Monday, March 7, 2016

Student NASCAR driver is growing up racing

By Jared Moon

Matt Tifft is getting plenty of attention as a
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver.
Imagine being strapped inside a turbocharged racecar, unable to move due to the g-forces being exerted on your body from the intense banking of the turn you’re coming out of. You’re entering hour three of the 300-mile race. Sweat is dripping from your brow as the temperature inside the car soars to nearly 150 degrees. All the while, you have several other cars traveling at just under 200 miles per hour jockeying for position inches away from you.

This was the reality for UNC Charlotte student Matt Tifft as he made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut last September at Kentucky Speedway in the 300. Driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry, Tifft raced to a top 10 finish.
“I think tonight went really well for my very first XFINITY race. We made it up to as high as second at one point and thought we had a car capable of staying up there.” said Tifft. “Unfortunately, I just got shuffled on those last two restarts, but it was really cool to be up there running with those guys. I’m really proud of the guys and all of the hard work they put in to come out with a top-10 finish. Thanks to everyone at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and UNC Charlotte for this opportunity.”
The 19-year-old business management major from Hinckley, Ohio, currently runs a part-time schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He also competes in a limited amount of ARCA Series events throughout the year.
For the Kentucky race, the No. 20 car was decked out in UNC Charlotte colors and logos, and Tifft and his crew wore UNC Charlotte-branded suits, too.
“Having a national television audience watch a UNC Charlotte-sponsored car — driven by a UNC Charlotte student — racing for 300 miles is fantastic exposure for the University,” said Stephen Ward, executive director for University communications at UNC Charlotte.
The UNC Charlotte branding package was accomplished with no University funds being spent; both were arranged between the racer’s management group and the Office of University Communications. Branding materials were provided by the University’s Marketing Department, which promoted Tifft and the car through social media – making it the most popular post of the month.
“I’ve had a very positive experience at UNC Charlotte, so it’s made it much more worthwhile to represent the school,” expressed Tifft.
Tifft ‘caught the racing bug’ as a kid going to the racetrack with his father. A fixture at the track, he developed a strong affinity for the sights and smells of the race track.
“As a kid, I can still remember the smell of gasoline and burnt rubber and the roar of the motors,” said Tifft. “I’d come home covered in dirt and dust from a day at the dirt track and think it was the greatest thing in the world.
“And now as a driver, I find myself still taking notice of those things which constantly remind me of why I first got into racing and how much I love it.”
While his career is still in its early stages, Tifft already has had the opportunity to learn from some of the biggest names in the sport, namely Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs.
“I think the biggest thing you understand is their expertise and attention to detail,” Tifft noted. “There’s such a high level of professionalism in those teams, and it’s a huge learning curve when you go to those type of places, but those experiences with individuals of that caliber are priceless and will pay dividends throughout my journey.”
The UNC Charlotte-branded car of Tifft's cut a striking figure.
With 90 percent of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams located within 50 miles, Charlotte serves as the proverbial capital of racing. A claim that was further cemented with NASCAR Hall of Fame now calling the city home. As a result, Tifft’s decision to move to Charlotte was fairly simple.
“The decision to come to Charlotte was similar to someone pursuing a dream of being an actor or model,” said Tifft. “If you want to be an actor or model you go to Los Angeles or New York City, race car drivers go to Charlotte.”
A business management major, Tifft understands at an early age the importance of being business savvy, especially in a sport where sponsorship deals can hinge on a driver’s ability to be a quality and effective spokesperson.
“I chose to major in business to help me better understand the sponsorship aspect of racing rather than the engineering side that a lot of people do,” explained Tifft. “There’s no hiding that we’re essentially moving billboards out on the track, so if you can represent your sponsors in the right way, it leads to better relationships.”
Ultimately, Tifft hopes to continue his rise up the ranks to compete in the Sprint Car Series. But his current challenge is striking a balance between his duties as a full-time driver and as a full-time college student. In fact, Tifft admits that striking the balance of racing and school is a constant internal struggle.
“I can’t do the things many of my friends do so it’s definitely a different college experience,” said Tifft. “But at the end of the day, achieving my goal of racing full-time at the top level far outweighs everything else.”
He finds success by maintaining a rigid schedule that artfully allots him time to keep up with everything.
“My typical week is front-loaded with classes, Thursdays are classwork and travel days, and Fridays are practice day and Saturdays are race day,” said Tifft.
The life of a 19-year-old student driver is far from typical. And while he recognizes the importance of education, he fully acknowledges the small window of opportunity an individual has to find success on racings grandest stage.
“Succeeding in school and getting a degree has always been really important to me. But looking from a professional standpoint, there’s a very limited window of when you can make in NASCAR. For me, this next year is going to be a very critical year in racing, and hopefully, I can make the most of that opportunity.”

Jared Moon is communications coordinator in the Office of Public Relations.

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