The little boy rode on the tractor with his grandfather, listening to the NASCAR race on the radio. They were at the family farm in Lewisville, not far from the Yadkin River. The boy, who attended Courtney Elementary School in Yadkin County, spent many Sunday afternoons like this. It was a relaxing pastime for him. As they plowed the fields, Joseph “Cruz” Gonzalez had no idea he was actually cultivating his future career.
The boy, now a young man, moved to a North Carolina beach after graduating from Forbush High School in 2001. But living at the coast didn’t fit him, so he moved back to Yadkin County, where his parents and most of his family members live. He just didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. The young man had a conversation with his parents about his future.
“I said the only thing I really want to be in is racing,” Gonzalez said. “They said if that’s what you think, then that’s what you need to head towards. Once I put my brain to it, I just put my head down and got to work.”
He entered a program in Hickory, building Hooters Pro Cup cars, getting valuable hands-on experience and classroom training. After two years there, Gonzalez connected with a former crew member for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. who was now running a shop in Welcome.
“I’m not even old enough to drink at this point and I walk in the door and he offers me a job on the spot,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t paid for the first three weeks because they wanted to make sure I was serious. I learned more in those three weeks than you can on some of the big NASCAR teams, where it’s such a factory. Everything was hands-on and on some of the big teams, you tell someone what you need and they just bring it to you and you bolt it on the car. I kind of like that I started that way just because it makes you appreciate things more.”
Gonzalez’s pro-activeness to drive and meet the shop owner got his foot in the door for what has been a championship career as a crew member in the NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Truck Series. Working at the Welcome shop until 2006, the young man, now with a better resume, wound up on driver Jeff Burton’s crew at the Xfinity Series level. Gonzalez eventually moved up to Richard Childress Racing of the NASCAR Cup Series.
He has worked for drivers Kevin Harvick, Scott Wimmer, Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard, among others. Racing teams place you with which driver who needs your services at that time, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez has worked at every NASCAR track, spending seven years at the top level, meeting every driver you can think of and collecting some major championship rings along the way. He
has won three Xfinity Series championships, one Truck Series championship as a crew member for Austin Dillon and came just shy of the sport’s biggest prize, as the Ryan Newman team finished second in the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series.
“I’m very thankful to have those championships and I feel very grateful,” Gonzalez said. “If I don’t ever get the big trophy in the NASCAR Cup Series, I still feel like I have done enough to be satisfied with what I have done. And I am always grateful that my family has always been there supporting me.”
He also worked for Paul Menard when he won the 2011 Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s premier races.
“To win a race of that magnitude, it really proved to me that I was capable of winning something big,” Gonzalez said. “It gave me more of a purpose for what I do. When you get to that top level and you experience what it’s like to win, it’s indescribable to explain what it feels like.”
He’s been a tire specialist, a shop mechanic, gas man and a jack man.
“My mechanic role is one word, but it covers a lot.” Gonzalez said. “It covers the vast majority of everything you do on the car.”
He’s also enjoyed meeting famous musicians, MMA athletes, professional wrestlers and even the man who designed Ken Griffey Jr.’s baseball bats.
“I couldn’t be happier with my career,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t put a price tag on the memories.”
And he’s just as happy with his personal life.
“My wife Renee has always been supportive of what I do,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t have done it without her or my family members. Having their support makes my career possible.”
To top it off, his career afforded him the opportunity to build his dream home on the same family farm where he grew up listening to NASCAR races. The young man, now a grown man, selected a spot on the property in 2011. He built a driveway and worked with his wife on a design for the Charleston, S.C. style home, complete with wrap-around porches on the first and second floors. The house, surrounded by acres of photogenic farmland, was finished in 2014.
“We’ve been here four years and I love it,” he said. “I don’t have any neighbors that I can see, just soybeans and a pond. I like to keep it that way. I’m fortunate my grandfather gave me the opportunity – I definitely couldn’t have done it without him and I definitely couldn’t have done it without racing.”
Gonzalez now works on the Ryan Truex race team at the Xfinity series level. The Truex race shop is right next to Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, so Gonzalez has had the same drive to work for the last 13 years.
“If anyone ever asks where I am from, I tell them I live in Lewisville, but I am from Yadkin County.,” said Cruz. “I know people in Yadkin County who still leave their doors unlocked and that’s what I love about it. I love the small town feel it always had growing up. Had this farmland been in Yadkin County, I would certainly be living there. For the people who read this, I will always think that Yadkin County is my home.”
Nathan Walls is a graduate of Forbush High School and a former employee of The Yadkin Ripple.