Marc and Harry Davis doing it their way
Not even Joe Gibbs could secure Marc Davis a full-time ride in this depressed economy. What's an 18-year-old prodigy to do? It's dear ol' Dad to the rescue, writes Ed Hinton.
Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say the crash of the economy, hard as it is on NASCAR, would show a silver lining? Show us who the real racers are? Open the way for the return of rugged individualism, self-reliance, can-do spirit?
Here they come already: the Davises. Driver Marc, 18, and his father, Harry, are doing it the old-fashioned way. They're fielding a family-owned, barely sponsored, one-car team, fighting the odds and the big money.
Marc Davis will try to qualify for six Nationwide races in a row, beginning just after Daytona, this winter. He'll run two Toyotas his father has acquired. Then later this year they plan to enter a handful of Cup races.
In a separate effort, veteran crew chief Tommy Baldwin is starting his own Cup team, citing the bad economy as an opportunity for a startup, with low overhead and a lot of out-of-work mechanics to choose from. But Baldwin has not named a driver or a sponsor.
The Davises know where they're going, and they have a potential star at the wheel.
They're still friends with Joe Gibbs Racing, where Marc has been a developmental driver and maintains a relationship, and with Randy Moss Motorsports and Roush Racing -- all of whom tried to find major sponsorships to run Marc regularly in Nationwide or Trucks this season, but failed.
But no more waiting. The Davises will do it themselves.
"It's a relief, in a way," Harry said the other day, "because you get to control your own destiny, good or bad."
"It's definitely cool," Marc said. "It's going to be a challenge to have to compete against all the big teams out there. But it'll be a learning curve to be able to do it on my own."
They're not complaining that Gibbs, after keeping Marc on the roster for three years, couldn't fund a ride for him this year.
"What happened to Marc is exactly what happened to a great number of people in NASCAR -- a lot of our friends," Harry said. "They're out of a job because there's no sponsorship."
Harry's matter-of-fact, polite -- but solid steel -- determination wouldn't let Marc fall out of a job.
So just say the prodigy is self-employed now, like guys I knew back when I came into NASCAR. Guys -- like Richard Childress -- who went on their own, did the work themselves, drove their own trucks. (And you see where Childress is now. That's what NASCAR used to be about, and what it can be about again.)
Marc Davis isn't much different from the young Darrell Waltrip I knew in the mid-1970s, during the then-worst recession since World War II Waltrip was running his own team on less than half the budget of his competition, doing his best with what he had, with faith that somebody, somewhere, would notice and take him to a higher level.
The fledgling Waltrip ran on meager sponsorship from a trucking company. Marc Davis will run on modest money provided by Howard University radio station WHUR, and Bobcat, a manufacturer of professional-grade landscaping equipment.
All told, Marc will run on less than $75,000 per race -- not even half the budgets of major Nationwide teams, and about one-fourth the per-car, per-race budget of Cup teams.
That's determination; that's independence; that's faith. That's what built NASCAR.
But isn't it a little scary?
"No," Harry said. "I'll tell you why it's not scary. Every year there's always another problem; every year there's another major obstacle to overcome. So why should 2009 be any different?"
Classically, the old "independent drivers," as they were called, didn't differentiate much between economic cycles. To them, all times were hard.
Take the late Wendell Scott. When Harry Davis admits to himself that they may go to races with only one engine -- "we may not even have a backup engine in the spare car" -- then he reminds himself that things could be much harder.
"It's like when Wendell Scott had to take the motor out of his race car and put it into his tow vehicle to get to the track, and then took the motor out of his tow vehicle and put it in his race car and raced it, and then put the motor back in his tow vehicle to get home."
You could say Marc is doing it the way Scott did it, for like Scott -- 50 years later, and despite all of NASCAR's PR efforts, nominal funding and lip service to diversity in recent years -- Marc is NASCAR's only active African-American driver.
But there is a brighter light at the end of Marc's tunnel than there was for Scott. When Scott won a Cup race, in 1960 at Jacksonville, Fla., NASCAR didn't declare him the winner until days later.
Should Marc Davis win a race, you can bet NASCAR would tout it and shout it to the high heavens that a minority driver has won, and that the Drive for Diversity program has been vindicated.
But it will be awfully hard for him to win a race on the equipment his meager funding will buy.
The point is not to be written about. The point is to be racing.
-- Harry Davis
Even Marc's youthful optimism is tempered by reality: "Definitely we want to be a 10th- to 20th-place car," he said, "but it's going to be a bit harder to run better than that on your own, without a little bit of luck on your side."
Some family friends who are experts in racing are concerned for the Davises -- worried that the meager funding won't buy Marc the equipment that will showcase his talent fully.
"He's at a crossroads," said Preston Miller, a family friend who for 13 years was Ford Motor Co.'s project director for NASCAR. "He's qualified. There's no question about it. He's got the talent. He's got the desire. But he'll never be more than a middle-of-the-pack racer without a good car."
2008 is a good example of that. Driving Nationwide for Fitz Racing, Marc had finishes of 27th, 27th and 30th in a car that wasn't capable of much better than that. In an ARCA race at Pocono in August, driving for Harry's family-owned team to get Marc qualified to run on 2.5-mile tracks, Marc finished eighth, on the lead lap.
Driving for Gibbs, Marc led the most laps in the Camping World East series last year, scored three second-place finishes and finished fifth in points. In his Nationwide debut for Gibbs, at Memphis in September, Marc qualified fourth but an early flat tire cost him laps and relegated him to a 23rd-place finish.
Jeff Spraker, who owns developmental teams in ARCA and the NASCAR East series, is an independent third party who has watched Marc develop for years.
"This kid has got more potential, right now, to set the thing on its ear than anybody," Spraker said. "He has the potential, whatever [NASCAR] division he goes to, to really make an impact."
Spraker wonders whether the Davises should take that $75,000 a race to ARCA, where that amount of money would make him competitive to win, rather than just finish in the top 20.
Spraker has a point. Every time Erin Crocker entered an ARCA race, we in the media paid attention. If she had won, we would have made it a big story.
"Can you imagine [the exposure to be gained for] an African-American driver winning an ARCA race?" Spraker said. "When you don't have a lot of money and you're going to gamble, you've got to go where the odds are best for you."
But Harry Davis would rather have experience than exposure for his son.
"The point is not to be written about," he said. "The point is to be racing."
"Harry," said Spraker, "is a pretty determined guy."
Hard times do not, cannot, faze the guy. And that is in the very best of NASCAR's original spirit.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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