With its most popular and recognizable driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., retiring at the end of the season, NASCAR is turning to the next generation of athletes to carry the sport. One of those names vying for the attention of fans is 23-year-old Ryan Blaney. He is running full-time for the second year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and has advanced to the Round of 8 in the playoffs with only two races left to decide the season champion.
If kids are looking for a driver to cheer for, Blaney may be one of the best to choose because of the appreciation he shows for young fans. Following his Xfinity Series win earlier this year at Dover International Speedway, Blaney took the checkered flag that is awarded to the winner and handed it through the fence to a boy in the stands.
“That was a spur of the moment thing after we won,” says Blaney. “I saw a kid, and he looked like he was happy to be there, so I just decided to give it to him. He was actually able to come to Victory Lane. It was a neat moment getting to meet him.”
Like so many kids, Blaney grew up playing lots of different sports. “I played baseball and soccer, basketball, volleyball for a little bit. Basketball was probably my favorite, and I actually play a lot nowadays.”
But like his father and grandfather before him, Blaney settled on a career in racing. Blaney has many fond memories of his time at the track as a kid. Dad Dave Blaney drove in the Cup Series for 17 years, and grandfather Lou Blaney was a very successful driver in sprint cars and modified cars.
“One of the things that stands out to me as a memory was making a lot of friends with the kids in the garage. It was fun to makes friends like that. [The] parents did the same thing. I race with some of [my friends] today.” One of those kids he now races with is 22-year-old Chase Elliott, the son of NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott.
“I like the Cars movies,” says Blaney. “I was 11 or 12 when the first one came out. Your car isn’t animated yet, so you don’t know what your car is doing while you are talking. We had a lot of fun with it.”
But while he may be a movie star of sorts himself now, Blaney is known in the NASCAR garage as the number one fan of the Star Wars franchise and counts The Empire Strikes Back as his favorite so far. Last year, he waited in line for three hours on opening night to get good seats for Episode VII: The Force Awakens!
And does he have any special plans to see Episode VIII next month? Well, it turns out Blaney will have to work extra hard to steer clear of spoilers. “It comes out on December 15, and December 16 I’m actually going out of the country on a cruise,” he says. “Hopefully I can see it without it getting ruined for me and people telling me what happens.”
Photographs by (from top) Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images; Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images