By Matteo Marcheschi
Many race team owners scout young drivers. Finding and grooming that diamond in the rough can make or break a race team, depending, of course, on the young driver’s success. Gene Haas and Tony Stewart found that diamond in Cole Custer. Custer certainly didn’t attain success instantly, though.
Custer has raced for nearly his whole life, starting at age four, when he began racing quarter midgets. While he’d raced as a hobby for much of his youth, it wasn’t until the beginning of his teenage years that he decided he wanted to pursue it as a career. “I think back then was really a time when I wanted to get into it… around 12 or 13 was when I really started to get into it and I really thought that I could actually… make a career out of it,” Custer told Racegear.com. This was around the time he won the 2011 USAC National Focus Young Guns Championship, putting him on the map for the first time.
In 2012, Custer moved on to racing late models. He won ten races and became the Rookie of the Year in the series that season. Custer leveraged that success in order to move up to NASCAR in 2013. Custer raced the full K&N Pro Series East season for Ken Schrader Racing. He became the youngest K&N Pro Series winner in a combined event at Iowa Speedway, leading every lap after starting from the pole.
The next year, though, was truly a magical one for Custer: He joined Haas Racing Development, Gene Haas’ driver development program. That season, Custer ran nine Truck Series races for Haas, scoring two poles, a win, and six top-10 finishes. The next year, Custer ran 10 Truck Series races, this time for JR Motorsports. He remained in the Haas Racing Development system, though. Again, he had success, winning a race, a pole, and scoring four top-10 finishes.
Custer then ran the full 2016 campaign in the Truck Series for JR Motorsports. He wasn’t able to reach victory lane and missed the playoffs, but won two poles and scored five top-five finishes and 14 top-10 finishes. Custer finished a respectable tenth in the points, with an average finish of 11.5.
This year, Custer continues his climb up the NASCAR ladder. He competes full-time for Stewart-Haas Racing’s brand-new XFINITY Series program.
Every young fan and driver in the racing world has his idols, and, while many look up to drivers like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, or Jeff Gordon, Custer looks towards the roots of racing. “I always liked watching Jason Leffler and Johnny Sauter,” he said. “I thought those two guys were always the kind of guys I rooted for and I just like their aggressive driving styles and how they acted off the track, also.” Custer was able to race with Johnny Sauter in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and had to beat him to collect his pair of victories in the series.
Drivers like Sauter, veterans of the sport, helped Custer and, undoubtedly, many other young drivers in their pursuit of one day competing at the highest level of the sport. “All the veteran guys, they really teach you a lot,” Custer said. “Guys like Johnny Sauter, Timothy Peters, and Matt Crafton, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch. All those guys just teach you a ton when you’re driving with them just because they’re so experienced…” Custer has competed against Sauter, Peters, and Crafton in the Truck series and Harvick and Busch in the XFINITY series.
Custer, though, doesn’t only have experience on the track with him, he also has one seriously experienced owner. While this allows Custer to feed off that experience, it comes with a certain amount of pressure. “You’re always just trying to live up to the expectation,” Custer said. “You’re with a really great team, and a team that’s proven to win, and you want to try and accomplish that.”
When comparing the atmosphere at JR Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, Custer said they’re similar. “Both teams work really hard, they’re both down to earth… I think both teams are great and they have a lot of speed and I think they’re similar in being down to earth…”
When Custer joined Stewart-Haas Racing, he joined not only Tony Stewart, but also the four current Cup series drivers for the organization. He mentioned that California was the track where he leaned on SHR Cup drivers the most. “I had never been there before this year, and there’s a lot of lanes, a lot of stuff going on at that track, so I had to talk a lot with some people to try and get a hold of that. I try and talk to Kevin Harvick every single week just to try and get an idea of the tracks coming up.”
In fact, Custer said Harvick has been his mentor as he’s worked his way up the NASCAR ladder. “I try and get a lot of advice from him, trying to get an idea of what he thinks of the different tracks and he definitely helped me a lot just as a driver… this year.”
Custer’s future is bright, but how soon will he make his way up to the Cup series? “It’s hard to say,” Custer explained. “I mean, you’re always just focusing on what you’re doing at the moment. We’re just trying to win XFINITY races, but right now there’s no plans to go to Cup… but I think we haven’t really put too much thought into it.”
Custer echoed the sentiment of many young drivers in his desire to compete on Sundays. “We all want to be in the Cup series, that where you hope to be, but right now, you always have to be focusing on what you’re doing the next weekend, the next track coming up, so we’re just focused on winning some races.”
Right now, though Custer races in the NASCAR XFINITY series, and has experienced success so far this season. While he hasn’t found victory lane yet, he does have two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 17 races so far this season.
You can watch Custer and the rest of the XFINITY series on track next on Saturday, July 22 at 3:30 PM eastern time on NBCSN. They will be racing in the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.