Fuelin’ Around – Chapter Two

Written by J.K. Kelly on April 6th, 2020


MEANWHILE IN TEXAS

While I was finding my way, Steve Burns was pursuing his passion down south. He grew up in San Antonio and his father had served in the U.S. Army, a veteran who came ashore at Utah Beach in Normandy during World War II. It was a patriotic household and that continues to pulse through “ASB” as we call him still today. Steve had done some drag racing in Texas but wasn’t satisfied with the race gas products that were on the market there. If you knew Steve you’d know his natural curiosity won out and when his parents took him to Washington D.C. for an annual vacation his father mentioned that anything and everything you might want to learn about is within the building they were driving by. It was the Library of Congress and Steve immersed himself in what he found there. This, of course, was long before the Internet and Google searches and I suggest that he didn’t keep going back just for the research. I knew damn well there had to be at least one particularly helpful attractive young librarian there and his boyish grin confirmed it the last time we spoke about those early days in D.C.

Steve read everything he could get his hands on and his father may have helped point him in a specific direction. During World War II, there was a huge need for fuel development in Europe, particularly in Germany. The scientists in that country needed to get the highest octane out of the fuels they put in their military aircraft. They also needed to generate fuel products from any and every source available to them. When you’re fighting a war with motorcycles, autos, trucks, tanks, aircraft, submarines, destroyers and everything motorized in between you need reliable fuels that you can source and that will perform. He learned what he could and went back to Texas in search of chemical supply. He’d knock on every door, visit every refinery, pester the foreman, and eventually get the small amount of chemicals he needed to make a batch of race fuel. For those of us lucky enough to have been to Steve’s earliest “facilities” you’d see he’d have collected what he needed in used drums with Saudi writing on them. He’d clean them up, label them, make the fuel, and sell a drum to a buddy. Before long, he had a local dealer network. A buddy would buy six drums at a dealer price and the profits he’d make selling five would pay for his own fuel and then some. The products would outperform what was available and Steve was on the move. This got the first VP products into some drag cars but Steve had a good friend, Kent Howerton, who was a champion MX motocross rider. Before long he had a partner and more importantly, an advocate for VP in not just motocross bikes but in road race bikes. Amateur and professional riders, and their engine tuners, began to take notice. The fuels made more horsepower and torque, ran cooler and cleaner, and in a two-stroke (two cycle) motorcycle the products created a much crisper throttle response. Anyone in racing reading this knows these are the things you look for. For the non- racer, consider that a race engine is much like an athlete’s body. The better the fuel you feed it, the better care you take of it, the better it will perform but that comes with a price. VP needed to charge more than the other brands not because they could but because they needed to. Things weren’t cheap but business was really starting to take off.

If you think back to the opening paragraph of this book you’ll be reminded of the atmosphere that existed in Elmendorf, Texas back then, truly “back in the day.” Steve’s company, VP, was pretty much a one-man band and he was traveling the country getting his handmade products into as many race engines as possible. Steve would get a one-way rental truck. He’d load it up with drums of fuel and head for a racetrack, headed for Bakersfield, Indy or Gainesville, wherever the big car counts and best of the best using race gas were racing. The more he sold, the bigger the truck and eventual trailer rental. He’d talk with every racer and engine builder who would give him a minute and those minutes turned to hours. It was at one of those tracks that Bobby Thompson and Fred Morrison met Steve. By the end of the weekend, the truck would be empty, Steve’s pockets filled with much-needed cash, written orders for more, and very importantly, appointments made with the engine builders.

When BT used this Texan’s fuel he made more power and went faster. Thanks to the formulations, using the best chemicals available, just like in the bikes, VP fuels burned cleaner, ran cooler, and at out made more power. BT and Fred soon became dealers for Steve, and were very much hands-on in everything from wrestling with the big blue drums to convincing local racers to try the new stuff. Thanks to their efforts and hundreds of others across the country, VP kept growing and growing. Steve liked what he saw in Fred and offered him a job in Texas. It took little time for him to accept and then it was adios, amigos. I wasn’t doing anything special at the time, so I went along with him on the trip. A small suitcase, two cameras, a ton of film, and a portable typewriter and I was ready to roll.

We passed the Sunoco refinery just south of Philadelphia in Marcus Hook right at the start and drove the 1,776 miles nearly non-stop to arrive at the site of the original VP “facility”. I’m into numbers and I found it funny that this American success story, the young Texan taking on the competition including Sunoco, the big brand from the birthplace of our nation, had a somewhat patriotic touch to it. Some of the Texans I know think it’s a separate country, or should be. There’s an attitude, a bravado, that emanates from many of the heroes that came from the Lone Star State and I get it but the rest of the U.S. has plenty of heroes too, dating back to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at Independence Hall and the fighting of the Revolutionary War when the original 13 colonies took on the massive British Army and Navy.

The drive to San Antonio took place in January and the weather alone made me wonder why anyone lived up north. The “warehouse” was nothing more than a small garage in a little racer community of garages much like what we had left behind in PA. One of the other businesses operating there was Lozano Brothers Porting & Race Engines. They were just getting started out too but in time would go on to be a part of big wins in the Indy 500, IMSA, Trans Am, Sebring, CanAm and the AHDRA.

A few days later, we loaded drums into the back of VP’s only pickup truck and headed non-stop across I-10 west to Pomona, California. The NHRA Winternationals, the first race of the season, where in a few days one of VP’s biggest customers—Pro Stock drag racer Warren Johnson—was waiting for his fuel. We drove all day and all night. The moon was so bright out in the New Mexican desert that we shut off the headlights and drove without them for a while just so we could see the blanket of stars that surrounded us on all horizons. Okay, better to keep the lights on though. They helped light up the deer or antelope or whatever the hell we almost ran into.

We got to Pomona safe and sound and made our delivery. It was the first time I learned how to lay down a 350-pound drum of flammable liquid in the back of a pickup, drop it onto an old tire, and pop it upright. Pretty cool. At the time, I had no idea how many times I’d wind up doing that over the next four decades. WJ was happy, Fred went off to work the pits for VP, and my cameras, one with color film and the other with black and white, were ready to capture some action. The only problem was it snowed. Yep, in January 1978 it snowed in Los Angeles, California. The race was rescheduled for the following weekend but I couldn’t stay for it. I was very disappointed I didn’t get many pictures and that I would miss my first West Coast race but was happy to be out of the $19.99 economy hotel room we had shared near the track. I had been accustomed to at least Holiday Inns on my trips to Canada. That night I was on my red-eye flight home to Philly to continue my freelance writing and photography career and hope for a full time gig in racing.

I’m supposed to be pretty creative and my cover photo of Slammin’ Sammy Miller’s rocket car staged on the grounds at Cape Kennedy in Florida was something I am still very proud of. The folks at the Cape couldn’t have been more cooperative and even supplied us with a staffer dressed up in an astronaut suit like they wear on spacewalks. It was really cool. The shoot with Pat Musi, where we hired a bikini model to stand alongside Pat’s Monza Pro Stocker in frigid cold until I got what I needed, was a shorter trip – to Jersey. I took some shop photos first and then took the car to a public park. We knew the police would be along at some point to chase us away so we moved quickly and before long the hit and run was done. Pat’s still one of the most interesting and entertaining guys from Jersey I’ve ever known.

The Bruce Larson shoot took place just up the river from the infamous Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to winning the NHRA Funny Car Championship and dozens of their national events, Bruce is in just about every drag racing hall of fame there is. The vibrant white color of his USA-1 funny car contrasted perfectly against the dark and dreary clouds and surroundings where we captured the moment. The interview I did with TV Tommy Ivo, the famous drag racer who started out in show business as a Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer, were also a lot of fun. Heck, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera wore the big ears too at one point in their careers. I also wrote a feature story on sportsman racer George Cureton and his “Tokyo Rose” drag car. All those appeared in Super Stock but I also did work for other magazines.

A feature, with photos on our own Bobby Thompson, appeared in Car Craft. Soon after, Hot Rod Magazine dispatched me to the Jersey Shore to photograph a very special four-wheel drive car. It was a Corvette and it was wild! I loved what I was doing but freelance money wasn’t enough and I needed a full time job. I drove down to Alexandria, Virginia for an interview with Dick Berggren. He was the editor of Stock Car Racing Magazine and my hope was that I could work for SCR and Super Stock, sister magazines, full time. As luck would have it, Dick was a no-show. He raced midgets or something similar in New England and had crashed out that weekend. He needed to mend rather than drive down to Alexandria to meet me. The interview never happened and in hindsight, things happen for a reason. Something better would come.

A few months after that, I hit it big. I had called Charlotte Motor Speedway looking for a job and, while they said they didn’t have any openings, they did say that a race team might have an opening. Days later, I flew down for an interview and got the job. I moved to Charlotte to work for the #88 Gatorade-DiGard Racing Team and driver Darrell Waltrip. They needed a PR guy and they wanted a Northerner, like the car owners who were from Connecticut. It’s funny now, but back then I was that “damn Yankee” to the locals. I was learning everything I could about NASCAR racing, which was commonly referred to as Winston Cup Racing before cigarette advertising bans went into effect. Learned all about sweet tea, grits, the difference between supper and dinner, and a whole bunch more. I got to work with names like DW, the late Robert Yates, Gary Nelson, Buddy Parrott, and Butch Stevens while Fred was getting to meet every big name in drag racing. VP was beginning to leave a big imprint in the racing fuel business.

It wasn’t long after our respective moves to Texas and to North Carolina that one of the first VP tractor-trailers was headed northeast on a delivery run with Fred and Steve driving as a team. They rolled into the parking lot at the #88 race shop at 9201 Garrison Road. After a brief tour, they were exchanging samples of race fuel for our dyno room with cases of Union 76 oils and lubricants. 76 was NASCAR’s fuel and lubricant company back then and if you ran the circuit, you had to fuel with Union 76. It wasn’t that big of a deal for the racers at that point. The fuel and lubricants were given to all the teams for free in return for running the familiar red ball Union 76 decals on the front fenders of each race car and affixing an embroidered Union 76 patch on the driver’s fire-resistant suit. At Daytona, Union 76 had constructed two large red balls to resemble their logo, each probably eight feet tall, that served as viewing towers for safety officials. It was pretty creative marketing back in the day. Years later, I was so happy to see those same big red balls lying on the ground, weeds growing around and into them, behind a NASCAR building a few blocks from the speedway.

“You guys only make drag racing fuels, what the heck do you know about oval track racing?” was the question Steve and Fred often got from the engine builders and teams who knew how to race in circles. It was much of the same from automotive road racers. “Never heard of you. All we know is CAM2,” came from drag racers coast to coast. CAM2 was a product made by Sunoco and it was the only race gas with any real domestic market share north of the Mason Dixon, at least for now.

Years before that VP truck rolled into their yard, DiGard owner Bill Gardner had been smart enough to listen to his crew chief when he told them he knew a race engine builder who could make a big difference. Before long, they were working with The Grump. One of the fastest racers in the U.S., Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins was contracted to help make their NASCAR stock car entries go faster. Jenkins was a legend in NHRA drag racing and people paid attention to what he did. The short answer from Jenkins after he got to work on the car was simple. “Donnie Allison won the pole at the 1975 Daytona 500 with my stuff.” Jenkins was from Malvern, Pennsylvania, perhaps a thirty-minute ride from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

Jenkins knew how to make power and figured out differences between drag racing and circle track. He realized the few things that needed to be addressed for a race engine that was traveling 200 mph for three hours on 30 degree banking at tracks like Daytona and Talladega, compared to one that needed to launch from a standing start on a hopefully tacky drag race surface, travel a quarter-mile in less than eight seconds, and reach a speed of 200 mph. The fact that Jenkins had studied mechanical engineering at Cornell helped too. When Jenkins got to meet Steve Burns the two made quite the combination. Jenkins was short and “grumpy”, while Burns was tall and charismatic. They would learn together, with Jenkins able to improve his engine performance and Steve developing his fuels. For someone unfamiliar with racing perhaps you could envision Bill Gates and Steve Jobs working together day and night at a workbench in a garage developing something new and exciting.

Burns would spend days on end in Malvern with Jenkins. He’d have big drums and little pails of chemicals in a horse trailer that he’d be towing across the country going from engine shop to engine shop. He’d make up a concoction, an educated one, and Jenkins would do a series of dynamometer pulls to measure power output on one of his high-end race engines. Jenkins pushed Burns as hard as anyone could. Steve would think he had done well but Jenkins would counter with, “You can do better.” He pushed and pushed for more. By the time Burns packed up and headed for his next stop, Jenkins had something special for his racing team and Burns had crammed everything new he learned about engines and fuel into his memory banks.

Jenkins would rely on VP to help win races and championships, while Burns would be able to name-drop when he was pitching his fuel to amateur and professional racers at the track and at their shops. “Grumpy knows we make more power. You can too.” It made sense. Racers would follow the fast guys and things started to catch on. In Texas, Burns had relied heavily on his friends David Reher and Buddy Morrison of Reher & Morrison Racing Engines in Arlington. They had known each other for years and together also developed very powerful fuels and race winning engines. But it was a big country with so many dynos to play on so that horse trailer logged one hell of a lot of miles. At every stop Burns would try to learn more and more about chemicals and the diverse range of racing engines they’d be fueling. Considering he was self-taught in chemistry, what he did back then and over all these years is really impressive.

Acceptance and sales growth on the oval track side was slow but progressing. Racers are finicky and sometimes superstitious. I actually encountered a few who wouldn’t use one of VP’s products because it was green. Green anywhere other than as the color of the go-go-go flag, or the money you’d win, was supposed to be bad luck. Here’s something you should know before going any further. For the most part, all race fuels are clear in color when they are blended. Petroleum dye colors are added to identify and differentiate each product. It’s pretty easy to do. A ten thousand gallon batch of fuel might only need a cupful of dye to bring it to spec. So what’s the big deal about color? Remember the Union 76 race fuel for NASCAR? It was dyed a distinctive orange-red. Once the DiGard engine builders got to see how much power VP made over Union 76, the next question was, how do we make it look the same and then how do we get it in the car for a race without getting caught? It was simple. Dye it! Back in grade school did you ever wonder, “Why the heck do I need to know this?” Well, knowing how colors mixed to yield another, and which ones wouldn’t, definitely came in handy later in life. Making fuels look alike to the naked eye was pretty easy.

Now they had to get it in the car. Back then that was relatively simple. Just play a shell game with the fuel dispensing cans used during pit stops. The race cars y down pit road, screech to a stop, tires are changed, fuel is “dumped” into the fuel cell and o the car goes back into the race. During pre-race pit set-up, dump cans already filled with VP would be staged in the pits. Nobody would notice what was going on. Within no time, VP was being blended in with Union 76 during race events and those cars were making a lot more power. “Makin’ Power” would eventually become VP’s slogan. Making more power than everyone else, both on the dyno and in race conditions at the tracks, drove its success. That and the passionate, dedicated people that worked there.

We can take that part of the story full circle pretty quickly though. It wasn’t long before more and more race teams heard VP was good stuff. Many didn’t want to let anyone know, including VP, they were “cheating” with it. They’d buy fuel locally, dyno with it, develop their own concoctions and mixtures to try to get the color as close as possible and pour it in. In some cases, perhaps outside of NASCAR, some racers ran a second fuel tank that contained the “good stuff.” Some ran a second fuel line. Some filled their fuel lines from the cell to the engine with VP and topped o the tank with what they were supposed to be running. They figured the VP would be long gone by the time a tech inspector pulled a sample after they came in o the track. I’ll never forget hearing about the poor team that didn’t even try to blend their VP in with Union 76 to get at least close to the legal color. They wanted the pole position and rolled the dice, opting to run VP straight. At the post-qualifying technical inspection a fuel sample was taken, as was the tech inspector’s discretion. Oops – wrong color. That episode, especially fueled by Union 76’s protests, resulted in all sorts of pre and post qualifying and race fuel checks for proper color. In time, a portable gas-chromatograph (G.C.) machine was installed in NASCAR’s technical inspection trailer. It was a test that told the operator pretty quickly if the sample was pure Union 76 or not. Simply, when chemicals are identified in a sample they appear on a graph much like a seismograph during an earthquake or a polygraph lie detector test. The Union 76 should have the same peaks and valleys, in the same spots, every time. Throw some cheater additive in the fuel and it will change the spikes and most probably identify the name of the chemical that was added. It’s tough to make your fuel look exactly like the other guys when a GC is in place. Color was easy but this shut down our playing in their NASCAR sandbox pretty quickly. It was okay for VP though. Overall, sales were really starting to boom so losing those drum sales was a disappointment, but wasn’t too painful.

Spec fuel – now that sounds interesting. That’s short for specified or in reality, mandated fuel. It’s where race fuel companies “bid” on obtaining exclusive sales and use rights to a track or a race series and that concept will be a very big part of our David versus Goliaths saga as the story evolves. At the end of the day though, from their point of view it’s an easy way for a track or a series to generate money for championship point funds, purses, advertising, and facility maintenance and improvements.

While I was in Charlotte and working the NASCAR circuit I got to interact with all my heroes; the King, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, a rookie named Dale Earnhardt, and so many more. Tons of people have gotten to speak with Richard so my brief moments with him aren’t anything remarkable to others but he is a true American legend and each time I did was a thrill.

Thanks to a great driver and great team, I got to stand in the Victory Lanes, also known as Winner’s Circles or Podiums, of most of the top tracks on the circuit. It was a very exciting time in my life and a great time to be with NASCAR, just as it began to explode in national popularity. I also got to work with some very good people and some very colorful characters. Series Champion-turned broadcaster Ned Jarrett, CBS-TV’s Ken Squier, and Union 76’s Bill Broderick to name a few. Broderick was the self-appointed director of victory lane activities. Actually, nobody else wanted to do it. He’d flip one branded hat for another again and again for the cameras, but always made sure his company’s Union 76 logo was in every shot. It was THE hat the winner wore first, then the series sponsor, the car sponsor, then Goodyear tire, and so on. Physically, Broderick was a big man and the fact that he was the front man for Union 76, one of the biggest sponsors NASCAR had at the time, fed his ego pretty well. Regardless of what hat the race winner was wearing, you could count on Bill, his shirt prominently displaying the Union 76 logos, to be right alongside the driver. I’d struggle to get the Gatorade hat back on DW as much as my bosses and our sponsor would have liked me to. Hey, try keeping a Gatorade hat on a race-winning driver who’s being interviewed on live TV when the race sponsor is Pepsi-Cola. Frisbees, that’s what I turned those damned Pepsi hats into, and in turn, the soda guy repaid the favor. It was “fun.”

For the DiGard crewmembers though, most of whom were locals born and raised in North or South Carolina, I was still a “Yankee.” This is back in 1978, long before Douglas Airport and the city of Charlotte grew to what they are today. The Charlotte I moved to was small. Heck, they had to roll a stairway up to the jet to let us off. Anyway, I did what I could to convince the crew that I was just like them, only from the north. One night during the cup race at Nashville Speedway, Waltrip blew an engine. It seemed like Buddy Parrott and Gary Nelson made the decision in less than a minute that they should change the engine. Buddy was the crew chief and Gary was the engineer, if I remember the title correctly. Gary had moved to Charlotte from the West Coast. He’d done a lot of racing with off-road ace Ivan Baldwin and brought a lot of “outside oval track racing” knowledge to the team. There was nothing in the rulebook against changing engines, so let’s have at it. Everyone was under the car or under the hood disconnecting things and it was obvious they’d deal with the new engine when they could get to it. I asked a simple question; “Where do you want the new one?”

For the most part the crew thought all I knew about was getting the driver and the sponsor on TV and in magazines and dealing with the press, but I knew a bit about engines and certainly how to assemble an engine hoist. That was easy. I had done it at drag races and at Bobby Thompson’s shop, so no biggie. I found the compartment where the hoist was kept; they showed me which engine they wanted, and voilà. When they were ready for it, I had the new piece sitting right where they directed. I slid the hoist under the car when Buddy waved me in. I got some cred that night. From then on, I was okay with them and the “Yankee” references seemed to fade. I continued to bust on them about why they seemed confused about which meal was served as “dinner” and “supper” but as long as there was food it didn’t matter to me.

As is always the case, boys will be boys and one time at Dover they sure were. I had picked up the Sunday crew just north of the track at Summit Airport and got them to the garage area just ne. I don’t remember how DW did in the race but it had been a long hot day and by the time everyone had climbed back into the big passenger van I had rented, everyone had just about enough of that Gatorade. I stopped and got them a few six packs of beer and continued in the slow moving post-race traffic up Route 13 toward Summit. It wasn’t long before one guy then another and then another requested a pit stop. There just wasn’t anywhere along that stretch and finally a crewman said, “You have ten seconds and then it’s going out the window.” Just imagine a family headed to Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner, creeping along at 5 mph thanks to the race traffic letting out, and you see about ten men wearing Gatorade 88 Racing Team uniforms, their backs to the traffic, standing in a row pissing on the side of the road. Thank God that day was long ago and far before social media and cell phones videos had evolved. It was a funny sight but as their PR guy I was more afraid something negative would come of it. Luckily, nothing ever did.

When I was growing up I learned you needed to show appreciation for people, especially employees, and I came across an interesting exchange late one Sunday afternoon. After winning the Cup race at Richmond, Virginia the team members all climbed into another rental van for the five- hour ride down I-95/85 to their cars parked at the DiGard shop on Garrison Road near the Charlotte airport. I can’t remember who drove on up on their own or rode with us but I had an idea. As we were fueling up the ride I called one of the Gardner brothers, congratulated them on the win, and asked if I could put the dinner bill for the team on my company credit card. “Why would you want to do that?” surprised the hell out of me. We had just won a big race and had a five-hour ride ahead of us. Every member of the team had worked their butts off and all I was asking that the company pick up their $10 dinners. It wasn’t like I was driving around looking for a Ruth Chris. It was more like a Cracker Barrel night if you have the feel for the long highway drives across Virginia and North Carolina.

We actually debated the issue for a while but by the time the guys had hit the head and had settled the fuel bill we were on our way. I announced that DiGard was picking up the tab for their dinner whenever they wanted to stop. The news went over pretty well and I didn’t let on that I had to beg to get it done. We all enjoyed the meal and got home late but well fed.

Darrell and I got along well. He was this impressive, personable, self-con dent young man maybe eight years older than me. He was from just outside of Nashville and could drive the wheels off of a race car. He was going places and I was very happy to be supporting him and the team. He had a wife, Stevie, and she had a big heart and a sweet smile. Back then, DiGard wanted me to get the Gatorade name in front of as many media people and general consumers as possible. “DW,” on the other side, might have wanted me to be sure his name was on everything I touched, and hoped I was looking for endorsement deals. This guy was an athlete and he knew this was the direction a driver could and should go. I might have been in awe of not just our driver but also the stars I got to interact with, but I got over that pretty quickly and fit in as best I could. I thought I was doing okay until this one pit stop made me think I was a goner.

They told me to place two paper Gatorade cups in the cup holder that sat at the far end of a six-foot long aluminum pole. One cup had Gatorade and the other water. “When the car stops just slide the cups through the opening between the windshield post and the safety net. He’ll take what he wants and then pull it back.” Sounded easy. Let’s go.

It was hot as hell that day, wherever that race was, and the 88 came flying down pit road and screeched to a stop right in front of me. Butch and the front and rear tire guys jumped the wall to change the left side (driver’s side) tires and I stretched to get the drinks over to Darrell. Almost there, almost there, oops! The jack man hit the pole, or I hit the jack man, and both drinks wound up in our driver’s lap. You could just see the seething anger in his face as he mouthed something special at me. The car dropped and he sped off to finish the race. The guys in the pits all patted me on the back and laughed. They didn’t think much of it and probably got a kick out of giving DW a cold splash. Once the race ended and I was there in the garage to help Darrell out of the car I handed him a towel, a bottle of Gatorade, and his hat. He patted me on the shoulder and laughed about the bath I’d given him.

Up north, my parents both began to deal with what would become their long and painful battles that would take them way too soon. I had married in the winter off-season and moved my wife and her belongings from Philly to Charlotte. She’d never been away from her family and missed them terribly. My being on the road so much made matters much worse. She’d go to some of the races but sitting on a pit box in the heat for 400 laps grew old pretty quickly. On one particular afternoon at Atlanta, she got to witness an accident on pit road that took a crewman’s life and that put an end to her trips to the races. As seems to be the case with any racing tragedy, rules were then changed to slow the speed of the cars while on pit road. As an aside, I remember a race day morning once when I spent a few minutes with Neil Bonnett. He was a great guy and it was really sad when he was killed in a racing accident at Daytona. It wasn’t until years later when Dale Earnhardt – that’s Dale Sr. – died on national television at the same track as a result of the same type of injury that everyone stepped up and developed new safety gear and mandated its use in NASCAR and everywhere it made sense. It’s like the armor turrets that now are standard issue on the military Humvees that are sent into harm’s way. Those poor guys, the very vulnerable ones operating the incredibly powerful .50 caliber machine guns. They were exposed from the waist up as they stood through the hole in the Humvee’s roof, easy targets for enemy snipers and IED explosions. I don’t know how many of our brave warriors were wounded or killed as they served from that very vulnerable position, but thank God a light bulb finally went off somewhere and they got the money and the design to better protect our servicemen and women. I’m not accusing anyone of anything. Just encouraging people to anticipate what could happen and defend against it beforehand, think of the unimaginable and then imagine a fix.

At the DiGard shop, tensions between the team owners and Waltrip began to simmer. DW wanted out of his con- tract. He had been happy to secure the ride in the #88 car but over time felt he should be making more money and have more control over his future. The infighting was something I wasn’t accustomed to being around, and if you picked sides with the driver or the car owner you were going to become collateral damage regardless. The day I saw Bobby and Judy Allison walk into the shop for a meeting with Jim Gardner I knew things were going to change. When I added everything up though, my parent’s health, my wife’s homesickness, and the uncertainty at work, before long, I resigned and moved back to Philly to make the new bride happy again and to help my parents. Now they needed help with the business, and between my sister and me we did whatever was needed.

I usually go with what seems to be the right thing to do so despite my disinterest in the family business I committed to becoming a funeral director. I rode the train each day from Philly to New York and back to study at the McAllister Institute in Manhattan where after a year I earned my Associates degree. During final exam week my mother fell into a coma. She had wanted to be home and so that’s where we all took turns staying with her night and day. Within a few nights she didn’t have to suffer anymore and went on to heaven. Months later I passed the national exams held in Cincinnati, got my state license so I could fully function in the funeral service in Pennsylvania, and continued to support my father any way I could.

Saying goodbye to a full time gig like I had in Charlotte stunk but it clearly was the right thing to do for my family. Traveling, dealing with the media, making sure all the race teams on pit road had lots of Gatorade, and slapping a hat on the race winner in Victory Lane at Daytona, Riverside, Darlington, and many other tracks had been awesome. Hanging out with the millionaires who owned the race team, and their friends and contacts, had some benefits too. “Keep quiet and your ears open and you will learn a lot.” So I did. To this day, I prefer to listen and soak in every bit of intel or knowledge that I can, formulate a plan of action, and then execute. It’s a continuation of how I looked at things and operated when I wanted to be in law enforcement and then in journalism. Just because the mouth’s shut it doesn’t mean the other senses aren’t fully engaged. Plus for anyone involved in selling, that is one of the biggest lessons: listen. A lot of the time the customer will come right out and say, directly or otherwise, what they want or need to make the deal happen. If you aren’t listening then you might miss it. Now back in suburban Philly, it was a sad time for me, both personally and professionally, and I thought my days at the races were gone forever.

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