Inside Stories From This Year's Batch of NASCAR Top Guns
BY THE NUMBERS
The drivers in attendance during Champions Week had a mind-blowing resume between them. The 12 drivers from NASCAR’s Touring Series (including Peyton Seller, the National Dodge weekly Racing Series champion) had a total of 1,780 NASCAR starts, 211 victories and 33 championships combined.
Justin Diercks (Midwest Series) and Jeff Fultz (Southeast Series) all repeated their titles and returned to New York. Both Grand National champs also came back (Andy Santerre in Busch North and Mike Duncan in the West Series). Tony Hirschman also repeated on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
The two first-time short trackers in New York were Peyton Sellers and Junior Miller. Sellers was this year’s NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing Series National Champion and Miller was the inaugural champion on the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour.
There were a few common themes among the champions in New York. Friendship and comradely were a few, but the most common theme was respect. Everyone who made it to New York appreciated the accomplishments of everyone else who made it there.
“We definitely have a lot of respect for each other,” said NASCAR West Series champion Mike Duncan. “I think that six or seven of us at least are returning, so we’re all pretty acquainted with each other. It’s been a great time."
“Being in New York City with a bunch of competitors that I’ve built relationships with and respect means a lot,” said Midwest Series champion Justin Diercks. “We have friendships and that’s special. All of us being honored as a group is special. We’ve had a lot of fun just hanging out together.”
“All of the champions are first class guys and all of the wives are great,” said Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson. “We’ve just hit it off really good. I think that 8 or 9 out of the 11 are returning, so most of us have been here before. We just get along great and love being together. They are great people.”
“Andy [Santerre], Mike Duncan, Jeff Jefferson and all the guys here are all great,” said Southeast Series champion Jeff Fultz. “A bunch of us were all here last year and came back.”
Everyone had a good time hanging out with each other too.
“We had a really fun time at the nightclub that we went to [on Thursday night],” said Duncan. “We all hung out and had a good time.”
“The most memorable thing is all of the stories from the week,” said Diercks. “Everyone talks about the relationships that they have built. Being in racing, that’s the biggest thing.”
NYC SHOPPING, STREET-STYLE
Some of the returning champions had so much fun last year at the 2004 version of Champions week, that they were still telling stories this year. The most interesting one involved some New York City shopping – on the streets.
“Last year, we went with the Duncans and the Santerres on a Carriage Ride,” said Dionne Jefferson, wife of Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson. “We went through Central Park and to Times Square. We dealt with the people on the street who were selling a few things and got that experience.”
Each champion got their own personalized Bell Helmet from NASCAR. (51 Photo)
You might notice that one driver is going to be absent when it comes to this batch of leftovers. NASCAR Southwest Series champion Jim Pettit, II won’t appear in this particular story and it’s not because he was tongue-tied in New York City. It was quite the opposite in fact. Pettit had so many good stories to tell, that we will give him his own one-band-man version of Champions Week Leftovers coming up soon on Speed51.com.
NOT MANY CHANGES THIS SEASON
When it came to the NASCAR regional touring series, there were no changes between the 2004 and 2005 series champions. In the Elite Series, Jeff Jefferson (Northwest Series), Jim Pettit, II (Southwest Series),
The champions were a diverse bunch, but they all got along wonderfully. (51 Photo)
“We watched Andy Santerre buy a knock-off Rolex,” said Jeff Jefferson.
“That was an experience,” said Dionne.
So we just had to ask Santerre about it.
“Oh boy,” said Santerre. “I knew that it wasn’t real, but there were two choices. The second watch was a lot better than the first.”
Santerre knew which watch that he wanted fairly quickly, but negotiating a deal wasn’t as easy.
“I ended up paying $50 because that’s what I had,” said Santerre. “I offered it to him [the street merchant] 100 times and he wouldn’t take it. He offered it to me at $200 and he was selling some for $50, but it wasn’t the one that I wanted. I said that it was too cheap and too light. So he told me to come around the corner and I followed him. He opened up his jacket and had all kinds of them. The one that I wanted was a lot heavier and had the right second hand. He showed me all of the differences.”
Santerre and the watch seller struck up a quick bond – at least that is what the vendor wanted the champion to think at least.
“I said ’50 for that one’ and he said ‘No man, I can’t do that.’ Then he went down to $150 and said that he was giving me a deal. I said no. Then he went down to $100 and I said that I only had $50. He couldn’t do that, so we all started walking. I said to keep walking and he would follow us. ‘Keep walking and don’t look back,’ I told everyone. Next thing you know, he was coming. He told me ‘Okay, it’s $50 just for you’ and handed it to me in the plastic. So I asked him how could I be sure that it was the right one. He said ‘I won’t cheat you. I’m a good guy.’ He took it out and showed me and it was the right one. He was an honest guy.”
Did the Jeffersons take advantage of the deals on the street as well?
“Heck yeah,” said Dionne. “Jeff bought me a purse. I have it at home and I use it.”
NYC SHOPPING – THE MORE TRADITIONAL WAY
Not all of the deals were made on the streets of New York though. Justin Diercks and his girlfriend Kelly got to spend some quality time together after a long racing season, and they managed to do a little bit of shopping as well.
“It was fun vacation,” said Diercks. “We had fun and went shopping. I took her shopping to cool places. Gucci, Versace and places like that. It’s a trip that she will remember and I will remember. It’s something very special and we’re really proud to be a part of the NASCAR family. They’ve been absolutely great to us.”
MOD MASTERS SHARE MUTAL RESPECT
There was a lot that the champions of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, Tony Hirschman, and the Whelen Southern Modified Tour, Junior Miller, had in common. Both men are soft spoken and prefer to do their talking on the racetrack. They are both considered to be the masters of their crafts with a baker’s dozen of touring Modified championships between them.
Northwest Series champion Jeff Jefferson and his wife Dionne. (51 Photo)
The Modified champions: Junior Miller from the Whelen Southern Modified Tour (L) and Tony Hirschman from the Whelen Modified Tour. (51 Photo)
And in New York, they were two peas in a pod. They talked about everything from racecars to race tires to their competition.
“Junior and I have raced against each other, not a lot, but a few times through the years,” said Hirschman. “We got to know each other a little bit better. We’ve been talking car stuff and Troyer stuff. He drives for the Riggs and I’ve been friends with those guys for years. We talk and they’ve always been good to me. It’s pretty neat. We sure do respect each other. He’s been doing his thing down South for years when I’ve been up North.”
“He’s one of the better drivers from up North,” said Miller. “His driving style is a lot like mine. Tony lays back and then runs real hard at the end. I kind of try and do the same thing. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s a good racecar driver and I believe that he’d be a really good friend if we were around each other more.”
And they could be around each other more in 2006. Junior Miller’s #69 Riggs Racing team might show up at some Whelen Modified Tour races up North this coming season.
“I’d like to do that,” said Miller. “David Riggs isn’t going to run the stadium this year, so maybe we can go up and run some of those races. If he does, I’d be glad to go. We went up there a few years ago and ran three or four races and I really enjoyed it.”
HEAD TABLE HAS BUSCH NORTH CONNECTIONS
The head table at the NASCAR Nextel Cup banquet had some connections to the NASCAR Busch North Series. Champion Tony Stewart was led to his second Cup title by crew chief Greg Zippadelli, who used to turn Busch North wrenches for Mike Stefanik, and Team President J.D. Gibbs, who ran a season in Busch North as a driver back in 1999.
“Those were the glory days,” said Gibbs. “I remember going up there, showing up at the racetrack and looking at Bill Penfold and some of those guys thinking that what I brought wasn’t going to work there. It took a while to figure it out.”
Back then, the series was led by Busch North director Bunk Sampson, who passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer.
“There were great groups of guys up there,” said Gibbs. “That was when Bunk was around and he was great. I kept in touch with his wife. I made a lot of good friends back then.”
Gibbs believes that the series is a great stepping stone for up and coming drivers.
It was a great stepping stone, and still is, for guys who want to go to the next level. You’ve got guys up there who are hard core racers. That’s what they live for. They aren’t doing it for a bunch of money, they are doing it because they love to race. The guys up there are good. If you do well up there, odds are that you will do well anywhere. “
But don’t look for any of the Joe Gibbs racing driver development teams to spend much time up North. Gibbs learned in 1999 that traveling to Northeastern events from a shop in North Carolina wasn’t much fun.
“The hardest thing that we ran into was that it was so far away,” said Gibbs. “The travel just kills you.”
FULTZ LOOKS BACK AT SERIES JUMPING
Southeast Series champion Jeff Fultz is also familiar with the Busch North Series. He competed in the July, 2004 event at New Hampshire International Speedway driving for car owner Jerry Morello in a surprise appearance.
“I was driving a Modified up there and I was asked to drive a Busch North car,” said Fultz. “I got in it and we didn’t have a good outing, the car broke, but we jump the lead once and looked like we were heroes. We ran up front for a few minutes before the rear end gear broke.”
Fultz finished 33rd in that event and got to make a friend at the same time – four-time defending Busch North champion Andy Santerre.
“There are a lot of good guys up there and Andy is one of them,” said Fultz. “He’s one of the nicest guys in the business.”
HIRSCHMAN NOT A STRANGER TO THE BIG APPLE
Many of the champions had never been to New York City before winning a NASCAR title. Tony Hirschman wasn’t one of them. The Pennsylvania driver has ties to New York City. His car owners, the Kehley family, are from Brooklyn and his race hauler passes through the NYC area on its way to many Modified events in New England.
“It comes through New York every week pretty much,” said Hirschman. “It comes and goes this way back and forth from Pennsylvania. The car owners are from Brooklyn and it’s pretty neat. They had a big storyin the New York Times about them and the championship this summer. They are very proud of it and I’m proud to be here representing the team and the sponsors.”
At one point, the Kehley team was based in the Big Apple, but after Hirschman came to the team the car started to be housed at Hirschman Garage and Speed in Pennsylvania.
“They have a shop here and they could do stuff there,” said Hirschman. “They always did through the years, but they are so busy with their business and they pay the bills with the car that I do my part by driving and maintaining it. Everyone knows it’s expensive to run these cars, so they have to run their
business to pay the bills and I’ll do my part.”
51 HAS A HIGH PROFILE FRIEND
As the NASCAR champions were in New York, the Snowball Derby was in full swing in Pensacola, Florida. Speed51.com covered both events extensively and at least one Nextel Cup star was thankful for that.
Rusty Wallace’s son Steve won the Derby in 2004 and finished second this year. Steve’s proud father kept track of his son’s progress all week long and told several interested observers to check out 51 to see how Steve was doing in Florida throughout practice, qualifying and the race itself.
CHAMPS SPOT A STAR IN THE BIG CITY
As the NASCAR Champions were returning from dinner in a pair of rented vans on Wednesday night in New York, a familiar face was seen walking through Rockefeller Center with his wife. NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Jeremy Mayfield was taking in the sights of New York and the Champions party made sure to say hello when driving by.
“[NASCAR’s] Laura Willis was the one who recognized him,” said Jeff Jefferson. “She rolled down the window and gave her Southern drawl, “Jeremy!” It was pretty cool. He turned around and he acknowledged us, but I don’t think that he understood what was going on until she said that she was with NASACR. Then he felt a little more comfortable.”
MILLER IMPRESSED WITH NASCAR SPREAD
Junior Miller won seven SMART championships before NASCAR entered the world of Southern Modifieds this year with their Southern Tour. That meant that Miller’s 2005 title was the first one that he earned under NASCAR sanction. He was very impressed with the benefits of that.
“This has been super since we’ve gotten here,” said Miller. “NASCAR really treats their champions great. It’s been unreal. It’s nothing like my other seven. This will also standout. I’m going to run really hard to come back. My wife wants me to run especially hard so that we will be back.”
SELLERS GRABS HIS FIRST NASCAR RING
As a NASCAR national champion, young Peyton Sellers got several tangible items for winning the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing Series National Championship. None is more significant though than his first NASCAR Champions ring.
“I’ll tell you, it’s something,” said Sellers of his ring. “So many people through the years have gotten a ring. It’s like a World Series ring and it means a lot. To wear it around means a lot. It reminds you every time that you put it on about the hard work, the sweat and the tears that it took to get it. It’s pretty special to me and everyone around me. It’s a select club [of racers who have a NASCAR ring] and it feels good to be in that club.”
MUSGRAVE A HIT WITH FULTZ
Jeff Fultz got to spend time with all of the champions in New York and he had fun with them all. But he especially liked swapping stories with NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series titlist Ted Musgrave.
“Ted is a new guy here and it’s so neat having him here,” said Fultz. “I looked up to him growing up and I work with his son [at MB2 Motorsports] every day. It’s a great time hanging out with him. He’s one of us. He stayed here with us, he’s hanging out with us and he came from this. It’s been neat.”
JEFFERSON ENJOYS RETURN ENGAGEMENT
Jeff Jefferson was able to enjoy his third straight trip to New York City based on his back-to-back-to-back Northwest Series championships.
“We love it,” said Jefferson. We’re lucky enough to have been here three times and each time, we enjoy it. What NASCAR does here for all of the champions is pretty amazing. This is our third time to New York and that’s only because we’ve been lucky enough to win three championships and NASCAR has brought us here.”
Does Jefferson think about Champions week when he is battling for points during the year and possibly try a little bit harder to get back to New York?
“You can only do what you can do when you are racing and you try as hard as you can at every race,” said Jefferson. “You do think about this, but you try not to.”
LOOKING GOOD FOR LESS
New York City is a high fashion place and all of the champions’ wives and girlfriends looked the part. But doing so didn’t need to break the bank as Sue Santerre proved with the formal dress that she wore to Friday night’s Nextel Cup banquet.
“It’s a bargain dress,” Santerre said of her apparel. “My girlfriend Melody Beckwith [girlfriend of Mike Stefanik’s crew chief Jerry Babb] found it for five dollars at a thrift store. It’s a Bisou-Bisou. I know nothing about designers, but when I’ve told a few people about the dress, they’ve said, ‘we know that designer’. My gloves cost $10.99. They were a little more expensive than my dress.”
Did NASCAR Busch North champion Andy Santerre put his wife on a budget when it came to buying the dress? Not at all.
“Andy would have let me buy whatever I wanted, but we’re buying a new house,” said Sue. “So it’s good to be frugal.”
SELLERS HEADS WEST
Peyton Sellers will leave his hometrack, South Boston Speedway (VA), next season to compete in the NASCAR West Series as a development driver for Richard Childress Racing. This year’s West champion Mike Duncan is looking forward to Sellers’ arrival.
“Peyton Sellers is a great kid,” said Duncan. “We know that most likely, he’ll be one of the front runners. He’s got good equipment and he can race well. We’ll see what happens in Phoenix.”
JEFFERSON CHERISHES NY PARTY
When asked what his favorite moment in New York was, Jeff Jefferson didn’t need to think much.
“The party at the Marquee stands out,” said Jefferson. “It was pretty neat that NASCAR and Nextel let us be a part of that. It was amazing and pretty wild for a country boy from Washington to go to a place like that and just have some fun.”
DUNCAN HAS SEVERAL SHINING MOMENTS
Meanwhile, Mike Duncan was hard pressed to come up with just one favorite moment in the Big Apple.
“There are so many stories, that it is hard to come up with just one,” said Duncan. “This is a great experience to be here as a champion. We’ve done this two times in a row. As champion, you get to experience one of the biggest and most elaborate events with one of NASCAR’s top divisions. If a person thinks about that and strives towards it, there is a lot to being a champion Not only do you get the trophy and the bragging rights, you get to come to New York and be a part of these festivities. That is pretty neat.”
CHAMPIONS WEEK GOOD FOR NASCAR TOO
Champions week wasn’t just a hit for the NASCAR champions. It was also a hit for NASCAR itself.
“The week is very special,” said NASCAR’s Don Hawk. “It gives us time to assemble the best of the Country from Grand National, Elite, Modified and the Weekly Series and have them mingle with the Cup, Busch and Truck Champions - both formally and informally on the clock and after hours with more freedom for all.
”The departments that I represent had nine Champions there. We had a first time Tour Champion in Junior Miller from the Southern Modifieds and he was impressed with how we could get all the Champs together. [Dodge Weekly Racing Series National Champion] Peyton Sellers had a great time and has a great future in this sport. He got to see what hard work, a championship and the support of NASCAR can help you get. Besides the money it is an opportunity to all do what we love and actually get paid for it!”
Rusty's a 51 fan! (Chris Trotman / Getty Images Photo)
J.D Gibbs (L) talks with Peyton Sellers (C) and Andy Santerre (R). (51 Photo)
Fultz in the NHIS pit arae last year. (51 Photo)
Peyton Sellers shows off his new ring. (51)
Sue Santerre looked like a million bucks, but she spent much less. (51 Photo)