Justin Peck is taking the wheel towards success. The racing legend and entrepreneur recently penned a new book, Bulletproof, in which he writes about his struggles with mental health and how it’s made him the man who he is today. We spoke exclusively with Justin about bipolar disorder, being a granddad, and that fateful morning which put his life on the path he was destined for.
I need to ask you about all of these amazing tattoos.
I turned 40 and I didn’t have one tattoo. 41 went by and I wanted a tattoo, and I went in the middle of February and got a consultation. And in the span of one year, from March 7, 2015 to the following year, I got 270 hours of tattoo work done, full sleeves and my entire back. I was doing 10-hour sessions at a time.
How do you go from one tattoo to 10-hour sessions?
That’s my personality. Moderation is for cowards, so I always do things all the way. The two tattoos I had here were the conflict of brains, adapt and overcome, the manic and the depressive state of bipolar. Everything else works into it. The screws bones and plates and 84 broken bones to date.
I like how you say, “to date,” like it’s still a work in progress.
Oh yeah. I’m still racing. 19 surgeries, 200 screws, died twice. It’s been fun.
The life you’ve lived is the life of 15 people.
Yeah, I don’t like being sedentary. I always like to keep moving. One of the big things about the [bipolar] disorder, at least for me, is that I always have to move forward. If I don’t have anything to look forward to, that’s where the depressive side comes into play, and I find myself staying in bed. Having something to look forward to gets me excited.
When were you diagnosed?
It was in 2005.
Wow, so you were living with it for a long time undiagnosed.
Yeah, I remember my first panic attack. I was 13, and I remember it very vividly. My parents though it was drugs. It’s in conversation now but back then, 30 years ago, if you brought up mental health, they’d put a jacket on you and put you in a padded room. So as a young kid, I knew I was different, even at 5-6 years old.
And when you have no one to talk to, you can feel like you’re drowning.
I learned at a young age to rely on myself and myself only. I get a lot of people asking me who my idols are, and I don’t have anybody. I look up to me. I inspire myself. Granted, there are drivers out there that I want to be as fast as, but I don’t want to be them.
Now as a dad, did you ever worry that your illness could have been passed on to your kids?
When I had my first baby, I was 17. I was just thinking, “Am I going to be able to grow this little boy up to be a man?” Then we had our daughter in 1995, and there’s something about daddy’s daughters. They just melt me. My third was born in 2000, and I was excited to have another girl. My youngest is born in 2005, and he’s 100% me. My daughter was diagnosed with class 2 bipolar, so she has some struggles ahead of her.
There’s so much more that can be done now. It’s not a curse.
People talk about mental illness and disorder. For me, it’s a mental blessing. I wouldn’t be who I am, the goofball, without those quirks. Everyone has their struggles and their doubts, but it’s what makes you who you are.
So I loved your book, Bulletproof. What was the impetus for writing it?
My grandmother used to keep a journal. She would write everyday, and before she died, I asked her why she wrote and she said that she wanted everyone to know what her life was like. That resonated with me. Life went on for a little bit, and then my youngest brother overdosed at the age of 21. I remember that I went to his funeral and that night I brought out the laptop and I started writing.
I started with just feelings of the day. I would write and then take a week off and then get back into it. There was no concept of a book; it was just writing. And it hit me of knowing all the life experiences I had gone through at that point—I’d made a lot of money; I had lost a lot of money. I had nice houses; I lost nice houses. So it changed my mindset and I decided to write a book for my children so they could understand what their dad was like. My kids were super young, and as young children, we look at our parents through a different lens. We think that our parents are more of something that they’re not. When we grow up, we realize that’s not the case. I’m still 18; I still have the same mental state. It’s hard to convey that to the younger generation. So what I wanted to do was write, and it went from elementary school, to businesses to just everything. I ended up with 270 pages and it took me a long time, about 8 years.
I met a ghostwriter, and of course I didn’t know what that was. She was going to help me and it got me thinking that there might be something there. I finished the book and handed it to an editor. She called three days later and said it was incredible. I laughed because it’s just me and my stories. I mean, I’m barely a high school graduate! Even though it has a lot of my racing and business experience and my struggle, it’s still based on mental health. That’s where people can read it and relate to it. It’s given me the opportunity to open the discussion and talk about it.
It puts a new face to it. And at the end of the day, you’re helping so many people. The racing and business gives you the platform.
I got a second chance; a lot of people don’t get a second chance. There was a time in my life when I was pretty down. I woke up in the morning like every other morning and things weren’t right and they hadn’t been right for a while. I kissed my wife, kissed my kids, jumped in my truck, grabbed my dog and went to work, which I had done so many other times. Driving around, checking on job sites, and I went to a canyon that I had gone to a few times, just to get away. I got to the top of the canyon and let the dog out. I’m sitting in the front seat of my truck, just sobbing. Overwhelmed, thinking that life sucks. Listening to my music; music is a huge part of my life.
And in one moment—one irrational moment, I opened the console in my truck, grabbed my pistol, put it to my head and pulled the trigger. It was a crazy moment. But the gun didn’t go off. When I unchambered it, flipped it out and it fell in my lap, and I looked at the bullet—it just didn’t go off. I had shot thousands of rounds through that pistol and it happened to be this one time, it didn’t work. So I realized that I was here for something.
What happened to the bullet?
Oh I have it. It’s in a pouch in my nightstand. It’s a reminder. Without struggle there is no success. Having the class 1 part of bipolar, it’s one of those things that never goes away.
How long do you see yourself racing?
I’ll race forever. I hope I make it that long. It’s a hard lifestyle. I’ve been racing 26 years now.
And it never gets old?
Never. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane. There’s something about putting my helmet on, because you have the outside chaos. And day-to-day life can be pretty chaotic. But when I put my helmet on, it just all goes away. I have the visor on, and that’s all you can see, what’s through the visor. There’s no peripheral vision. Firing the race car, smelling the fumes, ahhh, it’s peace, it’s amazing. For the fans to watch it, it looks intense. We’re jumping 200 feet, 160 miles an hour, doing things most people in life don’t do. There’s less than 100 people in the U.S. doing what I do. So it’s a very unique sport; it’s very hard on the body. But it’s what I look forward to.
Okay, so with being into racing, how were you teaching your own kids how to drive?
It was fun! My kids are good drivers.
How are you as a regular driver?
Me? I’m mellow. I take all the speed, all the risk, all the danger—that’s on the race track. Because it’s the other people I don’t trust; I trust my driving ability. It’s the other goofballs out there. It was so much fun teaching my kids, because it’s my passion. I taught them how to control the car, so if it ever got out of control, how to get it back in control. At the end of the day, it’s about the kids.
And let’s talk about your grandbabies!
I had all the kids early and now I can play with my grandbabies. They’re 6, 5, 1, 6 months. They’re incredible. Having grandbabies, you have your children, you want to take care of them, but your grandbabies are your legacy. My family was blue collar—we worked super hard, and I wanted to break that cycle and I feel that I have. So now I can provide a little bit more for my kids, and hopefully that cycle will continue. If I can continue to build that empire, then my grandbabies will benefit from that and hopefully that passes on.