TAMPA — Ross Chastain peered inside a 45-count cardboard watermelon bucket, glancing at all of the striped green fruit in sight.
He picked one up, shifted it between his hands and gently placed it inside a gray shopping cart at Walmart. He repeated the process five more times before he decided that six watermelons would be enough to cover him for his next two races.
They call him “The Watermelon Man,” “The Melon Man” and “the busiest driver in NASCAR.” And not just because his favorite food is watermelon.
“I eat way too much of it,” he joked, “but I can’t do the candies. They’re too artificial and sweet.”
Chastain, a rising NASCAR star, isn’t just an avid watermelon shopper. He’s an eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Alva, a small town 20 miles east of Fort Myers.
Chastain’s watermelon history is who he is. In the early 1700s, the first Chastain, Pierre, immigrated to the United States from France. That was 12 generations ago.
He started the family’s farming business planting a variety of crops: tobacco, vegetables and cotton. For the past eight generations, the Chastain family has planted only watermelons. It’s what the Chastains are good at. It’s what they know.
And as his family finishes another success watermelon season on its 400-acre farm in Punta Gorda, Ross, 26, has been gearing up for his next race, the NASCAR Xfinity series Circle K Firecracker 250 today at Daytona International Speedway.
He has fond memories of going to school as a child and immediately going to the farm afterward.
“I would want to skip school to go work at the farm,” he said, chuckling. “That’s all we know and all we love.”
But Chastain made a decision when he was 13 to curb his farm-work days and start what has morphed into his professional racing career.
He is a first-generation racer. He got into the sport through his father, Ralph, who raced as a hobby but never competitively. Ralph invited his son to watch a race when Ross was a boy. He watched Mark Martin’s son Matt finish first and get a Gatorade shower in victory lane.
“I thought, ‘I want to be like Matt Martin,’ ” Ross said.
Ralph and Ross fixed up a family friend’s truck that had been sitting around the friend’s house for a few years. Ross’ grandfather Rich Chastain even chipped in once he saw his grandson was serious about the endeavor.
And despite the choice Ross made almost 13 years ago, it doesn’t feel like he chose between farming and racing. He still calls Ralph every day, and he checks in with his 20-year-old brother, Chad, who works on the farm full time.
Ross shows off his family’s love for watermelons whenever he can, so much so that he has driven the famous “melon truck” in a few NASCAR truck series races this season.
“I’m still involved in both, and I get to promote watermelons on a national level,” he said. “I get to smash watermelons on national television on victory lane. It’s awesome.”
Ross’ racing helps him promote the watermelon business. If someone goes out and buys a watermelon after one of his races, he considers that to be a win even if he didn’t cross the finish line first. Over the years, many organizations, including the National Watermelon Association, have stepped up as his sponsor.
He got his first win in the Xfinity series last season, in the DC Solar 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, celebrating in victory lane in Chastain fashion: by smashing a watermelon on the finish line. “This is what sports is all about,” he said after the win.
Chastain had been thinking about what his “thing” would be if he ever won a race. He wanted it to be different and his own thing.
“I know I wanted to hold (a watermelon), but if I smash it, it’s like, ‘Whoa, what is that guy doing?’ ” he said.
This year he has won three truck races — NASCAR officials stripped him of one victory for a technical violation — and if he moves into the top 20 in the truck series standings, he qualifies for the playoffs. Chastain is 24th.
Chastain also will compete in the Cup series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona this weekend. He has started more than 40 races in NASCAR’s top three series this year, a feat that reflects the work ethic he developed on the farm. Those roots always will be part of what defines him.
“No one has to eat a watermelon every day,” he joked. “It’s the easiest thing to sell. Everyone smiles. You only get it if you like it.”
Contact Mari Faiello at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @faiello_mari.