Racing Cars Is Easiest Thing Tifft Has Been Facing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 6 2016
Matt Tifft has had to fight and beat some things that seldom confront other race car drivers. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett )

Matt Tifft has had to fight and beat some things that seldom confront other race car drivers. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett )

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Stick-and-ball athletes routinely resume their careers after dealing with torn knee ligaments, shattered shoulders and concussions. Those hurts come with the turf.

But brain surgery _ that’s a whole other ballgame and a life-altering circumstance aspiring bugfeatureNASCAR driver Matt Tifft has stared-down during a career in which every completed lap is a victory.

Joe Gibbs Racing announced Friday that Tifft will drive one of its Toyota Camrys for the full, 33-race NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule in 2017. Tifft, who underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor in July, has run a limited schedule in both the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series over the last three seasons, making a combined 33-career starts through Saturday.

“Yeah, it’s an incredible opportunity,” Tifft said Friday during a media session at Texas Motor Speedway. “The crazy thing is I remember a couple months ago just coming to Bristol (Motor Speedway) to do the press conference about trying to get back in a car, so it’s so cool to be sitting here today announcing our plans for next year and being full-time.

“You know, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization was so great through everything I went through and we’ve had some good runs together and it’s just…it’s going to be an awesome opportunity to be able to race with them week-in and week-out. It’ll be my first full season in NASCAR competition, so it’ll definitely be a rewarding thing for me. I feel like I can grow a lot as a driver with all the

After undergoing brain surgery, Matt Tifft didn't even know if he would drive a street car again. Now he is back in a race car. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett )

After undergoing brain surgery, Matt Tifft didn’t even know if he would be able to drive a street car again. Now he is back in a race car. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett )

information JGR gives me and relying on our teammates and just that ability to race in and out every week and go contend for the Rookie of the Year and hopefully end up at Homestead, too.”

Tifft pulled double-duty at TMS this weekend. The 20-year-old who grew up in Hinckley, Ohio, has recorded one top-five and eight top-10 finishes in the Truck Series; he finished 17th in the 18th annual Striping Technology 350 NCWTS race Friday night in a Toyota Tundra fielded by Red Horse Racing.

On Saturday morning, Tifft qualified third for the 12th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge after hot-lapping around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile quadoval at 186.761 mph. Tifft, driver of the No. 18 Toyota Camry, has posted one top-five, six top-10, one pole and 23 laps-led in the Xfinity Series after a ninth-place/lead-lap finish in the 31st of 33 races.

Tifft also has competed in NASCAR’s K&N Pro West, K&N Pro East and ARCA Series and the X-1R Pro Cup Series. Tifft made his first career Xfinity Series start with JGR at Kentucky Speedway in 2015, earning an impressive 10th-place finish.

But Tifft’s racing career took a serious detour in June, when a low-grade glioma _ a malignant tumor of the glial tissue of the nervous system _was discovered in his brain during routine evaluations for some back pain. Successful surgery in July was followed by rehabilitation. By August Tifft was working his way back to driving a street vehicle. He was cleared to return to NASCAR competition in September at the Truck Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.  One week later he was back with JGR in the Xfinity Series at Kentucky Speedway, ironically the track where he logged his initial series start. The Kentucky race produced Tifft’s first top-five Xfinity finish.

When we started this year with the 13-race schedule,” Tifft said, “in my mind my job was to go out and perform and show that I could race with my teammates and learn as much as I could with the ultimate goal of hopefully being able to move into a full-time role. And, you know, probably towards the time that it started happening _ where the health issues started to come up _ was probably when we first started talking about it and then obviously this stuff kind of got put on the back-burner. So now that we’ve been able to get back in the car and get some good runs again, that’s when we started really seriously talking about it.

The last couple of years, I’ve done about 26 to 30 races a year. They just haven’t all been grouped together like the Xfinity schedule has it, so it will just be making sure the offseason I get prepared

Survivor Matt Tifft has had his hard work and skills rewarded with a full-time Xfinity ride at Joe Gibbs Racing and is on his way to becoming a star. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

Survivor Matt Tifft has had his hard work and skills rewarded with a full-time Xfinity ride at Joe Gibbs Racing and is on his way to becoming a star. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

with training and everything. I know it’s going to be a lot more maybe taxing on me, but you know, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do so I’m not going to complain about it.”

Tifft said rehab is still “a very real thing” in his everyday routine.Last week, I went up for my eight-week checkup MRI and it went well, by the way, so I still have to do that kind of stuff and it’s still a reminder of the things I have to go through,” Tifft said. “We have a really cool sponsor in Surface Sunscreen, but surfers, they have this little rectangle zinc stick that they put on their nose. I can put it right on my scar, so it’s pretty cool how that works.

“It’s just…it’s amazing to look back and see every month how much it progresses and it will continue to do that. But in the beginning I had to do a lot of things and still do like brain games, just going online and playing on different websites and just trying to keep my brain active. They say that’s the best thing is just to keep doing that and keep it healthy that way. Just constantly thinking instead of just watching TV or something.”

Tifft added he can tell that his brain has “rewired” over time. “It’s definitely interesting how the brain heals and fixes itself,” Tifft said. “The question earlier about the physical therapy with a normal broken bone compared to your brain, I just had to keep forcing myself to get out and be active and just…even though that doesn’t seem to do anything physically, mentally those new experiences kept on helping my brain heal and ultimately support itself before I could do something with the adrenaline rush of stepping in a race car.

“There might be a couple times where it just does it a little bit, but it’s maybe five percent at most and that’s if it ever does it, so it’s pretty much set now.”

Tifft said there never was a time when he thought he would not race again. “When I got done with my surgery, it was…I think I went in about 3 o’clock and I remember about 8 o’clock getting done with it or the clock said 7:51,” Tifft said. “They told me I would be there for three or four days just admitted in the hospital and I got through a lot of things and got eating by midnight that night. And I remember asking the next morning _ I asked the nurse for a checklist of what do you need to get out of this hospital. Just wanted to get done with everything, get back to home and instead of waiting three days, I got out less than 24 hours later from brain surgery.

“That motivation I had ever since then (and) I never thought in my mind that I wasn’t going to do this. I thought maybe it’s going to take a long time or I didn’t know when the timing would be, but the whole time I was planning on getting back in the car. It’s definitely a very tough thing to go through and I’m not sure how I would have reacted without having the racing piece of it and being able to help others who are going through that as well. So it was a very strange and tough process for me to go through, but I never started looking for different routes to go. I just always wanted to be back in the car.”

Tifft will be paired with Matt Beckman, who will be promoted to crew chief. Beckman currently serves as race engineer under crew chief Mike Wheeler on Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Beckman joined JGR in 2007 as an engineer with the race team support group and was promoted to manager of the group in 2014 before becoming race engineer on Carl Edwards’ No. 19 Cup Series Toyota in 2015. Beckman holds an undergraduate degree from Michigan Tech and earned his masters’ degree from the University of Minnesota.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for me and I’m excited to work with Matt,” Beckman said. “Joe Gibbs Racing has had incredible success for many years now in the Xfinity Series and I know the organization takes immense pride in those accomplishments. You don’t have to look any further than JGR’s Cup Series crew chief lineup to realize the tradition they established and I’m honored to become a part of it starting next season.”

JGR also has a history of developing young drivers, with Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez most recently achieving successes in their Camping World Truck and Xfinity programs.

“We look forward to continued development with Matt over this next race season,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity Series Operations and Development. “He’s shown strength through adversity and a strong willingness to advance his performance level for a long-term career in racing. With the championship-caliber NASCAR Sprint Cup Series programs, drivers and personnel to draw from here, these young competitors continue to grow. I know Matt will take full advantage of this opportunity.”

Tifft’s primary sponsorship and assigned car number have yet to be determined, as well as his continued participation in the Truck Series.

Away from the track, Tifft is a second-year student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, majoring in business management. Outside of searching for sponsorship, that’s a skill-set Tifft is not eager to practice. Tifft said being forced to sit-out part of this season taught him a lesson about this nomadic racing life.

“How much I love it,” Tifft said. “You know, I think I remember in July probably two or three weeks after surgery and it was incredible to me how much it _ my perspective on life _ had changed. I remember watching races on TV and when I first started going through these things and I had to miss a race for the back issue at Iowa (Speedway) it was like, ‘Man, I really want to be out there.’ And then I remember sitting at home in July thinking, ‘I have no idea, you know, what my future entails for me.’ I didn’t know…I didn’t know if I could drive a street car. I didn’t know when that timeline was going to be. I didn’t know if I was going to drive a race car this year, next year, whenever.

“But, you know, I just definitely kept the faith in myself that I could get back to that point. That’s what kept me motivated the whole time. Without the support of family and friends and that motivation to get back to racing, I don’t know how quick my recovery time would have been. Obviously, it’s different for every person, but I think that when I had to step out of that car and almost had what I love so much and wanted to do since I was 5-years-old taken away from me, it made me appreciate it so much more that I’m stepping back to that role as a race car driver.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 6 2016
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