On the day before the biggest race of unlimited truck racer Justin Lofton’s season, he is starting to feel the pressure of what lies before him. A former NASCAR driver, Lofton is used to carrying the weight of both personal and professional stress. Yet, somehow, this day feels a bit different.
Sitting in the plush trailer his new sponsor Yokohama has parked in the swirling chaos of the Mint 400 Festival, Lofton has just completed two solid hours of signing posters and taking pictures with fans but remains as amiable and well-spoken as he ponders the challenge ahead.
Lofton goes into the Mint 400 as defending overall champion, and his Fox Shox/Yokohama Jimco-built truck proudly wears the No. 1 number plate. This is Lofton’s race, as he is also the only three-time overall champion of the historic racer. But, he placed only sixth in Thursday’s Method Wheel qualifying session. Considering the premium desert racers place on clean air, that situation is far from ideal, but he’s raring to go.
RACER: Off-road racing, for the most part, always seems to be a bit laid back. But, are you feeling the pressure for tomorrow?
Justin Lofton: There is always pressure, you know? It doesn’t matter if it’s outside pressures from sponsors, or even family and friends. You bring that with you, but like all racers you put that on yourself too. We are all afraid of failure, and that’s were a lot of pressure is. It will really set in tonight when I try to go to bed.
You think about it that much?
JL: Oh, I will lay in bed all night thinking about it.
To clarify, is it pressure or is it expectations because you have one this thing three times?
JL: Expectation turns into pressure and pressure turns into expectation. Sure, going out and having a good run is great, but I am here to win.
Why does this Mint 400 thing seem to work so well for you?
You are right. Even before the Mint my win rate here was incredibly high. There is something about the Primm Valley (where the race is held) that fits my driving style. I go out there and the mountains start talking to me and the rocks are putting out beams of light for me (laughs). It’s like at the Parker race, I just can’t do well there.
It seems that in the Trophy-Truck class, the guys at the top like Bryce Menzies and Andy McMillin have really stepped up their programs. Is that a fair assessment?
JL: Yeah, those guys have great programs with excellent funding. But you also have to have the right people and that takes time. I have always said in racing your weakest link is the person that doesn’t want to be there, but you have to make your weakest link one of your strongest people. Those guys have done a great job in the last two years amplifying their programs with the sponsors they have on board. Truthfully, Yokohama has given me that opportunity. People involved with my team have seen leaps and bounds of improvement. In the last 60 days we have raced four times already. We are on path to compete with them.
Money is money, but you took a leap of faith this year to make the commitment to changing your tire supplier to Yokohama.
JL: Look, tires are the single most important component in desert racing. That is what Yokohama has given me, and their people have given me. To have that whole organization and that brand help me put together a better team is huge. That’s what drew me to them in the first place. It’s not just marketing, but personnel with them.
But was there a trepidation to making the switch, because we know about their recent history where they clearly didn’t live up to expectations?
JL: There was. It took about a year and a half to do this. We were going back to Baja racing, and we didn’t want to change too many things. We put the team together, and them taking a leap of faith with me was a big as me taking that leap with them.
Let’s talk a bit about equipment. Is there pressure to move to an all-wheel-drive unlimited trucks from your two-wheel-drive Jimco?
JL: I say it may be a couple of years out, but I may be eating my words soon. We don’t have an order in for one anywhere. We have two trucks, but one is really just a chassis now. To me there are not enough of them to feel threatened by them. I feel with our horsepower we can run with them.
How much does your truck have?
JL: We have 1,175 horsepower out of our Danzio engine. They have a personal interest in our program, and they are part of their team.
How important is your relationship with the Fox Shox group in this effort?
JL: They are a great brand and I am proud to have them as my main sponsor. But, again, it’s more than that. They are family. Honestly, we haven’t had the time to work with them on shock upgrades lately, and that is a constantly changing area of opportunity. We will be trying out a new shock package at San Felipe, and there is more coming after that.
So, what’s the key to winning the 2020 Mint 400 for you?
JL: I am in the prime of my career mentally and physically. The time is now. I don’t have a final game plan for tomorrow yet; that will come to me tonight. I know the right thing that has worked in the past, which was to make sure we are in position to battle at the end. I think that will work again tomorrow. We are starting sixth, but there is one guy I am really worried about.
Only one? Who is it?
JL: Actually, it is Luke McMillin. I have to stay close to him. I feel it with Luke right now. He has had a great program and he puts so much into it. On a dedication level and a focus level he might be the toughest guy out here.
The obvious final question: What would winning a fourth Mint 400 mean to you?
JL: It would be like going back to the first one. It would give me some breathing room to still be Mr. Mint 400 (laughs). But, getting Yokohama their first big overall desert win in decades would be priceless for me. I saw what finishing third in Parker meant to them. Seeing the joy in their faces would make it so special.