ESM EXCLUSIVE: Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney on NYC, charity, and the future

betnijah Laney, liberty

ESM sat down with New York Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney, a metropolitan basketball star in more ways than one.

An All-Star’s work is never done, especially in New York. Fortunately, Betnijah Laney wouldn’t have it any other way.

Few WNBA stars have opened the 2020s on a higher note than Laney, a Rutgers alumna who’s back in the tri-state area to make an impact both on and off the court. The former endeavors have netted her the league’s Most Improved Player Award with the Atlanta Dream during the Association’s historic season in the Bradenton bubble. After going from the bubble to Brooklyn, Laney earned her first career All-Star appearance and helped push the Liberty to its first playoff appearance since 2017. She ended the year as the team’s leading scorer (16.8 points per game, 10th-best in the league) and also set a new career-best average in assists (5.2).

Laney, a Delaware native, has remained in the New York area with the WNBA offseason fully underway. She’s taken the time to further immerse herself in the Brooklyn community. Last week, Laney repped the Liberty in a battle against food insecurity, uniting with Empire BlueCross BlueShield, iHeartMedia, and Heart of America to open a custom-built food pantry at Walter Weaver Elementary School (P.S. 398).

Following the ceremony, Laney sat down with ESM to discuss her time in the city, her life on and off the court, and what lies ahead of the bearers of seafoam…

Photo by Allison Joseph/@shotsbyalliej

Q: What drew you to a project like this here, to be willing the represent the team on such an endeavor?

A: Just knowing that we, as a team, will be able to help the community, to be able to give back, to underserved communities, it just really means a lot to me. Coming up, it was something that my mother always instilled in me: to give back where I can. She’s been doing that for as long as I can remember, since before I was born, just giving back to the community. She’s always made sure that I put in the same thing, the same work and effort. So when I was afforded the opportunity to do this, I was all-in, all on board. So I’m just really happy.

Q: With the team back in the proper New York City area, having moved to Brooklyn from Westchester County, what does it mean to reconnect with the city and potentially inspire new fans in the process?

A: I think it’s just more about serving our community. Being back in Brooklyn, that makes it r really easy for us. It’s great for our new community to see us and know that we’re not just athletes, we’re not just basketball players, we’re not just here to do that. We’re here to help and to give back and make a difference, to continue to inspire people, continue to help people grow in a positive direction. I think it’s more so about that.

Q: You’ve remained in the NYC area since the Liberty’s season ended. Without the burdens of practices and games, it appears you’ve taken advantage of what the city has to offer. What are your impressions of the city and how comfortable are you with NYC as your new home both as an athlete and activist?

A: I love it. I grew up coming to Brooklyn in particular, I had a great aunt who lived here, we would come up here for the holidays and everything. Although she’s she’s not around to see me I know that she’d be really proud of me and what I’m doing.

This offseason just really presents me with the opportunity to be able to give back to this community. Without the pressure of having practice and games, there’s no time to put in that off-court work.

Q: As a league, the WNBA reach unprecedented heights in popularity and viewership this year. As one of the faces of the New York franchise, what’s going to be the key to establishing a larger Liberty footprint in a city that truly appreciates basketball?

A: I think just us continuing to grow, continuing to stay true to who we are, just taking on that Brooklyn, that New York identity, and get some wins. That’s what people want to see and that’s our goal. I think that that with this time, with a few players that are in market who are continuing to work to get better, and then the players that are overseas playing their game, I just truly believe that, when we all come back and reconvene, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with. I think that that’s what the city wants us to be.

Q: Do you have any international plans for the WNBA offseason? If not, what do you want to work on at home?

A: I don’t have an international plans. But, on the court, I just want to continue to grow, to continue to get better in every area of my game. I want to continue to increase my percentages, do different things to continue to grow, to help myself along with my team to get to that ultimate goal.

Off the court, I’d love to continue my community work. This is what I’m here for: to just continue to give back, to make an impact in the community, to just be a positive role model for people to look up to inspire others.

Q: This city is know for its diversity and its causes. Is there any particular cause or off-court endeavor that stands out to you, a place or issue where you’d like to and truly believe you can make a positive impact?

A: My passion has always been kids. Once I finish playing, maybe even while I’m playing, I’d like to apply myself and work with them, particularly those in underserved communities, because those that’s where you need the most building, the strongest foundation. Anything that’s dealing with kids, where I can help kids, continue to foster them into growing, healthy adults being that someone that they can look up to. That’s what drives me.

Q: The arrival of you, Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and others, as well as the move to Barclays Center, was meant to provide this team some stability. Yet, you overcame several obstacles, including weather and NBA playoff reschedulings to make a playoff push. What can you say about the resiliency of the 2021 Liberty?

A: I think it just shows just how strong we are, that we are capable of weathering storms, and coming out better for it. Exceeding expectations. I think that we did that this year, especially coming off the 2-20 season (in 2020). To be able to do that, and turn it around and make it to the playoffs, I don’t think a lot of people foresaw that coming. We just want to keep pushing, we want to just continue to get better. That’s our goal, and our focus going in going into these next year is to just be better than we were last year.

Photo by Allison Joseph/@shotsbyalliej

Q: You recently celebrated your 28th birthday. It was a year of change, a year of triumph. What did you learn about yourself, both as a ball player and as a human being?

A: Through everything that I’ve been through, I think that I’m stronger. Whatever I put my mind to, I can I can do. I’m just going to continue to get better, continue to want to be better in just every facet of my life.

Q: What have the conversations been like amongst the Liberty this offseason and what can fans expect on the road ahead?

A: We’re really excited. We’ve already talked about different things that we want to do for next year. We were excited seeing the results of the WNBA finals and talking about how that’s our goal, that’s where we want to be. This offseason, we have to make sure that we’re all doing everything that we can to get there.

We’ve had our players do really, really well overseas. Jocelyn (Willoughby) is coming back, she just started jogging, which is really good to see. The people that are here, still in the market are continuing to work to get better. As long as everyone’s doing their part, and we come back and we really are exhibiting everything that we’ve worked on, I think we’re in really good shape.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM EXCLUSIVE: Steve Weatherford on family, fitness, and football

new york giants, steve weatherford

ESM sits down with former Giants/Jets punter Steve Weatherford, who has embarked on one of the most interesting career paths in NFL history.

When one thinks of the great Super Bowl heroes in New York Giants history, conventional conversation often skews toward Eli Manning, David Tyree, Justin Tuck, Chase Blackburn, and Mario Manningham.

Forgetting punter Steve Weatherford, however, would be foolhardy.

The Giants are preparing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their most recent Super Bowl trek this season, a 21-17 triumph over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. That upset victory began with the Giants gaining some early momentum through Weatherford’s leg. Forced to punt in New England territory, his 36-yard boot pinned the Patriots at their own six-yard-line. An ensuing intentional grounding penalty on the very next play led to a safety that gave the Giants a 2-0 lead before Manning found Victor Cruz for a touchdown when the Giants got the ball back after the unexpected double. That kick was one of three that Weatherford situated inside the New England 20-yard-line during the historic evening.

As Weatherford, now based in Texas, prepares to rejoin the rest of the 2011-12 Giants squad, the 38-year-old has had little, if any, trouble staying busy. The punter, who also spent three seasons with the New York Jets, has become a health and fitness guru, his feats of strength routinely on display on his Instagram account, and welcomed his sixth child earlier this spring. Before the Giants reunite at MetLife Stadium this year, Weatherford will make an early return to East Rutherford on June 28-29 through a motivational seminar entitled “Become the CEO of Your Life”. It will be a two-day event slated to be held at the Hilton Meadowlands centered on five power pillars that will boost listeners’ personal and business relationships. Tickets and can purchased here or by texting Weatherford at 949-763-5934

Upon his return, ESM sat down with Weatherford to talk past, present, and future…

Q: You’ve had one of the most interesting career paths in professional football history, going from specialist to fitness, health guru, and motivational speaker. What was the biggest factor in your shift from NFL punter to motivational coach/fitness expert?

A: If I had to boil it down to two things, I think it would be vision and disciplined focus. There were a lot of things that I was involved in that people were like, ‘Dude, why are you doing that?’. When I was in the NFL, I remember linebackers and positional players asking ‘dude, why are you working so hard, why are you so jacked?’, because I didn’t need to, to be a kicker. But I always had a vision for creating the strongest and the most flexible body that I could.

I didn’t work out just for football I worked out because I wanted to see what I was capable of doing. So from a vision standpoint, that allowed me to move that discipline and focus that it took to get into the NFL and be able to develop a skill and then be able to call upon that skill. I only played, think about it, seven plays a game. I think the NFL punter average is about 4.3 plays per game, so I was on the field for 28 seconds a game. To be able to discipline your focus, to be able to block out distractions, and being able to replicate a highly complex skill in adverse conditions when you have 250 pounds, athletic mutants running at you, it took a lot of mental and physical conditioning.

I would say the biggest factor would be vision, the fact that I had a vision of what I wanted to be or do, and still do. It’s the next version of myself that I want to become. I mean how much of a bummer would it be if I retired from the NFL at like 34 or 35 and those were like my best days? It’d be sort of depressing, retired at 35, and I just refused to accept that. I think that’s because I had vision, just constantly exposing myself to different people, or their different hobbies and different experiences and I think that will continue to allow people like you and me to continue to dream dreams and chase those dreams. Having vision is great but if you’re not disciplined and focused. It’s really easy to get distracted, and it’s really easy to be not disciplined.

new york giants, steve weatherford

Q: How did it feel to leave an impact on both of New York’s NFL franchises?

A: I’m from Terre Haute, Indiana. I certainly wasn’t supposed to play in New York, or win a Super Bowl, or play for the Jets, or play for the Giants. I feel like I’m playing with house money, but I definitely am not satisfied. I’m blissfully dissatisfied. I’m so happy with my life, but I want to experience more, I want more relationships, I want to learn more, I want to know, I want to grow more, I want to do things that people in my family haven’t done before, just because I decided I can.

Q: The NFL released their COVID and vaccination protocols for the 2021 season last week. As someone who knows a thing or two about athlete health and wellness, what are your thoughts on the policies? 

A: To be fully honest with you, I saw a tweet and some Instagram posts about it, and that’s all the research that I’ve done so far. From what I gathered, the league is going to make the players who decide not to get the vaccination very difficult. ,

I know we’re not gonna get into politics, I don’t want to get into politics, but this is the National Football League. These guys are going to sweat all over each other. If people want to get the vaccinations for their reasons, get them. If people don’t want to get the vaccinations, then don’t get them. The people that got the vaccinations shouldn’t be worried about it, because you’re getting vaccinations. So what’s everybody worried about? Let’s play some football. That’s my opinion.

Q: What lessons can the 2021 Giants take from your championship squad back in 2011-12 as they seek back to get back to NFL relevancy?

A: I think it’s just synergy. If you look at our team from the 2011 roster, the one that won the 2012 Super Bowl, there were probably 10 other teams that were more talented than we were on paper.

But I believe it was two things: I believe it was our ability to achieve chemistry, but more important than being able to achieve chemistry, It was the timing in which we achieved the chemistry. We didn’t play our best football until we got into the playoffs, and we barely got into the playoffs. When we got into the playoffs, we went into, we went into Green Bay, we beat them. We went into Candlestick Park, we beat (San Francisco). We beat the Falcons at home. No one was really giving us much of a shot with any of those teams, but that’s because they hadn’t seen us play the level of football that we’re playing at that exact moment.

I almost felt like every day we woke up during the 2012 playoff run, we felt like we were the best version of the team that we had seen up until that point, and we just continued to get better, and to get better, and to get better. We played our best games when it mattered the most against Tom Brady and we did things that people didn’t think that we could do. It was because we got everything out of every person on the roster, and we did it at the right time.

Q: The 2011-12 team will be celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year. What’s the No. 1 memory you’ll take from the championship journey?

A: Training camp. There’s something special about collective suffering, and not just through world championship football games. Anytime that you go through a really difficult time with a group of people, be it boot camp in the military, or you know these firefighters or your law enforcement, Marines, that’s when you build the closest relationships. So my favorite memories were doing the stuff that we hated doing.

We actually have our 10-year Super Bowl reunion coming up. We’re going to be honored before the first game of the regular season this year. It’ll be cool to see a lot of those guys because after that season was over, some people went to free agency, went to other teams and it was the last time that I saw them. You still see them on social media and stuff, but it was the last time that I got to see a lot of those relationships in person. So it’s exciting to know that all those guys are gonna fly back ten years later.

Q: Your punt after the Giants’ first possession set up a safety that allowed you to take an early 2-0 lead. What do you remember about the kick?

A: I didn’t know it at the time, but Chris Collinsworth, who was doing the game for NBC, said at halftime that we would’ve given the MVP to the punter, Steve Weatherford. I was glad they didn’t have a TV on in the locker room the way that they normally do, because if I heard that, I would’ve had to change my pants! It was a pretty radical experience to have like the best game of your life in the biggest game of your life, especially against somebody like Tom Brady.

We knew that we needed every inch that we got. So every time the punt team went out there for the four punts that we had, (New England) wound up starting at the six-yard line, the four-yard line, and the eight-yard line. That really drastically changes how Bill Belichick’s going to call plays. You’ve got to rearrange game plans to give Tom a little bit more room, especially knowing that the first drive became a safety on the very first play.

Special teams played a big part of doing what we did in 46. I’m not just saying that because of my punts, all of the units did amazing. The whole reason we were in the Super Bowl was that Lawrence Tynes hit a field in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game and then overtime. It took every single guy on our team to do what we did.

Q: How can special teams assist a developing offense like the one we’re seeing with the New York Jets right now?

A: I remember when I was in my first year with the Jets. That was Mark Sanchez, his first year as a rookie quarterback and I remember Rex Ryan literally pulling him aside with me after practice one day. (Ryan) said ‘listen, Mark, we don’t need you, and we don’t need Steve to win the game. Our defense is the best defense, the National Football League has ever seen. I want you to possess the football and get us first downs, you don’t have to do anything more than what you’re doing right now. When you can’t, we’re going to use Steve and pin them deep inside of the 20, and we’re gonna let our defense do what they do’.

I think that was relieving for Mark, not because it was like, oh, Steve is gonna bail you out, I don’t want listeners to hear it that way. It was more along the lines of Rex saying, ‘listen, punting’s not a bad thing, because our defense doesn’t give them points. If we can just possess the ball and get a touchdown every once in a while, we’re going to win games’. That’s literally what we did and Mark Sanchez was able to take us to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie and as a second-year quarterback in a really, really difficult division.

Q: We celebrated Father’s Day this past weekend, as the timing couldn’t have been better for you to welcome your sixth child. How has fatherhood changed your outlook on life?

A: There’s no need for being a dad, just like there’s no handbook for being an entrepreneur. We only have our experience of our fathers to recollect and look back on how we want to be a father. We have an opportunity to father six times over. It’s really forced me to uplevel my ability to create structure, to create order. It’s kind of like what we talked about earlier, we talked about vision, we talked about discipline to focus. We all have a vision of being great fathers, great providers, great businessmen, great employees. But to be able to put some structure, and some order in almost kind of like implementing the playbook.

When I was in training camp, Tom Coughlin gave us a playbook with the rules and regulations of the team to have expectations and had our agenda. We were responsible to know all of that. He said if you execute this and you get to get to know this well, you have a chance to be a champion and the chance to be a New York Giant. There’s no handbook for being a father and that’s one of the reasons that it’s so difficult because we only have our own experience of it. One of the things that I’m into right now, right after I retired from the NFL, I got into entrepreneurship, I started a fitness company, a supplement company, and was able to gain some success. But that one thing that I was missing, the one major mistake that I made was I didn’t have a coach anymore so I didn’t have anybody to give me my agenda for the day, tell me what time to go to bed, what time to wake up.

I had a disciplined focus, but I didn’t have structure in order, and so I didn’t have a business mentor I didn’t have somebody to tell me. You’re doing too much, go be with your family, etc. All I knew was harder I work the more successful I’m going to be.

Q: What does the future hold for the Weatherford family? There are certainly NFL teams that would love to have you aboard as a special teams and/or strength coach. Would you ever consider a return? 

A: I really really love what I’m doing right now, working with entrepreneurs. The last thing I can envision myself doing is being a coach and the reason for that is that their structure, their order, the amount of time that that would require of me to invest into their mission could never supersede the mission that I have with my six kids.

As for the future, we’re actually about to launch our YouTube channel, My wife and I. We’re going to launch I guess you would call it a reality TV show, and it’s going to be focused on our faith, family, fitness business, and it’s pretty much calling me and my family around everything that we’ve got going on. We’ll be able to build a pretty nice community of people that support us on social media, so we’re going to take our show on the road to YouTube, and be able to have a platform to be able to share our lives. It’s called The Steve Weatherford Show: High Performance Tactics to a High Performance Life. So, for anybody that’s reading this, if you enjoyed our conversation and you want to hear more, you can come to this event, subscribe to our podcast because it’s personal development, it’s leadership it’s mind, discipline, it’s helping you create and live the life that God created for you to live.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM EXCLUSIVE: Former NFL RB Stephen Davis comments on the modern state of football

Former NFL running back and three-time Pro Bowler Stephen Davis sat down with ESM to talk about the past, present, and future of football.

(This interview was made possible through

Stephen Davis knows a thing or two about making the New York Giants feel a little downtrodden.

Formerly of the Washington Football Team, Davis often made the most of a yearly pair with Big Blue, the most recent edition of which wraps up on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The Giants particularly felt the wrath of Davis during his formal introduction to the mainstream football fan in 1999. A fourth-round pick out of Auburn in 1996, Davis’ first years were spent sharing carries in a fullback’s role with veteran Terry Allen. Granted a chance to shine, upon Allen’s transfer to New England, Davis exploded for 1,405 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, headlining Washington’s 10-6 season and NFC East title. That trek started with Davis tallying three first quarter touchdowns in a 50-21 win over the Giants in Week 2 at Giants Stadium before following it up with a then-career-best 183 yards in the rematch nine weeks later. The 858 yards he gained over 15 matchups with New York (8-6-1) were his second-best tally against any opponent except Arizona (1,089 yards in 17 games).

Retired from on-field activities since 2008, Davis comes in peace when it comes to the Giants, offering advice as to how his former rivals could snap their streak of ineptitude that continues to show itself in the form of a 1-7 record in 2020.

“Any time you have a team that’s not doing so well, you have to get back to the basics: be consistent, be physical, be a team instead of individuals,” Davis said in an exclusive conversation with ESM. “Everybody thinks it’s easy, and it’s not easy at all. You have to be a team, you have to have that team chemistry. You have to have everybody on the same page, and the players have to buy into it.”

To demonstrate his points, Davis brought up the example of Dutch Fork High School, where his son Stephen Jr. spent his gridiron career as a linebacker and free safety before moving on to North Carolina A&T. The team had struggled in football since its 1992 founding, but later bought into a system established by the arrival of a new head coach in 2010. Two years later, they were state champions.

“All the kids bought into it. They’re not the best athletes. You look at them, you’d go ‘he played football?’. But all the kids bought into (the coach’s system),” Davis explained. “It’s amazing, it’s human nature. When kids buy into something and adults buy into something and everybody’s buying into the system, it’ll work.”

Those are wise words from a locker room leader, one that paved the way for success in both Washington and Carolina. After his time in the nation’s capital came to an end, Davis moved on to a Carolina Panthers team two years removed from a 1-15 record. Davis united with head coach and former Giants defensive coordinator John Fox to create a culture change amongst youngsters and veterans alike, earning an 11-5 ledger and a Super Bowl berth for the first in franchise history. The rusher did his part with a career-high 1,444 rushing yards.

It’s an incident during the 2001 season in Washington, however, that stands out as a moment of team cohesion, a moment where a unified rally led to something special on the field. That season’s endeavor saw the team start off 0-5, the stretch capped off with an infamous Monday night showing against an equally winless squad from Dallas.

“We were trying to find our footing, we were trying to do everything we could to possibly win a game,” Davis recalled. “We might’ve been in the lead, something bad would happen, then we’d lose the game. But we started 0-5, then went 5-0. Missed the playoffs by one game. The difference was getting in here. We were resisting what (head coach Marty Schottenheimer) was trying to do. It took one of our team leaders to come and say ‘we can’t keep doing this, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing’. Then everybody started buying in and it turned around.”

Washington finished that season 8-8, but Schottenheimer was fired in favor of college football legend Steve Spurrier during the offseason. A sloppy 7-9 regression followed, giving Davis a lesson in consistency and how important faith in a head coach is in what became his final season in burgundy.

“You’ve got to always try, whenever you can, to buy into what the coach is doing.”

Even as one of the first prominent names of the 21st century NFL, Davis’ dominance feels almost dated with the NFL becoming more of a passing league. Teams have been discouraged from drafting running backs high and offering them maximum long-term deals, though these trends are slowly becoming nixed with the emergence of names like Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey. Davis commented on the role of the modern running back in his statements to ESM, expressing admiration at the fact that rushers need to possess skills beyond the 40-yard-dash in order to warrant big contract consideration.

“They’ve got to be able to catch the ball in space. They’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback…and, clearly, run the ball,” Davis said. “It’s a lot different (today). Every (position) goes through its phases. When I was playing, it was more run-oriented. Now, you have a lot of teams that like to pass a lot. But I think it’ll get back to (rushing) once everyone figures out that offense. A defensive coach is going to figure that out, everybody’s going to go back to the old ways. It happens all the time.”

Davis feels that today’s game features “more finnesse” and also noted the increase in physicality.

“You’ve got everything more spread out, teams running with four or five wide receivers. Different sets and everything, a lot of zones with the running back and the quarterback. Back when I played, everybody was in a 4-by-5-yard box…elbows and (rear ends),” he said with a laugh. “You had to fight, you had to grind. We fought. I ran against a lot of eight or nine-man fronts.”

The game of proessional football has also changed in the fact that the NFL has opted to partake in affairs beyond their fields, namely acknowledging the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and injustice. Davis’ former compatriots in Washington have been a major part of the movement, eschewing the controversial nickname of Redskins after over eight decades of use.

Davis had no strong opinion on the moniker, but acknowledged that “everybody feels certain ways on certain things”.

“The Redskins has been a name for a very long time. Getting used to that now, it’s hard, but you’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “Anytime when someone feels like they’re being racially profiled, you’ve got to correct, you’ve got to do something to correct. I think they’re doing a great job.”

Davis also praised players speaking for speaking out on causes that are important to them, saying that their words created a unique form of unity across the league. Combining that with the on-field innovations seen on Sundays, Davis sees a postivie outlook ahead for the game as a whole, pointing out developments on the medical and social levels as well.

“It’s great what they’re doing it. It’s not only going to help our future, but it’s going to help our younger generation that’s not even born yet,” Davis analyzed. “Have them understand the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is what you teach the guys on the football field, basketball, baseball field…you have to teach everyone how to work together to get to a common goal.”

“Football is great now. But we want to be greater in the future.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM EXCLUSIVE: NASCAR Cup Series Driver Corey LaJoie

The driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford spoke with ESM about the challenges a mid-tier squad faces and the recent changes in NASCAR.

Corey LaJoie’s NASCAR machines have carried some interesting sponsors over the years. He represented all 23 of Dr. Pepper’s flavors when he drove the matching numeral for BK Racing’s Toyota. Last season, he joined the Mystery Inc. gang as classic cartoon characters Scooby-Doo and Shaggy appeared on his car. His current ride of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford has borne a close-up of his own magnified face, including a masked version at the recent Martinsville event.

As NASCAR’s current schedule presents several sweltering challenges in spring’s final days and summer’s opening, he’s particularly thankful for his latest partnership.

LaJoie recently welcomed in Built Bar to his cause over at Go Fas. The protein and energy bar adorned his vehicle for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this month and will work with him as an associate for at least the remainder of the 2020 season. As temperatures have soared and weight has been lost inside the cars, which have gone through locales like Martinsville, Virginia and Homestead, Florida, LaJoie was pleased to get some of his calories back when the checkered flag waved.

Lately, LaJoie was caught in the midst of a social media-induced confrontation that involved 2020’s four-time race-winner Denny Hamlin. The two drivers took thinly veiled jabs at each other through Twitter with arguments stemming from the idea of Hamlin owing his success to superior equipment at Joe Gibbs Racing compared to LaJoie’s relatively meager setup at Go Fas. LaJoie recently called an end to the feud this week, remarking that the situation “escalated to a point it shouldn’t have“.

In the midst of a busy schedule, LaJoie took the time to speak with ESM about his current trials and tribulations…

Q: What kind of role can Built Bar play in the continued success of a team like GoFas?

A: I think it’s a unique case for the sport in general because there really hasn’t been a protein bar company to really see the demographics of racing. I think that the assumption of race fans is that they’re kind of old and kind of out-of-shape, but I think when you look at the actual people working on the cars, doing the pit stops, obviously the drivers are fairly in shape just because we have to be, that’s not the case. I think it’ll get some brand recognition out there to people if they’re looking for a great-tasting protein bar and haven’t found one yet.

Just looking back through my social media mentions since we’ve had the partnership, it seems like a lot of people have enjoyed the taste of the bar and a lot of people are supporting the sponsorship.

Q: You’ve had some interesting sponsors over the past few seasons…including your own face! How does Built Bar compare to some of the other partnerships you’ve had?

A: Well, Old Spice was the brand behind the face car. It certainly wasn’t me because that would be some Ricky Bobby-type stuff!

I’ve been lucky enough to have some great partners throughout my whole career. When I first started in the Cup Series, I was sponsored by Dr. Pepper. Then a company called Schluter Systems has been following me for years now. They’ve kept growing their investment because they see the value in the hospitality and bringing customers to the racetrack. It doesn’t really matter what the company is. If we can keep finding the niche and they get the return on investment, they’re all good. For me personally, I like to stay in shape and I’ve got a sweet tooth, so Built Bar checks both of those boxes. The car was great, the new rebranded boxes and wrappers look cool and it was great to unveil. I’m looking forward to doing it in the future.

Q: How does the economic instability facing this country challenge a lower-budget team like GoFas?

A: Most of the company’s payroll is the hardest thing to stomach just because you’re not moving. Our product that we essentially sell is the real estate on the car via the paint scheme and the purse money on the backend. We weren’t racing just like anybody else (in March and April), everybody was inside. We weren’t able to get that purse money to offset payroll’s expense and the sponsorship revenue wasn’t coming in. It was tough times for the team. It’s a tough time for the country and the world to deal with, but luckily my team was able to weather the storm and we were able to sign Built Bar to get them partnered up with us. That was really cool to be able to do. I’m looking forward to building that relationship going into the future.

Q: This is your second year in the No. 32 car. How pleased have you been with the 2020 developments?

A: We’ve had a couple of mechanical failures that we’re trying to clean up because I feel like we should have more strong runs to show for than what we’ve had. But, overall, the speed is a lot better. We’ve got some new, newer to us, Stewart-Haas cars. There are some parts, pieces, engine packages that could be upgraded if sponsorship dollars end up coming in toward the end of the year. I feel like GoFas has always done a great job of doing more with less. But, this year in particular, we got a crew chief in Ryan Sparks. He brings a lot of knowledge to the table. Him and I have been communicating well. So it’s been fun and it’s been fun to race in such a weird manner like we have been with no practice, no qualifying, just going out to battle. I feel like the preparation in the shop has been fairly good and I’m looking forward to getting to some of these race tracks for a second time and applying the notes we’ve gained without it.

Q: What have been your thoughts on NASCAR’s navigation through these trying times?

A: Our sport is unique in the way that, when we’re competing, we’re not doing it body-to-body. We’re separated, we’re sitting in the racecars and you’re not getting that up-close, you don’t have to get that up-close contact. NASCAR is putting in a lot of protocol to separate the drivers, separate even the pit crews and stuff like that. Social distancing, wearing facemasks, stuff like that, to adhere to any sort of guideline. They’re going through and they’re being very thorough with this process, which is cool because I think you have to be, that way you’re not reckless when you get back to the racetrack.

Overall, I think NASCAR has done a great job with getting us and our partners back on the racetrack, as well as getting race teams back on and getting that purse money put back. Our sport has its own economy within itself. You’re so dependent on the league distributing TV money to the teams. If the network pays the league, the league pays the team per event on a weekly basis. If the league’s not getting paid, the teams aren’t getting and paid, and if the team’s not getting paid, the guys aren’t getting paid. It all trickles down from the top. Obviously NASCAR knew the imperative need to just figure out how to get the cars back on the racetrack and they’ve done that by doing above and beyond what needs to be done. In these times, I’d rather be way more cautious than reckless and getting shut down because we are being too careless. That’s not the case, and I’m looking forward to more fans being back at the track soon.

It is a little bit deflating when you don’t see any fans at the racetrack. You don’t get to sign any autographs. But, hopefully, that returns to normal here soon. It may not be this year where what we’re used to comes back but, hopefully, it will look somewhat normal in the next couple of months.

Q: How do you feel NASCAR has responded to the current events in our nation?

A: I like the effort NASCAR has been putting in because they are well aware of the stigma that NASCAR was a southeastern, southern sport. There have been opinions, even that the sport has made with alliances they’ve made with people in politics in the past, that they have to recover from or even repair the image. I do applaud NASCAR for being on the forefront of this movement. We have to be there. We can’t just sit back and let everyone else do it for us. I’m glad to be a part of it in a small sense. I’ve been trying to educate myself. I’ve had people on my podcast, Sunday Money, to talk about it. We had the pit crew coach from Chip Ganassi Racing on last week and we had some great conversations.

I’m trying to use my platform to impact and if it changes a couple of race fans’ point of view toward what other people are going through, ones that might not look like them, that’s what we’re all called to do. Overall, I’m really happy to be part of the sport and the direction it’s going.

Q: What can you say about NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban?

A: NASCAR made a call several years ago for several tracks that Confederate flags weren’t going to be allowed. I hadn’t really seen a whole lot, you’d see one every now and then. We need to not allow that banner to be at the racetrack, personally. I don’t really care how you can justify what it means. I think, if anything, you can justify it as being insensitive to people it offends. This might not be a practical analogy, but if my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts and I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, right? Just because it has the possibility to hurt him, physically. If there’s something that I consciously do to offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoy eating peanuts.

If race fans think that they have some southern tradition to upkeep with the Confederate flag, do that in the privacy of your own home. But when it comes to supporting our sport, we need to have everybody feel welcome. No one should feel offended by anything, no signage, no opinions by anybody. Really, we’re one community trying to entertain people and that’s what we love and what show up 36 weekends a year to do. We don’t want to exclude anybody, we want everybody to feel welcome coming to the NASCAR track.

Q: You’re one of several legacy drivers in the sport, your father Randy having won in the NASCAR Busch Series. What’s the best piece of advice he has given you?

A: Dad always lets me figure it out myself and then yell at me and let me learn, take care of it afterward. My dad has been a supporter of mine for my whole career and is my biggest fan. He might not verbalize it toward me as often, but I think that, growing up, he wanted me to branch out and form relationships with other guys because he knew he’d always be there if I needed something. Rather than him critiquing everything I did, he’d be like “hey, man, go down there and ask Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, what those guys are doing”. Whatever comes out of your dad’s mouth, you really don’t believe, but if Jimmie Johnson says the exact same thing he says, you’ll go “oh yeah, that makes sense now”. That’s kind of what it was.

There’s been a lot of things that I’ve learned the hard way. Those stick a little bit more than someone just telling you. Dad has had a great relationship with the guys in the garage and that kind of trickled down to me. It’s cool to be able to carry the LaJoie flag on Sundays for sure. When Dad was at his peak in the mid-90s, he passed up several opportunities to go Cup racing on Sunday because he knew the time commitment that it was. He’d stay home with me and my brother, invest some time into us. It’s cool to see that investment pay off for him.

(Special thanks to Azione PR for arranging this interview, which was held in mid-June)

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags