Commentary

A success generations in the making

Updated: May 27, 2009, 5:36 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

If you've never seen a Reutimann race, live and in person, I'm not sure I'd even call you a real race fan.

How could you have missed them?

How could you not know that David Reutimann's win of the Coca-Cola 600 was the culmination of 71 years of joyful, honest, humble toil on the dirt and pavement of grassroots tracks across America by seven Reutimanns, two of whom died at it?

Reutimanns have ranged far and wide, up and down the East Coast, all along the Gulf of Mexico, far out West.

The "00" number David carried to Victory Lane on Monday has been in the family for three generations.

The first "00" I saw was a winged supermodified, bobbing into the pits on a trailer with Florida license plates at Laurel, Miss., circa 1967.

This was Wayne, one of David's uncles.

Then briefly, at Golden Gate Speedway near Tampa in the early '70s, I saw Dale Reutimann, another uncle. The family expected he would be the best of them all.

Dale would die on the road, towing a race car, hit by a drunk driver, at age 18. Killed in the same crash was his father, the first-generation Reutimann driver, Emil Jr.

David's dad, Buzzie, raced all over, but mainly up and down the East Coast, into New York and New Jersey.

They've been based in Zephyrhills, Fla., since 1925, when Emil Reutimann Sr., a Swiss immigrant, opened an auto repair shop. He and son Emil Jr. became fascinated with racing. When Emil Jr. brought home a battered hotrod, according to family biographer Ben Smith, the father called it "the nearest thing to nothing" he'd ever seen. Worse than that, "double nothing."

Double nothing. Double 0.

It's a number older, and more meaningful to a family, even than Richard Petty's "43."

Smith says Emil Jr. first raced at Orlando, in 1938. So you could only imagine how deep Buzzie Reutimann's thoughts were running Monday evening, when he said during his son's media conference, "I tell you what, people, it's been a long road. It's taken us a long time to get here."

He didn't mean just David's struggle up through the NASCAR ranks since 2002. He spoke for four generations, back to the Swiss immigrant who saw double nothing in a pitiful hotrod.

And they never counted on anything -- couldn't afford to aspire.

"When I started racing, I wasn't racing to be a NASCAR driver," David said. "I was just racing to race, to be able to be like my dad, make a living at racing. … When I was at East Bay Raceway running for $350 to win a late model feature, I wasn't concerned about being here. I was concerned about making it to next week.

[+] EnlargeDavid Reutimann
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireDavid Reutimann waited a long time to win his first Cup race.

"That's been my mentality my whole life."

David Reutimann is 39 years old, in only his third year of Cup. When he was in Nationwide and reporters constantly reminded him his age made him a long shot for the top, he would tell them, "It's a long shot I even made it this far, so why should I start worrying about the odds?"

Even with his solid performance this year -- he's six points behind 12th in the standings, which is the Chase cutoff -- and even with the win Sunday, he was still saying, "Things like this don't happen to guys like me. You guys [reporters] know that. How often does it happen? Can anybody here tell me? It doesn't happen."

So now, for every Friday and Saturday night journeyman who ever dragged a sprint car or late model or supermodified up and down I-75 between Tampa and Michigan, or I-95 between Miami and Jersey, or I-10 between Jacksonville and L.A. … there is David Reutimann, living proof that after all, it does happen.

When a family carries double nothing as their number, all these years, you know one thing: They're cheerfully humble. Able to laugh at themselves.

Thus, David could deadpan right along with his car owner, Michael Waltrip, Monday evening when Waltrip was asked why he'd hired David in the first place.

"We couldn't find anybody else," Waltrip said with a mischievous smirk. "He works for cheap. Don't ask a whole lot out of anybody."

Then Waltrip went serious and repeated the story of how older brother Darrell Waltrip started a Truck team and picked David Reutimann to drive -- largely because Darrell Waltrip is a big believer in racing bloodlines -- and then the Waltrips moved him up to Michael's Nationwide team, and thence to Cup.

"He was born and raised in the back of a hauler," Michael said. "So it's just a part of his DNA. It's who he is."

Back when Wayne and Buzzie were in their primes, there was a TV commercial for pastries. The jingle went, "Everybody doesn't like something/But nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."

Every racer I've ever known hasn't liked somebody. But nobody I've ever known hasn't liked the Reutimanns.

It's the same now in NASCAR: Nobody doesn't like David Reutimann.

Not even Tony Stewart, who had one of his typical tempests over David during one of the rain delays at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Monday. Something about racing too hard, too soon. I never could figure out how you could race too hard, too soon with rain on the way. But you know Tony.

Then, after the race was called with David Reutimann sitting at the front of the grid, and he made his way to the winner's media conference, his cell phone rang.

It was Tony Stewart, congratulating him. All was cool.

From then 'til now, it's been written that David Reutimann got a cheap win, the cheapest since Dave Marcis stayed out in the rain and won at Richmond in 1982.

Even Reutimann said of the victory, "hopefully the next time, we'll earn it."

If you ask me, it was the hardest-earned win in NASCAR history.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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