NASCAR star recalls early days
They were a few simple names, but they struck straight to Clint Bowyer's soul and brought a grin to his face.
Lakeside Speedway. Heartland Park. Thunderhill.
Those were the old stomping grounds for Bowyer, an Emporia native who at 29 is one of NASCAR's fastest-rising stars.
After spending eight years as a dominant motocross racer, he switched to street stocks in 1996. Within a few short years he became one of the top performers in the Midwest. He bounced all around the regional circuit, from Thunderhill in Mayetta, to Heartland Park in Topeka and Lakeside in Kansas City, Kan.
Even now, after cashing six-figure paychecks, winning a few races and posting numerous top-five finishes, Bowyer still looks back at the early days and smiles. The pay is better now, but the racing was just as good back then.
"The thing I remember most is just fun," Bowyer said Aug. 13, when he was in town helping promote the proposal to build a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City. Kan. "You've got to be careful what you ask for. Obviously you want to be able to race in the premier division of all of motor sports, and NASCAR's definitely the goal from day one of racing - 'I want to be a NASCAR driver,' you know - but there's a lot of pressure. As a racer, I remember no pressure back then. I thought there was pressure in that 'man, I hope we go there and win this weekend; I want to win that championship,' but I never had the pressure of having companies spending millions of dollars to be on your race car and then counting on you to win a championship, and if you don't, having to answer to them or answer to a car owner."
Bowyer credits his former local competitors with helping him develop as a driver and ultimately make it to NASCAR.
"When I was racing around here I was probably the youngest one out of anybody," Bowyer said, "but I learned from those guys. They taught me how to race, and you're always only as good as your competition. I heard that when I was little, and it's spoken volumes to my career. You've got to go to where the competition's at, and there's pretty stout competition here in the Midwest with guys like Tim Karrick. And Tom Charles : I bought my first race car from him : he's a guy I always wanted to beat, and that competition and that competitiveness inside you that I learned back then is what makes you a good race car driver now."
Karrick is a Basehor resident, and Charles lives in Bonner Springs.
It's guys like them who Bowyer keeps in mind when he climbs into the No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet Impala SS and continues the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As much as he's racing for himself and his sponsors, he knows he's also racing for them. That's been the case in the past, and it'll be the case again Sept. 28 when he competes in the Kansas 400 at Kansas Speedway.
"There's a sense of pride in knowing that you're doing them proud too, because those guys used to beat up on me just as much as I beat up on them," Bowyer said. "It lets them see, 'hey, I've beaten him before and he's out there running with the best of them.'"