James Otto has country music in his soul, but he has oil running through his veins. While Otto is best known for his hit songs (such as his 2007 certified gold hit “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”), he’s also a lifelong gearhead who can be found building or AutoCross racing his cars when he’s not on stage. Otto says if he’s not working on his cars, he’s probably talking about them to anyone who will listen.
“I wear everyone out with car talk,” he says. “I’m a car nerd. If you’re around me, you’re bombarded with auto talk. I surround myself with car people because I think I have driven everyone else away! My fans know all about my car stuff and they ask how my races go and stuff. If you’re a fan of mine, you have to be onboard with the car stuff!”
Otto’s passion for all things automotive was inherited from his father and grandfather, both of whom built and raced cars. Although Otto says his father, who was a mechanic, tried to discourage him from getting into cars, a ’72 Chevelle was all it took to get Otto hooked.
“That was the start of me working on cars and I had to figure it out from there,” he says. “I wouldn’t call myself an ace builder, but I’m so passionate about cars that I have built my life around them. I even play shows that [coincide] with car shows I want to attend. I built my business around AutoCross races and shows so I can blend my love for cars with my love for music.”
We spoke to Otto about his music, his beloved 1966 C10 truck, and what’s next for him on the stage and on the track.
GG: You can often be found AutoCrossing your ’66 C10 truck. Why is that truck so special to you?
James Otto: My grandpa Pete gave it to me when he moved off of his farm because he knew I loved it. I took that truck from being a longbed farm truck and turned it into an AutoCross racer. I’ve been racing it ever since and I love it! We call it ‘For Pete’s Sake,’ in honor of my grandfather. I’ve had the truck for about five years, and it’s been through some changes in that time. It was the first vehicle I AutoCrossed with. I had been familiar with the pro-touring scene, but had never had the money to build a car like that. Once I took a ride, my whole focus of the truck build changed. It went from a farm truck to a frame-off shortbed that I wanted to make fast. We’re still working on it.
GG: What’s your daily driver?
James Otto: I have a 2011 Denali that I drive all the time. I can run parts in it, or put the family in it. I can also tow the truck. I’ve actually pared myself down to just the Denali and my ’66 truck.
GG: Since you’re an authority on both cars and music, we have to ask: What’s your go-to road trip song?
James Otto: My favorite driving song of all time is ‘Radar Love.’ It’s one of the best driving songs ever written. It’s from way before my time, but it’s cool as can be!
GG: If you hadn’t pursued music, what would you be doing for a living now?
James Otto: I would be doing something in the hot rod world, for sure. I would have tried to figure out how to work at a shop or build cars. It’s actually something I still want to do. I want to put together a shop. I spend more time thinking about cars or imagining what I’ll build. It’s kind of ridiculous. I would have found a way to live that passion out.
GG: Rumor has it that you sold one of your beloved cars years ago to fund your move to Nashville to pursue your music career. True or false?
James Otto: True. Prior to moving to Nashville 20 years ago, I had my first ’72 Chevelle and a ’72 Blazer. I had to sell the Blazer to pay for my move to Nashville. I always felt like I’d make some money and buy one again someday. Once I got to Nashville and [found success] I did buy one…and I ended up selling it again! That’s a fun part of the car hobby—buying and selling stuff.
GG: What’s your dream car?
James Otto: Honestly, my ’66 truck is one of my dream cars! But I also want a Ford GT40. I have always been a Chevy guy, but there’s something about that car that makes me want one.
GG: How do your wife Amy and daughter Ava feel about your hot rod obsession?
James Otto: My wife has become supportive of it. I think she figured that there’s no changing it at this point, so she either had to get on-board or divorce me! Luckily for me, she chose to stick with me. My daughter is almost seven and I’ve been taking her to the Goodguys show in Nashville since she was six months old. I’ve been trying to get her into cars since she was that age. She didn’t really care about most cars back then, but when they would parade the cars by her, she would clap for the loudest ones! That’s how I knew she was a gearhead! I take her out go-karting and I’m trying to get her into racing. I’ve gotta start her early!
GG: What’s the first thing you do when you get to a car show?
James Otto: I find the AutoCross area and pretty much camp out there most of the weekend. I like to study the drivers, see what they do to make their cars fast and figure out how I can do that, too. One of the best things about autocross is that, although all the guys want to win, they are also there for the camaraderie. They’ll discuss driving techniques and builds with you, and I have learned so much from going to these events and talking to the guys. I have made a lot of friends through AutoCross.
GG: What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
James Otto: They probably don’t know that I’m a Navy vet. I have been around the world and have served my country. I joined right after high school in 1993 and was stationed in Guam. I dove a lot and became a certified diver.
GG: What’s next for you, music- and career-wise?
ames Otto: I have a lot of things in the works right now! I am working on a new record with my brother-in-law [Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts]. He’s been very supportive of me over the years, and last year he said he wanted to produce a record for me. That will be out by the end of the year. I’m also working on a new clothing line that’s aimed at the AutoCross and racecar drivers. I’m calling it OttoX, a play on my last name. It’s me crossing my music with my love of cars. It will be a lifestyle brand for the car enthusiast. We’re working on it right now. The first run of my T-shirts has already sold out!
GG: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
James Otto: Follow your passion. Find a way to take what you love and make money at it. I have done that to the best of my ability. Sometimes no matter what you do for a living, it’s work and it can be tough, but at the end of the day, putting up with the hassles of my industry has been worth it. I make my living singing and writing songs, and that’s been one of the greatest joys of my life. Just like with cars; I followed my passion and, God-willing, that will continue.