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Dads Behind Sons' Wheels

Whether driving their boys' motor homes or pitching in at the garage, fathers of young NASCAR drivers are in it for the long haul.

June 15, 2003|From Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jamie McMurray's mornings at the track always start the same, with a container of fresh coffee placed outside his motor coach by his father.

Casey Mears goes to his dad for a pep talk when something goes wrong. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson lean on their fathers to help them find the groove during practice.

These fathers of fast, young drivers are nearly as recognizable in the garage as their famous sons.

Gary Johnson, Jim McMurray, Roger Mears and Greg Newman all helped their boys get to NASCAR's highest level. Now that they're there, the drivers want their dads around to share in the success.

All four drive their sons' motor coaches, enabling them to travel to almost every race.

Greg Newman carries the second gas can on race day and spots for his son, Ryan, during practice. Gary Johnson does some spotting for son, Jimmie, and helps a little in the pits during the race.

"We've got a respect for what our fathers have done for our careers, as well as the potential for what they continue to do," Ryan Newman said. "Obviously, he's been instrumental in my career, not only as a person but as a professional driver. He would do everything if he could."

In the fast-paced, hectic world of NASCAR, it would seem that the young drivers would need a parent to help them navigate a grueling 36-race schedule and the sudden wealth and fame that goes with it. These kids want their dads around because they've always been by their side at the race track.

So Father's Day won't be anything special for them -- they'll be racing as usual.

"I think most of us raced with our sons from the time they were 5, 6, 7 years old," said Jim McMurray, known as "Daddy Mac" at the track. "It was a part of our lives, a total family involvement. Just because the son moves away and drives for someone else doesn't mean the family doesn't go with him."

Jim McMurray quit his sales job in Missouri and moved to North Carolina to work for son, Jamie. Greg Newman is in the process of selling his business in Indiana because his wife has been running it for the nearly two years he has been on the road with Ryan. Gary Johnson moved his entire family to North Carolina after Jimmie got settled.

Only Roger Mears beat his son here, leaving the West Coast before Casey got his first big break when Roger took a job with car owner Chip Ganassi.

Now Casey is a rookie driving for Ganassi and Roger is there for every step of what, so far, has been a rough year.

"To be able to spend so much time with my boy, it's really been a pleasure watching him come up through the ranks and working as hard as he does and reaping the rewards," Roger said. "And I like to be there to back him up, because a lot of times in racing there are a lot more downs than there are ups.

"I'd like to think it's helpful for him to have someone there who can prop you up and remind you that you can do it. Just a good solid reminder from someone you really trust."

All are employed by their sons now, which sometimes creates wrinkles in the relationship.

When it rained one day at Daytona in February, Jamie McMurray expected his father to be waiting for him with a golf cart to take him back to his motor home. He didn't show. McMurray had to walk and was soaking wet when he got to the coach and found his father on the couch watching TV.

"At the time I was pretty mad," Jamie said. "I do get mad at him, and he frustrates me. But it's one of those relationships where you get mad, and then 10 minutes later you say, 'I love you.'

"I know my dad loves racing more than anyone in the whole world. He would do anything for me and he got me where I am now. And he's just like all the other dads -- they all want to be here and they would all find a way to be here with us even if they didn't drive our coaches."

For Greg Newman, watching Ryan compete against drivers the father admired years ago is a tremendous thrill. And he's extremely active with the team, using the father-son bond to figure out what the car is doing just from watching Ryan's runs around the track.

One of the more memorable moments of the 2002 season was Greg crying in the pits at New Hampshire after Ryan's first victory.

"It was pretty emotional ....I raised a son who grew up and raced with people I idolized," Greg said. "And he won. There are no words to describe how gratifying it is -- you bred a winner."

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