BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt Tifft faces the biggest challenge of his NASCAR career this season as a rookie driver for the Front Row Motorsports team on the Monster Cup Series.
That task is nothing compared to the ordeal that the 22-year-old native of Fairfax, Virginia, endured in 2016.
Imagine how Tifft felt when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“At first, the hardest part of going through that process was not having much of a community. But once I announced my illness, I had overwhelming support from the brain tumor community,” said Tifft during a Friday morning interview.
After being informed that his racing career was over, Tifft was able to return to the sport after a year’s absence following an intensive 12-month treatment program.
Tifft said he came away from his nightmare with a new respect for people who suffer from a chronic illness, especially cancer patients who face an obstacle course of exhausting treatments.
“I was extremely fortunate because I did not have to undergo chemo or radiation,” Tifft said. “I’ve gotten to know so many brain tumor survivors and other cancer patients.”
There are no cheering fans or autograph seekers in chemotherapy rooms, yet the relentless struggle is comparable to many athletic feats.
“We get so sucked into this [racing] world because this is what we do week-to-week and it’s how we get a paycheck and provide for our families,” Tifft said. “But when you’ve had something like I had where you have to take a step back and life comes into play, you realize that the people who fight and battle through serious health challenges are the real heroes.”
At nearly every track on the NASCAR circuit, Tifft meets with people who are dealing with the effects of brain tumors. He also works with the National Brain Tumor Society and serves as a national advocate for research and funding efforts.
“Nobody deserves to be in the position of facing a serious illness,” Tifft said. “That’s why I try to use my platform here to raise awareness and promote research to help with those illnesses.
“Racing is great and I have a passion for it, but there are a lot of things much bigger than racing.”
Tifft offered advice for patients and family members who are hit with the diagnosis of a life-changing illness.
“It’s important to find a network or group you can relate to. You just don’t want to feel alone,” Tifft said. “You’ve got to meet people who are in the same situation and learn to fight. It’s all about having a positive attitude, finding the right treatment option and just trying to fight every day.”
On the track, Tifft currently ranks 31st in points with his small team that works to overcome the mega-powers of the Cup series.
“It’s been a learning process,” said Tifft, who made 77 Xfinity starts. “With the Cup Series being the top level of the sport, it’s certainly a tougher task than being a rookie in the Xfinity or Truck Series. But we’ve had some good runs with our teammates.”
One of the neat parts about Tifft’s position is having the chance to work with two Cup veterans and overall nice guys in fellow Front Row Motorsports drivers Michael McDowell and David Ragan.
“I’m in a great situation with those guys,” Tifft said. “There are still some things I need to work on and areas in which we need to get better on as a team. The biggest thing right now is improving with our qualifying efforts.”
Tifft will start from the No. 29 spot in today’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I feel like we get better as the day goes on in our race-day efforts,” Tifft said. “It’s important for me to build my notebook for what I need in the car. It’s kind of hard to come in not knowing what we need for these long races. As we return to these tracks, I will have more of a repertoire.”
Meanwhile, Tifft said he approaches each challenge with the knowledge that there are more urgent struggles in life.
“I give it everything I have on race weekends. And when I was fighting to come back from my brain tumor, I gave it everything I had. That’s way harder than any of this stuff is.”