By Mark McCarter for

GiffordWINCHESTER, Tennessee — There was this unfortunate racing parallel to the Gatorade bucket being dumped on a football coach.

Winchester, Tenn. driver Ryan Gifford makes season debut at Daytona next Monday (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Ryan Gifford had been racing go-karts for a year or so when he finally earned his first victory, on a track in Crossville, Tenn.

“It was so exciting to pull in and see everybody else’s excitement,” Gifford recalled. “But go-kart tracks have a big bucket of water where you clean your tires. They dumped that bucket on me.”

Still, he said, “It was cool.”

Gifford was nine years old or so when he got that baptism.

Now 23, Gifford, a Franklin County (Tenn.) High School grad who attended Middle Tennessee State, is looking for more celebrations.

Gifford is one of the select participants in NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program, to encourage and support drivers of color and women in their racing careers. He’s driving a Toyota in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and will make his season debut next Monday at Daytona International Speedway.

Gifford was 11th in points last season, with three top-10 finishes in 14 races, after finishing 10th in points in 2011.

“He’s had his share of bad luck,” said Derik Crotts, general manager of Gifford’s Rev Racing team. “He was leading three races last year. But on a restart at Richmond, he spun his tires. Another time, a teammate blew a tire and took him out.

“He definitely has the talent and the personality (to succeed),” Crotts continued. “He’s willing to listen and to learn.”

Gifford, the son of Allen Burnette and the late Michelle Gifford, who died in 2010, got much of his racing inspiration from grandfather Farrell Gifford, who was a drag racer. As a six-year-old, Ryan asked for a junior dragster, but his grandfather said, “Let’s got the go-kart track first and check it out and see if you like it.”

And, said Ryan Gifford, “I automatically fell in love with it.” He got a go-kart from Christmas “and we went wide-open pretty much from there.”

He raced in Toney, Ala., and other go-kart tracks in the area, then graduated to late-model dirt-track cars as a 15-year-old, racing in Moulton, Talladega and tracks in middle Tennessee.

Gifford did well enough to impress Mike Dillon, the vice-president of Richard Childress Racing (and the owner’s son-in-law) to earn a dirt-track ride with Team Dillon, and then earned his way into NASCAR’s diversity program.

“It’s been huge for me,” he said. “Without it I’d be back in Winchester working, just trying to scrounge up enough money to go race. My family’s not been super well-off, so this is a good opportunity from NASCAR. It’s really awesome.”

Contact Mark McCarter at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @markmccarter

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