How Custer came out of his shell

Cole Custer has never had a problem giving a thoughtful answer. But giving that answer while not looking uncomfortable in front of the camera or microphone has been a different story.

It was 2014 when Custer emerged on the NASCAR national series scene thanks to a great opportunity to drive a truck as a Haas Racing Development driver. It took him three starts to earn his first career pole in St. Louis, and seven before going to victory lane in New Hampshire.

Custer was 16 years old at the time. He had a ton of talent, a touch of acne and a flat-billed hat that it sometimes seemed he might have been trying to hide under.

“I was the shy kid in school and just didn’t really say much,” Custer told RACER. “When I first started racing in some of the top series, I just wanted to come in and worry about doing my job on the track as much as I could. Obviously, if anybody asked me to do anything, I was going to do it, but that’s where my full focus was in trying to get everything out of the car, trying to make sure I was doing my job, and that I was up to the task on the racetrack.

“For me to come out of my shell during that time was a little bit tough because I was so focused on doing that.”

Custer ran nine Truck Series races in 2014 before signing with JR Motorsports to run 10 races in 2015. He picked up another win, this time in St. Louis, and added two more poles to his resume. In 2016, he was full-time for Earnhardt’s team and finished 10th in the championship standings. Custer also ran five Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports that year.

Stewart-Haas Racing added Custer to its Xfinity Series stable in 2017 and Custer earned his first win in the season finale. He won nine races in his first three seasons but finished runner-up in the championship in 2018 and ’19. Then came a three-year stint in the Cup Series before being moved back into the Xfinity Series, where he’s been one of the dominant drivers.

All that was on the track in full view of the NASCAR world. Behind the scenes, Custer was putting in a different kind of work to become a driver who could not only go fast but then adequately discuss it with the media.

“There was work,” Custer said. “There were different PR reps and media people I talked to just to try and get me out of my shell and talk a little bit and know what people were wanting to hear. I even spoke with (legendary radio broadcaster) Doug Rice once, and he sat me down with advice he could offer me. He was good to talk to about what people liked to hear and what things he thinks about when he’s on a radio broadcast.

“Through those different experiences, you meet different people who bring you out of your shell and give you more confidence. I feel like giving a thoughtful answer was never my problem. I always tried to give an answer that was more than a few words; it was just knowing how to say what I was thinking and communicate that better.”

Custer says he’s come a long way both as a driver and as a person since his first NASCAR national series win in the truck race at New Hampshire a decade ago. Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

Now, 10 years later, Custer is one of the best personalities in the garage. The smile looks far from forced. Custer’s interviews are just as thoughtful, only now they also have confidence and energy behind them. He’s even got a nickname — Stone Cole, as a nod to former professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — for when he double fists beers in victory lane. (Custer even has it hash-tagged in his X bio.)

Custer is all about putting himself out there when he can, including volunteering to go in the radio booth to call Craftsman Truck Series races. It was another area where he felt he could get better, give him experience of a different kind, keep him sharp on a microphone, and on what’s going on in other series.

By having a stronger relationship with the media and being more comfortable in those situations, Custer also realized it could help his brand. He has a good presence on social media and embraces opportunities to do non-NASCAR activities like collaborations in attending NHL or NFL games.

Doing interviews or radio broadcasts means fans are seeing his face and hearing his voice. It also gives his team and partners more exposure, making Custer marketable for attracting sponsors or additional opportunities.

Andy’s Frozen Custard is a good example. Not only did the company sign on to become an official sponsor at Stewart-Haas Racing this season, but it also gave the reigning series champion his own custard in its lineup. It’s the Frozen Custer Concrete.

“I just randomly ran into the guy at the championship banquet in Nashville and we hit it off,” Custer said. “For me, it’s a dream come true because I’ve always been big into sweets and stuff like that. It seemed like a perfect fit and that’s what racing is – being able to make those random relationships and random connections. A lot of times, those are the ones that turn into something.”

Custer is open to actively finding more partners who make sense to align himself with. During the pandemic, he took up golf, and it’s become one of his big hobbies. Or perhaps doing more in the animal space, as Custer admits his dog, Honey, is one of the most spoiled dogs he knows.

Despite his evolution, Custer acknowledges no one ever reaches perfection. But he has become a complete package as a race car driver with his on-track performance and marketability off it, and he is proud of the work and growth he’s done through the journey.

“When I won my first truck race, that was 10 years ago now. This is the 10th anniversary of that win for me,” Custer said. “So that’s very weird to think, honestly. It’s definitely been crazy how much has happened in that timeframe, and we’ve enjoyed a lot of success (too). You just have to keep pushing yourself to keep growing in different areas.”

Story originally appeared on Racer