From Walking The Mountains To Playing With Race Cars
The Christmas and New Year seasons have been here and are now gone, but what’s been going on with the drivers of the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southeast Series. Where have they been, what have they done?
Defending Southeast Series champion Jeff Fultz spent a memorable early December weekend at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series awards banquet rubbing shoulders with some of the top names in the sport, as well as the various other NASCAR champions from across the country. Dusty Williams spent Christmas Eve afternoon with an old friend on a rare lucrative day of trout fishing before going home to watch his daughter open presents for the first time.
Three Southeast Series drivers auditioned and made good impressions in a test session for a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ride with Roush Racing. There were graduations to attend, futures to be ironed out, races to keep their skills sharp and the all important goal of preparations in the off-season for a strong 2005 effort in the Southeast Series.
In fact, there’s not a whole lot that the Southeast Series drivers didn’t do over the winter months. Just ask Justin Wakefield, who went for a Christmas afternoon walk a single man and came back engaged to fiancée Jen Wright.
“I knew what I was going to do,” Wakefield concedes. “I took her up to a little park on Kennesaw Mountain (Ga.) Park for a little walk and she didn’t have a clue what was coming. There were some benches along the trail and she wanted to stop and sit down and before she knew it I was on my knee. It was pretty cool because she was so excited, plus it helped that she agreed to it. It was also neat because everybody – even her family – knew but she didn’t have any idea.”
Erik Darnell has been doing, well, not a lot beside hanging out and doing a little indoor racing on the side.
“I’ve been kind of lazy,” Darnell said with a laugh. “We’re racing another series down in Lakeland (Fla.) at the end of January, so I’ve been working on the car trying to get ready for that. I’ve also been doing some go-kart racing to keep my skills sharp. The indoor racing is pretty cool and I get to race a lot of guys who I’ve grown up racing against who are also waiting to get the new season underway. It’s pretty serious racing. They make us wear helmets and fire suits.”
The highlight of Darnell’s off-season, as well as fellow Southeast Series competitors J.R. Norris and Jason Hogan came in late October when they were invited to a scheduled three-day test session at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway for Roush Racing. Tabbed as ‘The Race for the Ride’ with a possible NASCAR Craftsman Truck
Jeff Fultz (fifth from left) joined the rest of the NASCAR National and Touring Champions in New York in December. (NASCAR Photo)
Series ride on the line, it showed that the Southeast Series is full of up-and-coming talent as three of the 25 drivers were tour representatives.
“That was definitely an honor to be picked out of over 400 different other drivers from across the country,” Darnell said. “I remember growing up and watching some of the greats race at North Wilkesboro.”
Darnell and Hogan were invited to a second and final Roush Racing test at the famed and tricky Darlington (S.C.) Raceway several weeks later.
“To be invited to the first test at North Wilkesboro was an honor, but to then be invited to the second test at Darlington was just a tremendous bonus,” Darnell said. “The Darlington test was very cool. They say that track is ‘Too Tough to Tame’ and now I understand why. It was hard just making laps by myself. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to race with 42 other drivers at that place.”
Darnell has been busy during the off season, including competing for Roush's "Race for the Ride" program. (51 Photo)
Hogan agreed with Darnell’s assessment of how hard a track like Darlington was to get around.
“I was a little nervous the first lap,” Hogan explained. “I came off turn two and I was like ‘Oh no’ because the wall just reaches out and tries to grab you. After that I was good to go and it was pretty neat. The whole experience was great and exciting. It was just a tremendous accomplishment and a honor for me to be selected as one of the 10 drivers to be invited to the final test at Darlington. I got to meet Jack Roush and even got a call one day from Mark Martin who told me he was impressed with how I did in the test. He told me I had a bright future ahead and that meant a lot coming from a great veteran like him.
Hogan's off season contained being a part of the winning crew of the Snowball Derby.
“Mark called me on the cell phone one day and my caller ID showed it was a Florida area code, but I still asked him twice who he was because I couldn’t believe he would be calling me. That was exciting getting the chance to sit down and talk racing with him for 10 or 15 minutes.”
Hogan also went to the famed Snowball Derby in December at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida not as a driver but as a mentor for Stephen Wallace, son of former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace. Things worked out pretty good for the Ritchie Wauters owned team, as Hogan helped guide Wallace to the victory in one of the most prestigious Late Model races in the country.
Hogan finished up a long-term dream over the winter when he completed an Associates Degree in Vehicle Technology at Lanier (Ga.) Technical College where he plans to follow up with another Associates Degree in Marketing Management.
Williams, one of the most popular Southeast Series drivers, admits that Christmas gifts took on a different meaning for himself and wife Tiffany as they got to see their 10-month old daughter Kara unwrap her gifts for the first time.
“It was different because it wasn’t about me or Tiffany. It was about Kara,” Williams said. “On Christmas Eve we went to my parents and they gave her about as many gifts to open as she could have asked for. She got the idea of what it was like to open a present and she’d tear the wrapping paper off and try to eat it. My wife and I savor every spare moment of sleep that we can, so on Christmas day we just slept in until Kara decided it was time to get up. When she woke up, we called Tiffany’s parents and they got to come over and watch the spectacle of it all.
Wayne Anderson made a return to the Southeast Series and finished third behind the wheel of Eddie Mercer's car.
I wanted Kara to have this big huge tree for her first Christmas in the new house we moved into in June. I had a room built just for it with a 15-foot high ceiling. We went to the Christmas tree farm with a tape measurer and anything less than 15-foot wasn’t going to be good enough. I about tore the walls of the house down trying to get that tree in the house and I had to saw the limbs off of it to get the thing out.”
In addition to the joy of his daughter’s first Christmas, Williams also spent time studying the books as he nears the completion of his pilot’s license.
Kevin Prince, who many see as a very legitimate threat to win this year’s 2005 Southeast Series championship, also said that the best part of his off-season has been enjoying time with his family.
“My wife Dana and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary and took a trip to Myrtle Beach for a week,” Prince said. “Then we had a nice holiday season with my son, Dalton, who is getting older. We had a lot of fun. We got him one of those little miniature chopper motorcycles and he has had a good time playing with that. Other than that, it was the usual holiday as far as spending time with the family and eating more than I should have. It was enjoyable but now I’m ready to get back to racing.”
Southeast Series drivers Chris Davidson and Allen Karnes said they wanted only one thing for Christmas and received just that – some time to kick back and relax while occasionally wandering out to their garages to tinker on their race cars.
“We race and working on our cars has been what we’ve spent a lot of time doing in addition to my full-time job,” explained Davidson, who works as an electrical contractor for his family owned business, Davidson Electric. “I took one weekend totally away from everything to visit with my family. In this sport, you’ve got to stay on the ball or you’re going to get behind. I spend just as much time working on my cars as I do on the job during the day at work.”
While he took some time off, Karnes admits that his fiancée, Laurie McCaurthy, bought him a pretty cool gift that will be used throughout the 2005 Southeast Series campaign.
“Laurie bought me one of the nicest pit boxes I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible,” Karnes said. “Other than that, I’ve just been taking it easy. I’ve spent a little time working on my car and getting a new body hung on it.”
Two drivers – Wayne Bowen and Robert Richardson II – have lined up part-time rides in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series when that tour doesn’t interfere with their Southeast Series efforts.
Bowen won’t be in the field for the ARCA season-opener at Daytona International Speedway in February, but Richardson II has practiced at the famed 2.5-mile oval and came away with the fastest time in the final practice session on December 19.
“That had to be the highlight of my career,” Richardson II said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget. I sat in line for about 10 minutes on pit road waiting to go out. Then when it was time for me to go, I went out on the bottom of the track and blended up the track coming off turn two. All of a sudden my spotter comes on the radio and tells me this pack of cars is catching me so I’ve got the car absolutely floored. So it’s my first time driving at Daytona and I’ve got to hold my breath and launch it into the third turn. It was a learning process for me but I had a great deal of fun.”
While Bowen will run a limited ARCA schedule, he hasn't had a great deal of time to relax. His job in the engine shop of the Penske Racing engine department has kept him busy trying to get everything ready for the upcoming season.
Robert Richardson raced with the ARCA Series once in 2004.
“This is by far our busiest time of the year,” Bowen said. “We’ve been working six days a week getting ready for this year. On top of that, I try to work on my own race cars when I get time. I’ve tried to work hard getting ready for another season in the Southeast Series. I’ve also tried to spend a lot of time with my family because once our season gets started I don’t get to spend a lot of time at home.”
Richardson, an avid outdoorsman who shares a love of hunting and fishing, has spent some of his off-season by bagging a rare deer and is preparing to head to the Florida Keys to take part in the Cheeca Lodge Sailfish Tournament in a couple of weeks where he will compete alongside his father. Robert Richardson is a two-time Angler of the Year in the state of Florida and leads the way as he guns for a third title.
The drivers from the Southeast Series have indeed had a busy winter, from the high banks of Daytona to a simple walking trail in the Georgia mountains. Now it’s time for the drivers to start getting back to the task at hand that is the 2005 Southeast Series racing season.