The transition hasn’t been an easy one for Tanner Gray.
The 20-year-old defending NHRA Pro Stock division champion decided late last year to make the move to stock car racing. On paper, solidifying a ride with champion team DGR Crosley would have him well on his way to a quick ascent up the stock car ladder.
If only it was that simple.
Gray had a handful of oval starts on his resume in a stock car before the K&N Pro Series East season opener, notably driving a Super Late Model for LFR in 12 races in 2016 as well one event a few weeks prior at New Smyrna Speedway. Gray used experience from those races, as well as learning on the fly, to finish 12th in his series debut.
"To be honest with you, I think we showed decent speed throughout the race.," Gray said. "I just didn’t do a decent job managing it and making sure I was there at the end I guess. Obviously it’s definitely a learning experience, but I was disappointed in myself. I sort of knew what I had to do I just didn’t do it, you know?"
Gray was irritated by not performing up to the standards he knows DGR is capable of. He’s seen it before and had a plan, he just didn’t execute it.
"It’s frustrating when you have a group of guys around you that are that talented and you go out and run the way you did," he said. "It’s frustrating. Ran too hard throughout the race, didn’t save enough and had nothing there at the end. There’s definitely a lot of things I can do to clean up. All in all, it could’ve gone worse, but it could’ve gone better."
The entire 2019 season will be a learning experience for Gray. That learning and growth as a race car driver began at the end of 2018 and carried into the beginning of 2019. Leading up to the New Smyrna 175, he studied like a NFL quarterback.
"Spending time at the shop and trying to get as comfortable as I can," he said. "Just really focused on trying to learn as much as I can about everything else that’s going on. You can’t test, so I ran some laps on a simulator. Watched film and races from the past. Last year’s race with Harrison (Burton) and Todd (Gilliland), took notes on how the race developed throughout the night. I think it was obviously different this time with having to run on only one set of tires."
– #NHRA (@NHRA) December 29, 2018
Usually for a rookie, there’s teammates to lean on, bounce information and questions off of at new places and about new things. But Gray doesn’t have that luxury, as DGR is fielding two full-time rookie drivers (Gray and Drew Dollar) in 2019. Throughout the offseason and moving forward, Gray plans to use team owner David Gilliland as a springboard.
"I try to lean on David quite a bit," he said. "Seth (Smith) too, my crew chief, he just won the title with (Tyler) Ankrum, so he obviously knows how to get around these places okay. They do a really good job of helping me out and getting me up to speed. I know we bring really good racecars to the racetrack every week. I guess I was hoping I’d do a little better for my first race but all you can really do is learn from it, take notes and move onto the next place. You can’t really dwell on it."
Anytime a DGR car hits the track, it’s a contender to win. Ankrum’s championship and Tyler Dippel’s second-place points finish proved that point even more last year. Gray’s expectations for his rookie season are based on his team’s prowess more than his own conjuncture.
"I obviously want to win a championship and be there at the end," he said. "But I mean honestly I’d be happy with coming out and winning a few races and being in contention. Especially with it being my first year and all. If I could go out, win some races and show them I’m there, I’d be pleased with that. Obviously the reason everyones out there is to win a championship, that’s the goal. But I’m not going to sit here and tell you I won’t be pissed off if we don’t win it."
His next step towards the ultimate goal, a championship, is a date with The World’s Fastest Half Mile, Bristol Motor Speedway. In his first trip to BMS last season, Ankrum started and finished fourth at BMS. Gray is hoping he can replicate the defending champion’s quick success at the concrete coliseum.
"Man, I don’t even have an outlook on it," he said. "I have no idea. Ran a few laps on the simulator but it’s so hard to judge anything off that. Hopefully I can go there and adjust quick. I think I’ll be able to with the people they put around me. They’re really good at what they do and they were able top get Tyler (Ankrum) up to speed pretty decent around there. It might just take me a little bit, but we’ll be ok."
The Zombie Auto 150 at Bristol Motor Speedway will take place on Saturday, April 6.