CHATTANOOGA — Swimming with the sharks is less dangerous than racing the sharks in the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It was a tagline given to NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan before he spoke to visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium on Tuesday. The driver of the No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro insisted the line was true when he met with media members afterwards.
“You race at Bristol and it feels like a chariot race,” he said. “ You’re just like Charlton Heston with the spikes coming out of the wheels. You’re fighting some of the gladiators. It’s much more difficult to race against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski at Bristol than it is to dive with those sharks.”
Although Gaughan grew up in the desert town of Las Vegas, he’s plenty comfortable in the water. He took up diving six years ago and went at it full bore. He now is a divemaster for Lake Norman Scuba in Mooresville, North Carolina. He has made over 500 dives and has spent 1,000 hours underwater.
He has dived at many locations in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as well as a few places in the Pacific. He talked about the wildlife he’s encountered from humpback whales to giant Pacific hammerhead sharks.
“I’ve done some amazing things and have been to places I would have never thought I would have gone,” he said. “I’ve been to the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas all the time to find places to dive.
I took my nieces and nephews to Honduras to one of my favorite places. I’ve been to Socorro which is in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean and some of the things I’ve seen underwater, it’s life-changing.”
Gaughan, a former desert racer who played college football and basketball at Georgetown University before getting into NASCAR, is passionate about conservation. It was evident when he was fitted with a special mask to communicate with children as he was inside the aquarium’s tank filled with 618,000 gallons of salt water.
As sand tiger sharks swam past him, Gaughan explained to the crowd how humans are much more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans. He also told the crowd how chemicals dumped into Tennessee streams and rivers eventually make their way to the ocean and have a negative effect on wildlife.
“This is a beautiful controlled environment where you get to teach people how docile sharks really are,” he said. “I wish humans understood what great animals they are, so beautiful and graceful. Conservation is a big deal. Humans are decimating shark populations.
“No offense to “Shark Week” which is a neat week on television. They show all the man-eating things that make great television. You don’t get to see the sand tiger which was five inches from my face. He just wanted to enjoy me as much as I enjoyed him.”
Diving has also given Gaughan a greater appreciation of history. He has gone where few men have gone before, checking out shipwrecks at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Wreck diving is a ton of fun,” he said. “I’ve been to Pensacola and have dove the Oriskany, which was the aircraft carrier which John McCain took off from when he got shot down.
“You go to the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off the coast of Carolina and there are German submarines sunk down there. You see the history of the world when you’re diving and then the big animals like giant Pacific manta rays with wingspans up to 20 feet and the hammerheads 18 feet long.”
On the track, Gaughan recently celebrated winning at the Road America road course in Wisconsin. He explained how winning is expected by car owner Richard Childress with whom legendary driver Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven NASCAR Cup Series titles.
“The Road America deal was huge for me personally and professionally, it was a big deal on so many different levels,” he said. “At Richard Childress Racing, you are expected to win races. With the performance we’ve had lately, I think we will get it done again soon.
“Leading up to Bristol, we have a great variety of NASCAR tracks. But, really what everyone wants to do is go to the night race at Bristol. We all circle that race at the start of the year and say the night race at Bristol is where legends are made. You never see anybody that won their only race at Bristol. That doesn’t happen. It’s legendary status when you get a win at the Coliseum.”
Gaughan, whose background consists of racing against guys like Robby Gordon and six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson in events like the Baja 1,000, got his big break driving for off-road legend Walker Evans in the Truck Series. Now with one of NASCAR’s most storied teams, he currently ranks seventh in the Nationwide Series point standings. He talked about driving for Childress and also playing basketball for the legendary John Thompson at Georgetown.
“Each of those have their own unique set of circumstances,” he said. “Basketball was not my world. I’m a 5-foot-9, can’t shoot, can’t run very well, but I had a role on the Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team and I loved that role.
“But to me, racing is my world. Racing is what I get to be a part of. Even though I’m driving for one of the greats like Richard Childress and there is a lot of pressure to perform, I’m still more comfortable racing than I was playing for John Thompson.”