THERE ARE MANY aspects about the state of New Jersey that result in the world happening inside the state lines to be overlooked and underestimated. It’s not often fans hear about lucrative purses or exciting racing action in the abundant headlines surrounding dirt track racing. Overlooked and underestimated have not only defined the location but also New Jersey driver Ryan Simmons.
Coming from a racing family that boasts everything from track promoters to drivers, Simmons wasn’t privy to the flood of sponsorship and opportunities found in more populous dirt track states. Simmons worked his way through the ranks to the seat of his now modified race team, the same way he quietly works through traffic on a Saturday night. It’s this passion and grit for racing that has found him in victory lane on multiple occasions as well as back-to-back at races like the Mr. Crate Classic ran at New Egypt Speedway.
Dirt Empire: Let’s start right from the beginning. You started your racing career at 16 – what made you get serious about a career in racing?
Ryan Simmons: Well, I’ve always been involved in racing. I grew up at the local tracks and always wanted to get behind the wheel and try different things. I didn’t care what I raced; I just knew that I wanted to. Growing up with no quarter midget or micro sprint experience or anything small car wise, I was just hungry to get behind the wheel. I wanted to do anything; I would have driven a wheelbarrow. I still am that way. I don’t ever get burnt out because growing up as a kid, wanting to do this so badly, it’s stuck in my mind that you just have to do it now, be grateful for the opportunity.
DE: You come from a racing family, whose roots run very deep in racing off the track. What has this been like for you on and off the track? Do you feel this brings you any extra pressure?
RS: Definitely, I feel a lot of pressure. My grandfather was so well known in the New Jersey racing scene, my dad, too. They were so well known for just being friendly, hanging out, making a lot of friends; so now it’s always like “oh you’re Jackson’s grandson” or “John Simmons’ son.” I feel pressure to live up to my family name, everyone knows them, even though my grandfather never raced but my dad did. I want to live up to that name; I want to be the next step that takes the name to the next level. I’ve always put pressure on myself for everything in life; on race day, I go in there and I treat it like it’s a job. I try to remind myself that I’m here for fun, but as soon as I lock in and put the helmet on, it’s go time. I don’t accept anything less.
DE: What drew you to wanting to race modifieds? How do you feel a modified challenges your driving style? Do you feel that your future is always going to be in a modified?
RS: Modified racing is the biggest thing around here. If you want to get into serious racing, you race a modified. My dad also raced modifieds so it’s always just been my love. Eventually I would like to maybe see what I can do in a sprint car; I’m getting my foot in the door with a 305 at the end of the year. Maybe we’ll do more racing with that next year. Eventually, I’d love to get into the sprint car world, just because I’d like to go try something a little different.
DE: It’s not often the racing world hears a lot about the racing scene in New Jersey or New Jersey drivers as far as dirt track racing goes. What is the competition like for a modified driver? Do you think fans would be shocked to hear how competitive it really is?
RS: To be honest with you, I think New Jersey competition is some of the best.
There is a lot of money to race for here; there are just not a lot of car owners, which limits the opportunities for drivers. That’s the tough part.
DE: While it’s not unheard of, it is rare – your girlfriend Amanda Buchel also races a modified, and sometimes races against you. Does this make your on track or even off track life any extra stressful?
RS: I really like racing with her but she hates it. [Simmons laughs] I think she thinks about it more and is afraid of what if something happens, what if I’m mad, etc. We don’t talk about it off the track. The nights we do race each other, I’ll go over and give her a kiss, wish her good luck. But, once the helmet goes on, I don’t know her. It is what it is, we’re just competitors. As soon as we’re done, we’re done, once we’re off the track, that’s it, we’re going to go out to eat or get breakfast in the morning, we don’t talk about it, and I think it’s great. I travel a bit more than she does, so when I do, she’ll come to the races and support me, and when we have to race against each other, we just do it and then that’s it.
DE: Speaking of your girlfriend, recently you became a little popular over an incident involving her little brother, who also happens to race your back up car. Tell us a little about that, and why it was important for you to stand up and make a point to the fans.
RS: My girlfriend’s little brother is 16 and he runs some micro sprint stuff and also runs my back up car this year in his rookie season. He recently lost his mom to cancer the Monday before the championship race. He’s done really well in my car and won quite a bit, including the weekend prior. When he pulled into victory lane and the announcer began interviewing him and talking about his mom, you could tell he was having a bit of a hard time emotionally with it, and this older gentleman in the stands starts yelling at him – calling him curse words, saying he’s a cheater, that he’s a punk kid. Ya know, first of all, this is my car, it’s been through tech a million times, and I’m not a cheater, neither is he. I don’t care if you’re going to call me a cheater, but you’re not [saying that to] him. You don’t know him, he just lost his mom, you’re not going to sit here and curse him out. I don’t like seeing anyone bullied, but this is our hometown track, and no one deserves to be bullied at their home track, especially a 16 year old. So, I went over to the track announcer, who had tried to address the guy yelling but was still yelling, and asked if I could grab the microphone real quick. I think he thought I was going to say something about the win, so he said go ahead, he announced I had something to say. I was running off of adrenaline, and so I addressed it, I said,
“I just want you to know who this guy is yelling at; he’s a 16 year old kid who just lost his mom. Do you really feel good about yourself?” The place erupted. I stood up for him not just because he’s my
girlfriend’s little brother but because I know what the kid has to go through and some guy who doesn’t even know him doesn’t get to pick him a part and make his reputation out to be that he’s a cheater. No one needs to sit there and do that, there are other ways to have fun.
DM: Speaking of reputations, if we were to ask fans or fellow drivers how to describe you as a driver, how do you think they would see you?
RS: As a very clean and respectful driver. I started with no money; I knew if I wrecked my car, I wasn’t going to be coming back the next week, so I had to learn to race properly. I had to really learn how to race respectfully and save my equipment.
DM: What win or notable racing moment do you think was the pivotal turning point in your career where people really began to take notice and consider you a serious competitor?
RS: I think it was in 2018 when I won a race at Bridgeport Speedway. They had a new track there that was an entirely different configuration and it was the first race on that configuration. I had wins at my home track at New Egypt but I think once I got off the porch and went somewhere else, people were like; okay it’s not a fluke. So, I’d probably say that win at Bridgeport Speedway. It’s kind of taken off from there, and I’ve gotten a lot cooler opportunities and set myself apart.
DM: Looking at the 2021 season, what have been some of your highs and lows?
RS: I think the best part about this year is that we’ve been extremely consistent. We’ve been running a lot of different places and we’ve been up front no matter where we go, which I think is really cool to do. We’ve got a little stuck because we haven’t won yet this year but I feel like we’re so close. I have five second place finishes within the last two months, so we’re there. The tough part is being so close but not being able to do it. I think we’ll get one here soon, but the season overall has been really good, I haven’t wrecked anything yet.. knock on wood. I’m excited for the traveling we’ve gotten to do this year and getting to go back to Port Royal at the end of the year – it’s so much fun.
DM: How does preparation for these big money races like Port Royal differ from preparation for a weekend race for you?
RS: I think weekend races, even though they are for points, are a little bit more relaxed. When we go to a big money race, it’s on the road, and it’s a little different. To me, the guys going to these are serious competitors and they know they can win and they have the equipment to do so, so you have to lock in even more. You have to make sure your car is on point. I make sure to do my homework, to do the best of my ability. You have to make sure you’re going to be somewhere in the ballpark that the other guys are, even if it is your first time there, you have to go get it.
DM: We like to be a little inspiring over here at Dirt Empire, so this last question will hopefully do just that for someone. As you grow as a driver, it is inevitable that you will experience slumps, whether it’s mechanical errors, bad setup choices, or even wrecks. How do you maintain confidence as a driver and not let the doubt or fear continue to snowball your slump and make it worse?
RS: I think it’s just looking at yourself in the mirror and really saying – okay, I just came off a string of top fives, I picked up a win, and now I’ve got two weeks of bad luck and stupid things. Eventually, it subsides. I don’t really let it get to me, you never want to break or have bad luck, get involved in a wreck, but it happens. It happens to the best of the best, so it’s going to happen. I think you just have to say, “hey well this week it was me that it was going to happen to” and just go onto the next page with the confidence this isn’t going to last. Just put that kind of mindset in your head, and I think you’ll be better off than showing up nervous or hesitant.
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