Through the Paddock: Blake Koch on hunting, XFINITY and Matt Kaulig

Barry Cantrell/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Each week in Through the Paddock, Aaron Bearden takes the time to spotlight a member of the racing community in an effort for both himself and the fans to learn more about them. Interviewees can range from drivers to crew members, media representatives and more.

The audio version of this piece can be found here.

You may not have noticed him until recently, but Blake Koch has been around the NASCAR XFINITY Series garage in some fashion since 2009.

Koch, 32, spent years toiling his way through seasons with the tour’s underfunded teams as he waited for the right opportunity to come along. The West Palm Beach, Florida native crossed over the 200-start milestone this season, but the majority of his early runs were start-and-park efforts – weekends sacrificed just for the sake of staying at the track with a chance at a brighter future.

For years, it appeared that future may never come.

Then came Matt Kaulig.

With support from Kaulig and Leaf Filter Gutter Protection, Koch finally stopped start-and-parking races in 2015 – a 17th-place effort for TriStar Motorsports. The following year, Koch and Kaulig came together to field an entry under the new Kaulig Racing banner as an affiliate of Richard Childress Racing.

As quickly as they’d become an entry, Koch and Kaulig found themselves among the tour’s biggest surprises. In their first year together, Koch took Kaulig Racing into the inaugural XFINITY Series playoffs, and within one race of the Championship 4.

The team backed that effort up this season, making the playoffs again in their second year. They currently sit 12th in the XFINITY Series standings as they near the end of a season that’s seen Koch score his first pole and two stage wins.

Koch didn’t start competing in stock cars until the late 2000s, but he’s found success and growth due to his positive attitude and relentless effort. Kickin’ the Tires caught up with Koch at Kansas Speedway to discuss his racing beginnings, quick ascendance and career renaissance with Kaulig Racing.

This week I’m in the XFINITY Series garage with Kaulig Racing’s own Blake Koch. Blake, how are you today?

Blake Koch: I’m doing great, man! How are you?

I’m doing good. Man, Kansas is a beautiful place, don’t you think?

It is, man. This is a great facility. The race track – they’ve done a really nice job with the repave, and it came into a really racey surface. We’ll be running on the bottom of the track, at the top of the track, all over the place.

It’s a fun place to drive, nice and smooth. And the surrounding area’s great. You’ve got an outdoor shopping mall, good restaurants, a Cabela’s. I always look forward to coming here. It’s a little windy right now, but I think that’s pretty typical of Kansas.

Cabela’s? Are you a hunter or fisherman?

Yeah! I love hunting and fishing. I’m actually going on a nice little hunting trip right after Texas in two weeks, going on a hunting trip with a couple buddies. Then I’ll do a lot of fishing in the offseason.

Blake Koch spent years competing on dirt bikes before giving stock cars a go. (Photo: Gavin Baker/NKP)

One thing I noticed o ken I researched you – you started at a university, and then on two wheels before four? Is that true?

Yeah. I started racing dirt bikes (from) when I was nine years old to about seventeen years old. Then I went to college at Northwood University, graduated when I was about 20, and then I started racing cars.

I never drove a race car at all until I was 21 years old. It’s been a great experience, great journey. I’m just proud of the position that I’m in now. Blessed and honored to be able to race for someone like Matt Kaulig, and to be a part of the growth of Kaulig Racing and what that’s become, having a sponsor like Leaf Filter Gutter Protection. It’s just a dream come true, really.

It’s been a crazy couple years, man. But it’s awesome.

So what led you to race cars? Was it something you’d always thought about, or did it come from a unique opportunity? Did you have interest in NASCAR?

No interest at all, actually. I watched my first ever NASCAR race in 2007. That’s not that long ago.

To answer your question, my stepdad was a big NASCAR fan, and still is. He bought this truck in Florida called a Pro Truck, that raced in the (Florida) Pro Truck Series. He asked me if I wanted to drive it, and I said, ‘Sure!’

I hopped in it, and the rest is history. I just started moving forward, winning races and got a shot at the NASCAR level.

That rise came pretty quick for you. You didn’t have a lot of experience when you got to the NASCAR level, did you?

No, not at all. I ran a year in that Pro Truck in Florida, and then we got a Late Model at the end of that year. I ran a year of Late Models – we ran about once a month, so I probably raced Late Models eight-to-10 times.

Then I got a ride in the K&N West Series as a (Richard Childress Racing) development driver. I did that for two years, and I’ve been in the XFINITY Series since 2011.

Once I met Matt Kaulig, that really kind of elevated everything about my career. We were able to make the playoffs last year, make the playoffs this year. We have a pole this year, two stage wins.

We’ve had a good year, we just need to get our first top five. That’s what our goal is for these next four races.

As a new team, it feels like Kaulig Racing has exceeded expectations. Would you agree with that sentiment?

Blake Koch and Kaulig Racing have made the playoffs in each of their first two seasons in the NASCAR XFINITY Series (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

I would absolutely agree with that.

Last year we set the bar pretty high, so some people feel like this year we were off a little bit. But I don’t think so, man. I think we just had a really good playoff run last year, and it drew a lot of attention to our race team as a first-year team.

But then in our second year, to get a pole and two stage wins, that’s something we’re proud of. There’s guys in the playoffs right now that don’t have a pole or stage wins, and they’re still in the playoffs.

Once the playoffs start you never really know what’s going to happen. We had a couple issues in those three races that kicked us out, but we’re definitely still in it and have our heads held up high. We’re working hard to get a top five in these next four races.

When you’re with a team like this – smaller than the top teams, but with speed – what kind of goals do you set for yourselves in the season and races?

Making the playoffs is one. We set team goals, and I set personal goals.

This year our main goal was just to make the playoffs. It’s all about making the playoffs, you know? We did that. We achieved our goal.

But we also just wanted to run a little bit better. We wanted to have a better average start, average finish. I think our average start is better right now. I don’t think our average finish is better, but we’ve had some really bad races that threw that average out the window.

My personal goals this year were to qualify for the playoffs, win a pole and win a race.

I was able to check off two of those goals, and I have four races to achieve that last goal.

How do you guys gauge your expectations going into a weekend? Are there certain weekends where you feel like your chances are better than others, or do you feel that you’re consistent through the year?

We feel like we go into certain weekends where we have a better shot at running up front at certain places.

For us, this year we know we have a lot of speed at the superspeedways. We know we’re fast at the road courses, we’re fast at the short-tracks.

We’ve really struggled a bit on the mile-and-a-halves, but we’ve got the cars driving pretty good. I felt like coming here to Kansas was one of our better mile-and-a-half tracks. I feel like the car’s driving good, and we’ll see if we can walk away from here with a good finish.

This team seams like it’s revitalized your career. How much has this move to Kaulig bettered your career?

Koch and Kaulig Racing have been able to contend with the best teams in the XFINITY Series on their good weekends. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Gosh, I can’t explain it to you. I have over 200 starts, right? But 100 of them or more are start-and-park deals where I just start the race and pull off after a lap or two because of a lack of sponsorship.

I felt like last year was almost like my rookie year in racing. Matt Kaulig started Kaulig Racing, we formed an alliance with RCR and it really elevated everything. I was racing in a different group of cars, and had different expectations. It was a lot of fun.

It wasn’t really a move to Kaulig Racing, it was forming Kaulig Racing. Matt started backing me in 2014 with Leaf Filter as our sponsor, and then we went with TriStar Motorsports in 2015.

We had a ton of fun, and love TriStar. Matt was very happy with TriStar, but Matt’s the type of person where he likes to control everything. He felt like he could do a great job as a team owner, felt like he could start a race team and do it better than any team owner.

He wanted to start a race team, and I was like ‘Alright, sweet! Let’s do it.’

We thought Chris Rice (Kaulig Racing General Manager and Crew Chief) was the guy that could put together the team for us, hire the right people – which he’s done. We have great people on our race team.

Man, it’s just been an amazing journey. We’re just growing and having fun.

We’ve seen a lot of guys struggle with sponsorship and financial issues. How much easier is it knowing you’ve got Leaf Filter along for the ride all year?

It’s a lot easier. Matt makes sure that I don’t worry about sponsorship.

Just naturally over my career that’s all I’ve had to worry about, finding sponsors. So sometimes I’ll call and be like ‘hey, do I need anything?’

He’ll go, ‘Nope, I’ll figure it out. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep working hard.’

I have Leaf Filter as a sponsorship. It’s great. But more importantly I have Matt Kaulig behind me. He’s a very successful business man who’s growing that every single year. Who knows what… He’s only 45 years old. His birthday was yesterday.

So 45 years old, that much success. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of him, his family and his team. The future is gonna be crazy awesome.

Happy birthday, Matt. It sounds like you two have a pretty close personal relationship. Does that extend off of the track?

Yes, absolutely. It all started off the track. We started hanging out, becoming great friends.

He was my sponsor, but Matt’s one of those guys that everybody wants to be around. You try to surround yourself with positive people, motivated people and people that put off good energy.

That’s Matt Kaulig, man. You just want to be around him all the time.

We became great friends, and he asked me a couple years ago: ‘What would you like to do? What would be the coolest thing?’

I was like, ‘Man, it’d be cool to just start a race team.’ And he was like, ‘Let’s do it!’

He wanted to start a race team. He got Lisa’s (Kaulig, Matt’s wife) approval. I clearly remember that day where he was like, ‘Hey Lisa, we’re going to start a team.’

She was like, ‘Okay.’ And he was like, ‘Dude, it’s done.’

We just took off from there.

You’ve had two years with this team, you’ve shown you’re contenders. What kind of goals and ambitions do you have as an organization and personally?

When you’re setting goals… Man, it’s pretty tough to put numbers on goals. It’s hard to say we want to finish eighth, or first, or third.

There’s so many variables that go into that, so our goals are just to always keep getting better, keep learning, keep working harder than anybody else and, most importantly, keep having fun. That’ll ultimately lead to race wins and championships.

This isn’t a two-year team, or a three-year-team. This team’s going to be around for a long time, and we’re going to keep on growing. So I don’t really even know where to start with goals, because it’s just going to exceed any goal that I could even think of.

Do you ever want to make the leap up to Cup, or are you content in the XFINITY Series?

It’s all about what Matt wants to do. I’m happy in the XFINITY Series, but I’m only happy with that because Matt’s happy with it.

If he came to me and said, ‘Hey, I want to start a Cup deal. What do you think?’

I’d be like ‘Awesome, let’s do it!’

But I’m not… A lot of younger drivers, even myself when I was younger, you’re always looking for the next thing. Everything looks better on the other side.

But I know how great of a situation I’m in to be teamed up with Matt. So when I think about what I want to do, it’s just strictly off of what Matt wants to do.

I’m Team Kaulig no matter what. No matter where they go.

If they want to go Truck (Series) racing, I’m going Truck racing. If he wants to go Cup racing, I’m going Cup racing. I’m just along for the ride, and enjoying every minute of it.

Where can your fans follow you?

First off, the website’s and I’m pretty big on Twitter and Instagram, and do all of that stuff myself. That’s @BlakeKochRacing.

Follow me on there, and I’ll try to put on good content.

Thank you for your time, and good luck today at Kansas.

Thank you buddy.

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