Blake Alexander’s two-year-old concrete company that he and a high-school friend started in 2016 specializes in custom artisan concrete: outdoor kitchens, countertops and sinks, mantles, fireplace surrounds, and anything designers can dream. And once that concrete sets, it’s set.
But for the drag-racing phenom – who still impresses like he did when he burst onto the NHRA professional scene in 2011 – life has been fluid, nothing cast in concrete. At age five, he began parlaying his birthday and Christmas money into more than $1,200 to fund a Jr. Dragster. He competed in that entry class, Comp Eliminator A/Altered (2004-2010), Outlaw Pro Modified (2007-2010), and A/Fuel Dragster (2011). Then he wowed in his Funny Car debut as a college student, as much for his mop of boy-band hair and fetching smile as his relentless marketing plan to acquire racing partners for a lasting Funny Car or Top Fuel career. Poised to make a big splash on the sport’s biggest stage, Alexander would jet out to the West Coast to compete in Top Alcohol Dragster, then take red-eye flights back to Virginia in time for his classes at Radford University in pursuit of a marketing degree.
In and out of the traditional classroom, he was always learning, always challenging himself, always cultivating relationships, always mindful that aspirations, business, and subsistence converge in a complex and demanding swirl of activity. For him 330 miles an hour is normal speed. Now, as a married man, businessman, and racer, Alexander still juggles commerce and his cravings. He also operates a marketing services company.
And it’s all in a day’s work for the more reserved, more serious 30-year-old who barely knew how to cut loose and celebrate this year when he scored his first two Top Fuel victories, at Norwalk, Ohio, and Sonoma, Calif., in the Pronto-sponsored Dragster. This young man is all business, which means his pairing with Bob Vandergriff is a hand-in-driving-glove fit.
“The people who understand the business side of this will stay out here for a long time, because there’s always going to be opportunities to introduce companies and so different types of marketing – not just putting a sticker on the car but doing business to business and doing other types of customer activation and promotions,” Alexander said. “As long as there’s people who understand how to do that … a lot of these big teams do [but] we’re unique. We’re not really a big team, but we have some of the capabilities that they do. I think we’ll be around here for a while.”
He and Vandergriff share a lot of DNA.
There’s only so many chances you get to do this when you’re young and marketable. I’m fortunate I’ve been able to survive out here as long as I have.
“I would say we think alike,” Alexander said. “We kind of understand how to get out here. Our starting stories are kind of similar, where we had to earn our way into the sport by getting sponsorship and doing that. His was a little while ago, but it’s still kind of the same story with me nowadays. It’s just the sport’s grown and changed a little bit. But we definitely think alike, and he has a great group of people. I like working with Ron Douglas, our crew chief. We’ve gotten along really well, and I’m trying to do our best for our sponsors and all the people that help us to get out here and do this. I don’t want to let these guys down.”
On one hand, despite competing in the Funny Car class with mentor Paul Smith (2011-2016) and being a contender once for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, Alexander carries himself with the caution of a rookie.
“There’s only so many chances you get to do this when you’re young and marketable. I’m fortunate I’ve been able to survive out here as long as I have. I’d like to keep doing it. I still am excited about doing this,” he said. “Once you’ve won and been around people who expect a lot out of you, you understand that there’s more to this than just showing up and having a good time. Obviously, you just want to do well, because you only have so many chances to prove yourself. And eventually, those are used up.”
For all his ambition, arranging, and achievement, Alexander entertained no notions of ever wanting to run his own team.
“I’m not that far ahead [in long-range career planning] right now. When something’s good, I don’t want to mess it up and muddle it up. I want to keep going and see where I end up. That’s all I can do,” he said.
On the other hand, he’s firmly self-aware. That’s one part of Alexander that’s concrete. He had no concerns about his ability to switch from a full-bodied, front-engine Funny Car to a sleek, rear-engine Top Fuel dragster. His confidence in driving is evident. In that way, he was like proven 26-time Pro Stock winner Dave Connolly and the intensely focused Leah Pritchett when they joined Bob Vandergriff Racing for a brief stint.
The people who understand the business side of this will stay out here for a long time, because there’s always going to be opportunities to introduce companies and so different types of marketing – not just putting a sticker on the car but doing business to business and doing other types of customer activation and promotions.
Even though he missed 13 races this season, including five of the first six, he picked up where he had left off after only four 2017 appearances. He was runner-up to Pritchett in May at Atlanta, but by the end of July had two victories in just six events. (He since has had semifinal finishes at Chicago, Denver, and Indianapolis.)
“I knew how to do everything. I’d run quite a few races and made a lot of runs in a fuel car. It’s just a different car. I didn’t really feel like I was gone,” Alexander said. “I can do whatever I need to do to make this happen, make it work for the people who sponsor us.”
Alexander’s ever-changing racing career has him in yet another new role: tutor. Already he is dispensing advice and sharing pointers with Jordan Vandergriff, the team owner’s nephew, who will be his teammate in the D-A Lubricant Company Dragster starting next season.
“I’m mentoring someone in driving. I used to be on the other end of that,” Alexander said, at once taking it in stride while appreciating the peculiarity of it. “Information is crucial out here, and we’ll be collecting more of it. And Ron [crew chief Douglas, one of the fresher faces among tuners] will be able to parlay that into something special next year, I think. Our team will be able to win a little more often, I think, because we’ll have two cars and will be learning from different things. As we both get better as drivers and as a team, it will allow us to compete at a higher level.
“He’s paid his dues. He’s excited. But it’s going to be a little bit of a process to get him up to speed to compete with everyone out here. It’s perfect when you can get in a Top Fuel car and have a great car to start your licensing in. We’re going to continue to give him one in the next year.”
But he tempered that, saying, “We’re not going to promise anything – just prepare and do what we did this year. We’re going to run in the offseason with him some more so that by the time the season begins next year he’ll be pretty seasoned and will be able to do a good job and you won’t be able to tell he’s that new because he’ll have a good team of teachers.”
Jordan, a crew member for Alexander when he hasn’t been driving Anthony Dicero’s alcohol dragster and the only other full-time employee besides Douglas, said, “Blake has been amazing. We’re a little younger, and I can lean on him for advice. He’s been in my position before.”
And it wasn’t all that long ago. All that excitement is tangible in the Bob Vandergriff Racing pit. Douglas called his fly-in crew members “my mechanical miracles” and said Alexanders’ success has generated a buzz on the team, for some of them hadn’t experienced a victory “in 17 years.”
The entire team has had to be patient, because Bob Vandergriff isn’t one to have his head turned, or his pocketbook opened, with the thrill of a victory (despite reaching 13 final rounds before he won at Dallas in 2011). So the team won a couple of races but sat out two right after Sonoma and skipped two in the Countdown. He is sticking to his business plan.
Alexander said racing again right away would have been “cool – I definitely won’t deny that” – but that “it doesn’t keep me up at night.” He said, “People have tried that out here, and I think you can see that it wears down their inventory of parts and the income that you have off of the winnings doesn’t really pay for the next steps that you need to take to continue winning. It’s all about having good partnerships that are thriving and do it in the right places where they want you to be.”
From afar, he saw Billy Torrence also become a first-time winner this year and said, “Life goes on, and the sport will go on. We want to continue to be a part of it and keep working hard towards the next steps.”
Alexander, who finished the season with a 21-8 record in 10 appearances, said the team will enter “probably like 15” events in 2019: “We’re running more, but I don’t think we’re going to run the full season, neither of us.”
Then again, nothing in Blake Alexander’s world, except his custom concrete fabrications, is set in concrete.