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Davis Heads In Right Direction : Entrepreneur, Driver Sets Goal of Making NASCAR Circuit

July 23, 1994|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM HILLS — Jeff Davis seems to have the touch, along with the intense desire to be a successful race car driver. And he's certainly never been lacking in bravado.

He was fired from his first job as a bagger at a grocery store at 16 when he offended a customer. "I just told her she could bag her own bread if she was so worried about getting it crushed," he said, smiling.

Not to worry. He bought a used push mower and started cutting grass in his home town of Indianapolis. Several years later, after he had graduated from Indiana with a degree in business, he had a profitable lawn care and landscaping business with five crews working.

"Some guy walked in one day, and said he wanted to buy my business," Davis said. "I sold it. I had built it up from almost nothing, and that got the financial part of my life going. But I had no idea what the next step was going to be after that."

It turned out to be Southern California, the ownership of a small business that manufactures go-cart wheels, and his own move into auto racing in a big way as a driver. Davis, now 35, was 25 at the time.

The business, located in Anaheim Hills, has done well financially in the last 10 years, and his driving career has progressed at the same time. He has moved through the various types and levels of auto racing. At this point, he's setting his sights on success in stock car racing's big league, the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.

Davis, whose home is in Orange, is racing regularly this season on NASCAR's Winston West tour. It's a rung below the big-money national Winston Cup races, where the cars are faster, the crowds are bigger and many of the top drivers are the Southern good ol' boy legends of racing.

He ranks fifth in the point standings, halfway into the season, and is battling Doug George of Atwater, Calif., for rookie of the year honors. In seven races, he has been in the top 10 five times and finished twice in the top five.

Like the kid who turned a $4 lawn mower bought at a garage sale into a lawn-care business, Davis is an entrepreneur as a racing team leader now. It's still a relatively low-budget operation, and his biggest sponsor is Van-K Engineering, the business he owns.

Davis, who had raced go-carts in Indiana, got into road racing after he moved to California. He drove Formula Fords in 1985 and 1986 and won national events in the Sports Renault class in 1987. In 1988, he started racing Super Vees, which carry the look of the Indianapolis cars but are smaller. In those days, however, Davis raced only as his time allowed, and he always was driving someone else's car.

In 1989, his fourth year into road racing, he bought his own car, a Formula Mazda and made a commitment to drive the full season. He finished third in points and took rookie of the year honors. That set the stage for a move in 1990 to the Indy Lights, still a step below the Indianapolis cars but bigger and quicker than the Super Vees.

"I spent the whole season in that series, but I was always driving for people who were stretching their budgets just to be there," Davis said. "I finished 10th in points, but I felt I could have done better." He also drove one Trans Am race that year and won at Portland, and was on a sixth-place team in the 24-hour Daytona endurance race. He made his first start in a stock car later that season in a Winston West race at El Cajon Speedway.

"I'd never been on an oval in a stock car before," he said. "It was different because you are in continuous contact with the other cars, not the way it was in road racing. It was a good experience and I liked it. After that, people kept pushing me to the stock cars and telling me I needed to be in NASCAR."

He drove in two Winston West races in 1992, and wound up finishing in the top 10 in both of them. By then, he had hooked up with veteran crew chief Rod Pool of Portland. Pool's wide range of contacts on the stock car circuit was a big help, and Pool talked his friends at Roush Racing of Michigan into letting Davis drive one of their older cars in a Winston Cup event at Phoenix later that season.

It was something out of the movie "Days of Thunder," the rookie road racer from California with only token experience in a stock car taking on the sport's biggest names.

"I had never driven Phoenix and never tested there, but I managed to make the show," Davis said. He qualified 39th with a clocking of 121.245 m.p.h. out of a field of 42, ran the whole race and finished 26th. Richard Petty, Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Davey Allison and Dale Earnhart, among others, were his rivals.

"At that point, I got cocky," Davis said. "I was really cranked up after that. I said to myself, 'Hey, we're going Winston Cup racing.' I've always tried to reach a high as I could, and if it worked, fine. And if it didn't . . ."

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