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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Why It's Called North CAR-olina

June 20, 1997|SHAV GLICK

Winston Cup racing may have gone national--even international with a race in Japan in November--in its appeal, but to make a living in the sport, one needs to move to North Carolina, where just about all of the teams have headquarters.

Drivers, such as Robby Gordon of Orange, Ernie Irvan of Salinas and Jeff Gordon of Vallejo, had to leave California and set up camp Down South to further their stock car racing careers.

The same holds true for mechanics.

Brad Noffsinger, who left Huntington Beach in hopes of becoming a Winston Cup driver,instead wound up as crew chief for Wally Dallenbach Jr.'s car as part of Felix Sabates' Team Sabco.

Noffsinger, 37, won California Racing Assn. sprint car championships in 1986 and 1987, prompting Mike Curb to sign him for a Winston Cup ride.

"I signed up for three seasons, but after 1988 the team folded, so I came home," Noffsinger said. "Even though we were back in California, I never lost the urge to try Cup racing again, so I went back in 1993.

"There weren't any rides open, so I spent three years as a spotter for Darrell Waltrip. Last year, Felix needed a crew chief for Wally's car and it seemed like a great opportunity for me. Wally has been teaching me the things I needed to know before, but never had a chance to learn.

"I've signed up with Felix and Wally for another year. I still haven't given up hopes for a ride eventually. After 22 years racing cars, I guess you never give it up."

*

Mike Ege, who heads Team Penske's engine department, is truly having a homecoming. He was born in Fontana, where his father was an electrician at the Kaiser steel mill, site of the new California Speedway.

"I cut my teeth in racing right around here," Ege said. "My father started racing back in 1966 in the hobby class at the Orange Show Speedway [in San Bernardino]. That's how I caught the bug. I started racing myself there in 1974.

"I was working for General Dynamics when Ontario Motor Speedway was built. It was right across from the backstretch, and I was there when they knocked it down too.

"One of my biggest thrills in racing was in 1978, when I drove a Plymouth Roadrunner in a NASCAR Grand American race on the Ontario track. I started 39th and made it up to ninth before my brakes gave up.

"I cried every day watching them dismantle the place. It was part of racing history."

Ege already has made his plans for Saturday night.

"I'll be at the Orange Show Speedway for the weekly show. That was the ritual 20 years ago and it'll be the same this week. I haven't forgotten my roots. Old habits are hard to break."

*

Marc Reno, a fixture on Southern California tracks in the 1970s, worked with Irvan when they both moved to North Carolina in the early 1980s and was reunited with Irvan when team owner Robert Yates tabbed Reno as crew chief this year.

"Me and Ernie, it's like old times," Reno said after masterminding Irvan's dramatic victory last Sunday in Michigan. "It was in the early '70s when we first met. He was from Northern California and I was from Southern California. We used to meet in the middle and we hit it off real good.

"In the mid '70s, I was running up and down the state. We won the track championship at Cajon Speedway and we won Riverside twice before they tore it down. And we won the last Grand American race at Ontario with Joe Ruttman, before they tore that one down. We pretty much got to winning about all you could win, and still, bottom line, it was almost like a hobby, racing out there.

"I got my first break when Mark Martin came out and did an appearance at Mesa Marin and he drove our car. I got to know Mark and he offered me a job. I didn't take it at first, but a few months later I called him up and took the job and moved to North Liberty, Ind., for a couple of months and then moved down to Charlotte at the end of '81.

"I worked with Martin, Ruttman again and then I went back to working for myself, about the same time Ernie moved back to Carolina. We were pretty good friends because we'd raced against each other. For three or four years we ran about three nights a week with our own car out of our shop. Me and Ernie basically did everything.

"Ernie worked on customer cars and drove on Wednesday nights and Friday nights and Saturday nights at places like Concord and Tri-County Speedway in Chester [S.C.]. It's funny, we ran Ernie in D.K. Ulrich's car in two races that year, then we went on to drive for D.K. the following year and never looked back.

"So it was a little bit of a surprise to me [when Yates called]. I met Robert one Sunday before Christmas at his shop. I thought it was just doing a job interview, and he gave me the job on the spot. I'd always aspired to go Winston Cup. Then to get reunited with Ernie, that's just amazing.

"Now that I'm back in California, I'm getting a chance to see some smog again. We haven't seen that in a while. Just like old times."

CART

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