David Gilliland has started to lay the foundation for his legacy.
The 40-year-old recently reached the end of his full-time NASCAR career but it was a darn good ride. He overcame a modest upbringing to last a full decade at the highest level. He’s a winner in the Xfinity Series and established an accurate reputation as one of the ‘good guys’ of the sport.
While that was good enough, Gilliland has now turned his full attention to the next stage of his career, one as a team owner and driver development kingpin at David Gilliland Racing.
“I had an idea once, a vision about what we’re doing now,” Gilliland said. “This is what I’ve always done. When we were racing back home in California, I worked on my own stuff. I worked on my dad’s stuff. This is my passion. I like to work on cars and find ways to make them faster.
“I like to innovate but it’s taken awhile. It’s been years in the making.”
The current version of DGR originated in 2014 as a full-scale driver development program that houses Toyota Super Late Models and Late Model Stocks. Gilliland personally provides crew chief, spotter and racecraft training out of his shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. He employs two crew chiefs in Chris Lawson and Seth Smith.
And their first pupil? That would be David’s teenage son, Todd.
While DGR has much broader goals, it was certainly designed to be a launching pad for the younger Gilliland — a mission it accomplished early and often. Todd won the first-ever CARS Tour Late Model Stock race in March 2015 and went on to win his debut appearances in both ARCA and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series before the end of the year.
On Saturday, he clinched the K&N West championship as a 16-year-old after winning six times in 14 starts. It was a journey that began with what his dad built at DGR. In other words, he established that his dad could mold winners and champions.
“He’s intense,” Todd said about David. “He works really hard, that’s for sure. He goes to the shop in California to work on the K&N stuff. And then, when he’s home in North Carolina, he’s always in a meeting or on the phone watching videos of different drivers.
“He’s always scouting and if someone does well in a Super, he wants to get in contact with them and see if they can work something out. He does all the things you’d expect a good owner to do.”
The elder Gilliland isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel but he does want to make a better one. He occupies the same market as Kyle Busch, Gary Crooks, Tony Blanchard and Jeff Fultz but intends to offer a more personalized experience.
“I want this to be the best driver development program possible,” Gilliland said. “I want to provide something that racers feel 100 percent comfortable being a part of. I think my hands-on approach is different – especially with my NASCAR experience and connections.
“I want to build something that customers are happy with. I want this to be competitive and I want us to have honest evaluations with drivers and ourselves. That’s what we’re about.”
Three quarters through this season and his latest project, Raphael Lessard, has to feel satisfied. He’s won three times and is the favorite to clinch the CARS Super Late Model championship next month. Aligned with Gilliland, the 15-year-old has not only improved as a race car driver but as a total package.
A French Canadian, Lessard wasn’t even fluent in English until late last year. Now he’s become a thoroughly entertaining conversationalist. He’s set to become a champion too.
“I’m very surprised, to be honest, because with my French and my English it was hard to communicate what I needed done with my crew chief,” Lessard said. “But I’m getting better and better and I’m very happy with what we’ve done this year. It’s very nice.
“I just wanted to have a good season and learn a lot. I never thought we could compete for a championship. I just wanted to get top-five finishes but three wins is incredible.”
Lessard has gone from a unrefined talent competing in the Northeast to a polished professional beating some of the top names in the Southeast. He’s done that nearly hand-in-hand with Gilliland as the Sprint Cup veteran has adopted a mentor role with the young prospect.
“He’s done an excellent job,” Gilliland said. “He’s a great kid and his family are great. He can really drive a race car and he’s got a great personality. But it takes so much more to get a kid ready for the next level. He’s eager to study and we made a list of things to work on.
“He’s done a great job of crossing them off one at a time.”
So now that DGR has become a perennial contender, Gilliland wants to see his drivers earn some of the biggest trophies in the discipline — Martinsville, All-American 400, Winchester 400 and the Snowball Derby. But what next? Would Gilliland ever want to return to NASCAR as a team owner?
“Absolutely,” Gilliland said. “My long term goal is to keep going. We’re looking at K&N East. We built the car that Todd took to Phoenix last year. Chirs and I are constantly looking at what it would take. Every race is an opportunity. So yeah, I’d like to take this as far as it will go.
“I’m happy with what we’ve learned and you always need have goals you want to achieve or its not worth it.”