AVONDALE, Ariz. — The parade started precisely at 9:02 a.m., shortly after the morning announcements where that day’s lunch menu consisting of a chicken sandwich, cheesy pizza or Alfredo pasta was shared and a reminder that shirts must be tucked in at all times. Once the announcement concluded, approximately 900 students filed out of their classrooms and began lining the halls of Estrella Vista STEM Academy for Engineering.
Having a parade in his honor, with handcrafted banners from an entire grade school of children as he walked by, was not what Erik Jones envisioned when, during the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, he decided to crack a book and read to kids virtually.
All Jones, driver of the No. 43 car for Petty GMS Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series, intended that day was to merge his desire to remain connected with fans and share his love of reading with children who he figured could use a break from quarantine. So, he grabbed one of his favorite children’s books, started a live stream on Facebook and cracked open the Dr. Seuss classic, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
The reaction was overwhelming, Jones recently told The Athletic. Numerous people commented to him that they enjoyed the experience and that their kids loved it even more. What he thought would be a one-time thing quickly became more, soon morphing into something where he began performing regular readings. And even after COVID-19 restrictions decreased, Jones didn’t keep his collection of children’s books on the shelf. Instead, he continued the virtual sessions.
Thus, how on this November morning Jones found himself at Estrella Vista doing an in-person reading of “Dragons Love Tacos” to each of the school’s third-grade classes, the first time he’s done a reading at a school. Each kid in attendance also received a copy of the popular book that reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, with the school also being gifted 10 copies for its library through a partnership of the Erik Jones Foundation and Scholastic, the children’s publishing, education and media company.
During the reading, Jones made sure to engage the children, pausing to ask them questions related to what was transpiring. Developing the right cadence is something that took Jones a bit of time to develop, he said. Similar to racing, it took him some reps to get comfortable and find the proper rhythm — not too fast where he speeds through the book, but not too slow where the children may lose interest.
“My mom will critique me on my reading, how to do it differently or better,” Jones said. “At first, I was going way too fast, I was reading through the books really quick. And so that was the first thing. Then getting some more emotion into it was the other thing, so I tried to give some voices and some more excitement.”
Also similar to racing, Jones’ love for books was instilled by his family. Each night his father, Dave, would read to Erik before bedtime. One of the fondest memories young Jones has of that experience is after they graduated from children’s books to more adult fare was of his father reading him a biography on Jeff Gordon, further fueling his passion for racing.
“That inspires you to read,” Jones said. “Your parents are sitting there reading to you and you’re learning all that stuff about someone you look up to and something you’re really interested in. For me, that was probably the first time I can remember reading something that I was really, really interested in.
“It was definitely a turning point. That was the first chance I had to really learn about (Gordon) and where he came from, what he grew up racing, how he came to NASCAR and why he raced NASCAR. Such a big inspiration for me. He was a 6-, 7-year-old kid, which I was 5 or 6 at that time (reading the book), when he started racing, and that was like, ‘Wow, you know, why can’t I start racing, too?’”
Although not completely averse to modern-day trappings like social media and television that offer viewers hundreds of options at their fingertips, in some respects Jones is an old soul in a 25-year-old body who thinks children are too consumed with electronic gadgets. He’s seen it firsthand with his own 4-year-old niece, to whom Jones has passed along his love for books by reading to her twice a week for 20 minutes. (He doesn’t yet have any children of his own.)
This belief is another reason why he’s made it a priority to continue his virtual reading sessions and why he, his foundation and Scholastic are working toward making in-person readings a regular thing to coincide with the NASCAR schedule. Estrella Vista was selected because of its proximity to Phoenix Raceway, which hosted last month’s NASCAR championship weekend.
“I see how kids kind of grow up now and it’s a little bit different than how I grew up,” Jones said. And it’s not all bad, you need to have both sides of it. But I definitely think reading is something that has gotten lost a little bit along the way.
“It’s something that was just a huge part of my childhood and something that carries into adulthood as well. It sticks with you for a long time. It gives you, I think, an early jumpstart. And for me, anytime I’ve wanted to learn more about something, I’ve always picked up a book and read. That’s been the one thing in my life that I’ve always really enjoyed.”
When the reading on this day concluded, the children peppered Jones with the expected questions a NASCAR driver can expect to be asked by young admirers: “What’s it like to go fast? What’s it like to crash? And how old are you?” The latter question prompted a witty comeback from the child, who said Jones was just three years younger than his mom, eliciting laughter from the adults in attendance.
The virtual readings have continued into the offseason. On Tuesday, Jones donned a Santa hat and read “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The week before he read “Ty’s Travels: Zip, Zoom!,” which coincided with the announcement that Ty Dillon would be Jones’ teammate in 2022 at the rebranded Petty GMS Motorsports.
If the whole thing sounds a little Mr. Rogers-ish, that’s OK. Jones has heard the good-natured jokes comparing him to the legendary children’s television host. A comparison he smiles at, happy with the knowledge he’s making a small difference in a child’s life.
“That’s alright. He was a cool guy, I liked him,” Jones said.”
Let’s call this “Erik’s Book Club.” The Athletic asked Jones to share his three favorite children’s books and one adult-themed book, explaining why each left a lasting impression on the Michigan native.
“Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” by David Maraniss
“I love history books, and just being able to learn about Detroit a little bit more was something I appreciated. I grew up only about 45 minutes from there, and when I was a kid, Detroit was in a pretty rough spot and not somewhere that was great, and they were going through a tough time. But in the last 10 years, we’ve seen Detroit really start to take a pretty big transformation and a pretty big step in the right direction. And this book allowed me to go back to when I got to hear my dad and my grandfather talk about Detroit, especially my grandfather, from when they were younger and about how beautiful it was, how great it was and how many opportunities there were and all these things. I wanted to learn more about it and just read about what they remember from where Detroit was at its peak, and then where was the slip and fall and that whole curve of the city.”
“Interrupting Chicken,” by David Ezra Stein
“I read that book for the first time a couple of months ago and I just thought it was pretty funny. We watch my girlfriend’s niece every once in a while, and so much of that book relates to how she behaves at times and how you never can keep a kid on track on what you’re talking about or what you’re trying to do. I thought that was pretty funny and thought the humor in it was funny for a kid and it was funny for an adult.”
“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Numeroff
“This is one I remember as a kid and thinking it was just a cool book. It’s a book that as a kid it was easy to get into and I know kids still love that book today. It’s just for me a classic. Any book that I can remember reading as a kid and still remember to this day means there’s something that stuck with me as a kid.”
“M is for Mitten: A Michigan based Alphabet,” by Annie Appleford
“I was looking for a book about Michigan when I was doing a reading there (in August) and I thought this one had the coolest facts and stories and a lot of different things about Michigan that people may not know because there’s so many unique things about Michigan. And I always like to share those. Then the illustrations in it I thought were really great, too.”