know, this is legal here and this is not legal here, having this in a certain place. So to me, the short track world really needs to take a serious look at how they are doing things. I feel like it’s a detriment for the short track series. They need to get the hell together and come up with some common ground. “

“Back before my time, you could run anywhere in the country with an asphalt late model car and run ASA,” Sauter said. “Now it’s just so divided. You can’t even go two hours apart, short track to short track, without having different rules. So I don’t know, I just miss ASA.”

With his involvement in ASA, Johnny didn’t make his first Truck Series start until 2003 driving the No. 9 Christopher Beckington machine. Sauter built his own truck and ran a few races the following year before it was too expensive. In 2005, he ran one race for Thorsport, which ultimately started Duke and Rhonda Thorson’s relationship with the team to where they are today.

“I dabbled in the Truck Series a little bit,” he said. “If I remember it was very good stuff. In 2004, I built my own truck, ran second with it at IRP (now Lucas Oil Raceway). I probably only ran it myself, two or three times, that’s how expensive it was. It just wasn’t for me, you know?”

“Early on in my career, I ran some stuff and I can’t even remember the first truck I ran.”

He returned to Thorsport Racing in 2009 to his first full season in the Truck Series. He talks about their relationship and why running for the team is so special. And if he is superstitious of his No. 13.

“Originally, I had ran one race for Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) in 2005 at Homestead,” Sauter said. “They needed somebody at that time. I’m not exactly sure why. From there, it was just a one race deal and four years later, we’re going in to 2009 full-time. I think it was a deal, where I was obviously looking for a ride. They thought it was a good option.”

“You know, I don’t really remember a lot of the specifics, but it was a good run,” the Thorsport racing driver said. “We came within six points of winning a championship, we won 10 races. I went off to do the GMS thing and here we are back at Thorsport. It’s been good. I’ve always built a good relationship and I feel like this is really awesome. I look for us to win races and a trip to the championship.”

He also explains if he is superstitious about driving the No. 13.

“You know, I’m the least superstitious guy out there,” he explained. “That stuff just doesn’t phase me at all, I don’t even think about it. I think the No. 13 is pretty cool, honestly. It was cool to have the option to go back to the 13 where it all started at Thorsport. I just don’t look at stuff like that, I guess. I know, a lot of people are like, how can you do that, but it is what it is.”

When he is not racing in the Truck Series, he is racing and building his own late models. However, there are some tough times that come with it.

“It’s going good,” Sauter said, “but I’m pretty discouraged with all of it in the direction it’s headed. I don’t know if it’s ignorance or arrogance, or what the deal is. It’s just made it really hard to be able to travel around and race. There’s just so many different rules, so many different engines. Especially for me where I live in Wisconsin, eight different engine packages. I love it, hope to run some, but it’s making it less and less enjoyable just because there’s no common ground. It’s sickening.”

“Promoters can’t work together or sanctioning bodies don’t want to work together, and there is no common ground,” he emphasized. “Half the tracks in the state I’ve been around, they run the old template body and the others run the new body, several different engine packages, 10 different weight packages. Just all the different rules, it makes it hard for a guy to pick a few races and go have some fun. It’s really hard to have a car to race everywhere.”

“You know, quite frankly, a couple of years ago that was never the case. There was common ground, but that’s all been blown out the window. As far as I’m concerned, shame on the promoters, track owners, and the competitors, they are as much to blame.”

Being back at Thorsport Racing means Matt Crafton, also a two-time champion, is his teammate again. The two have definitely shared a lot over the years and remain close friends. Sauter describes their relationship and how it helps the team of what they need.

“Yeah, at the end of the day, if Thorsport wins, Thorsport wins,” the No. 13 driver said. “It’s been a good relationship through the years. We like to give each other a hard time and have some fun, and race each other hard and all that. I mean, it’s good. It’s cool to have two veteran guys on the same team. That’s a lot of fun actually.”

With some possible schedule changes coming up in a few years, Sauter agrees with Crafton’s thought of going to “Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake, IRP.”

“To me, it’s been talked about quite a bit,” Sauter said. “I think they (NASCAR) need to get back to the grassroots a little bit. Kind of accommodate some of the short track fans across the country. Me personally, I don’t think you need to be going to places like Pocono. It’s cool, the Cup goes there and all that, but I don’t think the Truck Series needs to be running there. The more short tracks you go to, at the end of the day, it would cost the team owners less for not having to go to the wind tunnel, where you try to find speed on the mile and a half stuff.”

“I think going to short tracks and as I say that, you go back 10 years ago, there was a lot of short tracks on the schedule,” he told Speedway Media. “They all went away for some reason. I don’t know if that would be problem solved personally. We used to go to Memphis, Milwaukee, IRP, Mansfield and so many good short tracks. Those places kind of went away, so I don’t know what the cure is. Mixing it up a little bit, maybe just stay away from the places that take up a lot of resource if you ask me.”

Throughout the years, he has competed off and on in the Xfinity and Cup Series driving for multiple people. The last few years, however, he has been in the Truck Series. He explains why the trucks are a perfect fit for him.

“Let’s be honest, you could go get in a Cup car but it won’t be in a competitive situation,” Sauter said. “There are only so many guys that are quality enough to go out and win. To me, if I tell people I go out and drive a Cup car, I could care less. I’ve always felt that way. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to go out and win, week in and week out. The Truck Series has been a good place for me to go do that.”

“The schedule is nice, especially now that I have four kids and trying to spend time with them,” he said. “That Cup schedule is a grind and is very demanding. The Truck Series is just a good fit. At the end of the day, it’s about being competitive and having a shot to win. I have those opportunities in the series.”

Sauter also gives his thoughts on the schedule length to either keep it at 23 or have more or less races.

“I think anywhere in that neighborhood is good,” Sauter said. “You always think about things like it would be nice to have more, but I understand the cost side of things in what that would mean to add more, the expense and always worrying about the over saturation where you try to do too much and people pay less attention to it.”

“There’s a lot of things to consider, but I think the schedule is right,” he said. ” I don’t think it needs to be much more or much less.”

In addition to talking about the schedule, Sauter explains where his favorite stop is.

“I like Dover,” Sauter said. “I love that racetrack and love racing there. The speed, the banking, it’s just a fun place. I even felt like that before I won the last two years there. It’s a nice part of the country to go and get away, but that racetrack there is bad to the bone. I would have to say that’s pretty close to the top of the list.”

“There’s a lot of places we go to honestly, but Dover is my favorite,” he said. If I had to race one more time, it would be Dover.”

With Sauter and Crafton being the veterans of the series, more and more young drivers are coming up through the series just to get experience and move on to the next thing.

“This is going to sound pretty bad, but I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “I’ve always kept my nose down and focus on what I needed to do. Obviously the goal in anyone’s career is to move up and I can’t fault somebody to move up. And if they move up too soon, I think a lot of times you have to move up when the opportunity presents itself, whether you’re ready or not.”

“That’s a tough deal,” he continued. “Sports are getting tougher and tougher on when to move up. I don’t know who the next breakout star is. It depends where they are going and who they align with. I probably look at it a little more in depth from a experience stand point.

The Truck Series has grown in status and has become quite popular among the fans from where it was 20 years ago. It’s quite possibly the best racing out of the three series. Sauter details his thoughts on what it looks like 20 years from now.

“I kind of would like to see it revert back to where it started, honestly,” Sauter said. “The short tracks across America. Like I said before, I don’t know how easy that is, but what I find in life that is cool, a lot of other people don’t. “

With Sauter being around racing his entire life, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else other than being a racecar driver.

“I’ve thought about a lot of different things” the Thorsport driver said. “You get to a lot of cool things that are very intriguing, but I really don’t know. I’ve always been all in on this and gave it all that I had. It’s easy to sit here and speculate what you would do, but I’m thankful I haven’t had to figure that out yet.”

During the interview, Sauter had to think hard about what kind of racecar part he would be.

“Oh boy, a racecar part?” Sauter said. “I don’t know, I guess a shock? I’ve never really thought about that.”

He also remembers the 2010 Iowa race where he started fifth and finished second. Sauter also tells why you shouldn’t get caught up in the moment.

“Second maybe,?” the Wisconsin native said. “Pretty good ain’t it? 2010, that’s a long time ago. I just know I finished second, third, fourth and fifth at Iowa a lot of times. So it was just a pretty good guess if you want to know the truth.”

If NASCAR had come to him for an opinion on what he could change rule wise, he explains that he doesn’t know what he would change.

“I think I would make less rules for sure,” he told Speedway Media. “I would try to go back to the olden days, but technology has kind of changed things so much. I’ve always feel like less rules make better racing. There isn’t one or two huge things, but do a little bit of this and that. You know, make it easier for everyone involved and not police stuff. There’s always someone trying to get an edge.”

“It’s easy to list off five things that need to change, but there’s a reason things are the way they are,” he continued. “To do it with common sense maybe. That would be something I would have to sit back and study.”

With being on the topic of rules, the 2016 champion gives his thoughts on what he thinks about NASCAR changing the rules so that if someone fails post-race inspection, they will be disqualified and lose the win.

“I think it’s depending on the infraction,” he said. “Me personally, that’s how I would look at it. I’ve seen some people get disqualified in the late model stuff and it would make me sick. I don’t know if I’m a huge proponent of that personally, but like I said, depending on the infraction and how big of an advantage was it, there’s ways to measure that. By all means, if it’s something outrageous, then it should cost them but that’s a fine line.”

Almost every driver wishes they had a race they could do over again. Whether it’s a restart, a pit stop, whatever it is, a racecar driver always remembers. In this case, Sauter remembers the 2011 Texas race that ultimately cost him the championship that year.

“I’ve got a lot of them,” Sauter shared. “You know, you always have a race when you find yourself in a bad spot that maybe costs you the win. I think back to Texas in 2011, where they gave me a lane violation. I don’t know if it was totally a lane violation, but it cost me the win. We won the race, but they took it away, ultimately losing the championship that year by six points and basically took 25 points from you that day. That one always sticks back in my mind.”

If there was to ever be an exhibition race that included legends such as Ron Hornaday, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague, Mike Skinner, Ted Musgrave and himself included, he thinks he could win.

“Oh I think I would win, just becuase I’m better than all those guys,” Sauter jokingly said. “It would be cool.”

He also said that maybe a race like that could draw fans.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he continued. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea. I was lucky enough to race against Hornaday, Skinner, Bodine in the early days. There’s been some good drivers that made some good careers in the Truck Series and get those guys together, that would be fun to watch.”

With the stage racing and Playoffs being implentend in the Truck Series, Sauter thinks it hasn’t really changed much in terms of the race aside from pit strategy.

“I don’t know if stage racing has made a huge impact in the Truck Series,” Sauter said. “In a lot of ways, I think it has dictated when one would pit. Our races are so short, so it’s kind of hard when to layout the pit strategy for the night. I don’t know if I’m a big fan, but it’s not that terrible either. It’s whatever. What rules they make, we’ll make sure we race with them.”

“Believe me if I was smart enough to do those things, I would.” Sauter continued. “I think NASCAR is in a tough spot. Everything is so easy to sit back and criticize. It’s like okay, they give me a clean sheet of paper and tell us what you think, I don’t know if I would be any better.”

With the Truck Series not racing as much as the Cup and Xfinity Series, it gives guys like Sauter the opportunity to spend more time with their family and he’s a big fan of that.

“You know, I’m a huge fan of dropping my kids off and picking them up every day,” he said. “If I’m not at Thorsport, I try to work on my super late model stuff. We are getting into that time of year, where I need to be working on that stuff. My biggest deal right now is working on this truck deal and learn my guys, and have them learn me, learn some stuff up here..

At some point in a driver’s career, they think about retirement. Sauter doesn’t know what that’s like, whether it’s this year or five years from now. One’s thing for sure, he won’t be around much if he is done racing.

“If I’m not driving, you won’t ever see me much at the racetrack,” Sauter said. “Having said that, I don’t know what retirement is. Whether if it’s this year or something, I don’t know what it is. A lot of times, I don’t think that’s a driver’s option to be put in. I have the opportunity to race now and I’m going to make the best of it.”

“After retirement, I can’t just do nothing” he emphasized. “I’m so used to doing things, I’ll figure out something to do. Keep myself busy, I’m not a sit around and do nothing guy. I’ve always got to be doing something. There’s plently of things to do in the world that’s for sure.”

Kyle Busch has been in the news recently and receiving a lot of criticism for competing in both series. Sauter thinks it’s ridicoulous and people need to quit complaining about it.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” the Wisconsin native said. “They were saying some stat where out of my 23 wins, only six of them was when Kyle Busch was in the field. On any given day, if the opportunity presents itself, they’re beatable. They’re obviously good drivers and all that. I think people need to get off that complaining stuff, you know what I mean?

“Me personally, when I see a guy like Kyle (Busch) want to come and race in the Truck Series, I think it’s pretty cool,” Sauter continued. “Not only just the Trucks but the late model stuff. That’s the way it used to be, that’s what racers did. I can remember being a kid and Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt some of these guys would come do some ASA racing across the country and mix it up a little bit with the short track guys. I think it would be odd if the Cup guys didn’t have a presence in the Truck Series.”

Sauter continued to explain about comparisons in other sports.

“The comparisons from major leagures to Triple AAA and all that stuff, it’s just garbage.”

With having a best season of six wins last year, Sauter gives his prediction of how many wins he thinks he will have by the end of the 2019 season.

“Four,” he said. “I feel like where we are it would be a decent number. Obviously, I want it to be more. Like I said, it’s a new deal. We’ve shown speed right out of the gate at (Las) Vegas, ran second at Atlanta. Anything less than that would be a disappointment.”

In his Truck Series career, he has 247 starts over 16 years, 23 wins, a championship, 103 top fives, 159 top 10s and seven poles. The fierce competitor doesn’t look like he will be slowing down anytime soon.

You can follow Johnny Sauter on Twitter.

** The opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the publisher. All comments other than website related problems need to be directed to the author. (c)SpeedwayMedia.com. **

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