A Conversation with Champion Racecar Driver Bobby Latham III
As told to Southern Idaho Magazine
There’s no other smell like race day. If you’ve never smelled burning race fuel, it’s a smell that definitely wakes you up and gets you excited. It gets my adrenaline pumping. It’s intense.
I love the sounds of race day. The sounds of the engines going and the tire guns whirring. It’s just an experience. It’s awesome.
Tom Cruise puts it pretty good in Days of Thunder: “Speed. To be able to control it. To know that I can control something that’s out of control.”
There’s just something about being out there. It’s the speed. It’s the rush. People talk about adrenaline rushes, but I don’t think there are a lot of rushes out there that can compare to doing 160 miles per hour, nose to tail, door to door.
In the car, everything is hard steel and aluminum. Even my seat is made out of aluminum; it just has a little pad in it to keep me comfy – kind of. It’s real hot, especially in my black car when we go down to Phoenix and it’s 110 degrees outside and I have a 200-degree motor sitting a 1/8-inch piece of aluminum away from my feet. There’s not a lot of give. It can get a little uncomfortable at times, but that’s just part of the deal. Once you get on the racetrack, that all leaves you.
Racing is the most intense, physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done. Once I get on the racetrack, I don’t think about anything else. For however long I’m in the car – an hour, two hours – I’m completely focused on what I’m doing. I have to be, or else I end up eating the fence, like I did last year in Phoenix.
We raced at the Copper World Classic at the Phoenix International Raceway in January 2006. I had a brand new car, had never raced it before. I had a new team and we were all excited. We qualified somewhere mid-pack after working our butts off all weekend.
During the race, on lap two, I remember braking hard coming into the corner. We were all packed up like rush-hour traffic, going 120 mph. I was right on the tail of the guy in front of me and I felt a little nudge, nudge from my back end. Then I heard a big Wham! Then I heard my spotter say, “Get a hold of it.” Next thing I know, I was sideways. I looked over and I was pointed head-on into the rest of the guys and they started scattering around me. There’s something scary about going backwards across the track going 120, looking at 40 other cars coming at you going the same speed.
I slid up the track, the brakes locked up and I slammed into the wall. One car hit me in the front and another hit me in the side. It’s a surreal feeling, sitting there after it’s over. You’re like, “Wow, did that just happen?” After hitting a solid object going that fast, it takes a little bit to get your bearings.
It’s like in the movies when somebody gets hit or shot or something and everything is in slow-motion. It really happens. Everything was in slow-mo and I was trying to figure out what had just happened. The safety crew was there, running all around. I talked to my crew, told them I was all right and climbed out of the car. Everybody was cheering in the stands that I was OK. They loaded me in the ambulance and took me off. It’s all kind of a blur. Before it was all over, I had broken my neck and a couple of other crazy things. It was a wild experience. I didn’t know my neck was broken until two weeks later.
It was definitely the biggest crash I’ve ever been in and hopefully it doesn’t happen again. But you can’t go into it thinking, “If I do this, I’m going to get hurt.” It’s just one of those things; it’s a possibility and it’s always there. But you can’t think about it, or else it will slow you down. You can’t go into a race scared, but if I don’t scare myself real good three or four times throughout the race, I’m not going fast enough.
I have some superstitions. My number is 3, so I do everything in threes. Before the race, I’ll stick my hand out the window and only three people can give me a fist bump. After that, they can’t touch me. I put my earplugs in and pull them out three times. Then I listen to some Nirvana – it gets me jacked.
Last year I raced the AutoZone Elite Division Southwest and Northwest Series and the Dodge Weekly Series here at Magic Valley Speedway. I won the 2006 Magic Valley Speedway championship in my first full year of racing, so my goal is to win a championship in every year that I run a new series. A championship every year – doesn’t sound too bad.
This year I’m racing the Rocky Mountain Challenge Series and the Whelen All-American Series here locally, plus some Western Series. I’m looking forward to a new level of competition. Running in the Rocky Mountain Challenge Series means faster cars and a lot more experienced drivers. I’m putting myself up against a lot more professional guys, some seasoned veterans.
I’m 21, so I’m definitely the youngest guy out there racing. It gets a little intimidating sometimes when you’re coming down to the last laps and you’re head-to-head with a guy who you know has been there before. For example, Steve Jones and I were racing for last year’s championship and he’s been racing since he was 15 and has won multiple championships. There were a couple races where it came down to just me and him, fighting side-by-side the last five laps. It’s a little intimidating, but I just keep my head on straight because I know I can drive.
Ever since I was little I’ve liked to race stuff. I wanted to race the Hornets Series at Magic Valley Speedway since I was 14, but Mom said it was too dangerous. Finally, I went to Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif., for a Skip Barber race school. The guys there told me that I really had the talent to make it in some sort of racing. I came back and talked to Eddy McKean about renting a car for the tail end of the 2005 season. I won one race that year, then stepped it up in the offseason.
I’d love to make a career out of racing. It’s definitely my passion. I’d like to go either Busch Racing or Nextel Cup Racing – that’s the long term goal. But it’s a very competitive world; there are a ton of awesome drivers out there. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time – hopefully I’ll be at that place at that time. I’m working my way up. To get a big ride, you not only have to have a lot of experience; sponsors are looking for someone with a lot of poise. In this day and age, it’s not only how well you can drive a car, but how well you look in front of the camera and how well you can talk because you have to be a spokesperson for your sponsors. We’ll see if I’ve got what it takes. I think I do – it’s just convincing somebody else that I do.
I want people to know me as a guy who, when he sets his mind to something, will do it and do whatever it takes to be the best at it.
Some people say, “The kid is where he is just because of where life put him.” Yeah, I have more advantages than most people, and that helps. But you have to have the full package. I’d like people to think of me as somebody who is the best and got to where he is by his ability and his talent, not because of, you know, whatever else.
My friends are a huge part of my life. I would hope they would say that I am dedicated, loyal and passionate about what I do. My best friends on my race crew are as green as I am, but they did awesome last year. They have been there as long as I’ve raced and we’ve built it together as a team. In my acceptance speech at the Magic Valley Speedway championship banquet last year, my crew was sitting at a table in front of me and I said, “We’ve come a long way in just a few short months – from a bunch of guys who liked to come out and watch the races and watch cars go fast to a team of brothers that can work together to achieve one common goal. You won’t find a better group of friends than the guys sitting at the table right there.”
If I wrote an autobiography, it would be a wild book, I can tell you that. I’ve got some crazy stories of stuff that I’ve done, and I plan on getting a few more. Last year, they banned me from driving my own car into the racetrack. One night, we had just finished racing, and I think I had won that night. I had my Camaro out in the pits and everybody was getting a little rowdy after the races. One of the other drivers came up to me and said, “Does this thing spin the tires? Does this thing do burnout?”
And I was like, “Yeah, but I’m not going to do it right here.”
Then he said, “Ah, c’mon.”
The whole crowd was like, “Go! Go! Go!”
So, of course, I revved it up and flipped it around. And I guess it chucked a rock at one of the security guards, like a hundred yards across the infield area and hit him in the head or something. It made him mad, so he came running over and kicked me out of the racetrack.
I was headed home and they called me and said, “You probably need to come back here and talk about this.”
So I went back and they said, “We can’t have people doing this, so we’re going to ban you from driving your own vehicle into the pits anymore.” So for the rest of the year, it’s kind of funny that the track champion couldn’t even drive his own car into the racetrack. I could drive my racecar, but I couldn’t drive my own vehicle into the racetrack anymore. So I would pull up to the gate, swap drivers and they would have to drive me in. Pretty crazy.
My family is a big part of my life. I have one younger brother and two younger sisters. It’s been fun, I like being the oldest. I kind of got to be the guinea pig growing up. All the new stuff got tried on me. But that’s fine. My little brother, Toliver, is exactly two years younger than me; we have the same birthday. He looks up to me in some ways and in some ways I look up to him. He’s at Scottsdale Community College on a golf scholarship. He’s a big-time golfer looking to go PGA here pretty quick. I look up to him because he is really cool and composed under pressure. He definitely handles pressure better than most people. I think golf would be almost harder to keep yourself calm and composed because on one end, it’s such a low-intensity sport, but on the other side, if you’re coming down the 18th hole locked in with somebody else, you have to keep your head.
In certain ways I think golfing is tougher than racing. They’re so different, but then there are some key components that are the same, like focus. They both have a lot to do with mental game. They are two totally separate sports, but at the same time they are the same. My whole family is big into golf, but I always went out there to drive the golf cart. I hit the ball around, then I start to get goofy and hit it into the water and stuff – I just don’t have it up here, mentally, to be a golfer.
But I know that I have what it takes to be a racecar driver. It’s definitely exciting and an adventure. I love living on the edge. I love speed and I love being able to control it.