Passion still fierce for a NASCAR great

2/10/2009 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A framed, hand-drawn picture of a T-shirt sits on a desk in the office of Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith. It was crafted during a board meeting as a nervous executive made a presentation and request for money.

The artist? Team owner Jack Roush.

Roush wanted something to commemorate the pit crew's performance in Matt Kenseth's 2002 win at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. He wanted it done quickly and into the marketplace before the next race.

"What that tells you about Jack Roush is there isn't one area of our business or one thing that goes on in our business that he doesn't find himself interested in," Smith said. "It could be noticing a light bulb was out on the exterior of the building on two visits and why is that?

"I laugh about that, but that does characterize Jack. You never know where he's going to be involved and at what level."

Few if any owners in the Sprint Cup garage compare to the 66-year-old known as "The Cat in the Hat" because of his trademark fedora. He's accomplished about all there is in NASCAR's premier series, capturing consecutive titles in 2003 and 2004 and winning 113 races.

The only real hole in his résumé is the upcoming Daytona 500.

Those who know him best say he won't quit until he wins one, whether it's Sunday's 51st running or the 61st 10 years from now.

"I have said a number of times Jack would be happiest if he had to walk to work barefooted in the snow," said Mark Martin, who finished runner-up in the title chase four times under Roush. "The harder it is, the happier he is. He digs, and he digs hard."

Roush is as tenacious as a bulldog and as quirky as a mad scientist, and he's involved in more projects and businesses than most minds can comprehend. Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood simply shook his head last month after Roush completed a 20-minute speech during NASCAR's annual media tour.

"He's got a lot of stuff going on," Wood said. "Kind of makes my head hurt to hear him."

Although Roush is more mellow and appreciative of life since his near-death experience in a 2002 airplane crash, nobody is more competitive or complex.

Back him into a corner, and he'll come out kicking, screaming and armed with more information to back his case than Perry Mason and Matlock combined. Just ask the folks at Toyota, which made the Ford owner feel threatened to the point he referred to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor when the foreign manufacturer entered the sport in 2007.

He still hasn't stopped lobbying to keep his Cup program at five cars even though NASCAR hasn't swayed on its ruling that he must be at four in 2010.

"When I think of Jack Roush, I think of the postman and the little dog that won't let go of his leg as he's walking out the gate," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's longtime vice president of corporate communications. "He's tenacious."

He's also versed in more topics, from war history to collectible cars to airplanes to patents, than most of his fellow owners combined.

While Rick Hendrick gets more attention for winning titles -- three in a row and eight of the past 14 -- Roush's contributions to the sport are equally as impressive. A highly successful dragster and sports car racer before he entered NASCAR with Martin in 1988, he likely will go down as one of the greatest owners of all time.

"Jack's legacy will be explained 25 to 30 years from now as a cumulative of Junior Johnson and Glenn Wood," NASCAR president Mike Helton said, referring to two of the sport's most famous owners. "I'd like to think he gets credit and recognized as someone that took a very core concept of racers racing and carried it to the next level."

Story time

Most in the garage have their favorite Roush story, but it's hard to beat the plane crash that he insists left him dead for a brief moment.

"Jack's been dead once," said Carl Edwards, the runner-up for the 2008 Cup title. "He'll tell us, 'Back one time when I died … .' I'm like, 'Damn, Jack!' He's a never-give-up guy, so that's cool."

Roush was flying alone to Talladega Superspeedway on his 60th birthday when he clipped some low power lines, sending his twin-engine Air Cam upside down into about 8 feet of water in a lake near Troy, Ala.

Unconscious and strapped into his seat, Roush miraculously was rescued by ex-Marine Larry Hicks, who happened to be trained in underwater rescue.

"You can't look at Jack now and not think of that story," said Kenseth, who won the 2003 championship for Roush. "After the accident and he fully recovered, I always think of him as a more kinder, gentler Jack.

"I didn't talk to him much before that really. He was pretty tough, pretty hard, but he lightened up a lot after that."

Smith agreed.

"The experience did soften him … in the sense that he became more reliant on all the people around him," he said. "Everybody stepped up and did their job [while he recovered], and that gave him comfort."

Ultimately, that's made Roush a better businessman and helped him better relate to drivers on the competition side.

"I hope I've been a little more sympathetic and certainly had a little more rhythm to my actions," he said. "I know there have been occasions when somebody has gotten themselves caught in a tight [situation], and I've looked at it and smiled and given them relief.

"I've thrown them a lifeline just like I had mine thrown at me."

But Roush hasn't softened to the point he doesn't fight fiercely if he feels wronged. He lashed out against Toyota's Lee White after White accused him of deliberately fixing the lid of Edwards' oil tank to come off and create a competitive advantage last season at Las Vegas.

Roush accused White of cheating during his days as the manager of the Roush road-racing team and even tried to suggest Michael Waltrip's car wasn't the only Toyota with "jet fuel" in the engine before the 2007 Daytona 500.

"He likes a challenge," Helton said with a smile.

Complex individual

Roush laughed when reminded of the T-shirt he penciled onto the piece of paper Smith framed.

"Some people say I manage by wandering," he said. "From time to time, I take a deep dive and design a piece of hardware. I might even help out with a T-shirt if I'm having trouble getting my point across."

On this occasion, the design team was ahead of the boss, which in Roush's world is a good thing.

"When you're working for Jack, that's one of the things you want to be able to demonstrate," Smith said. "When he comes in there with theoretically no grounding whatsoever, and he's ahead of you, that's a wake-up call for whoever you are."

The media tour speech showed just how meticulous Roush can be. He sat alone outside the hotel convention room writing notes and highlighting everything he wanted to say. He then read the entire speech in an almost mind-numbing way with words that required a dictionary for the less educated.

"Sometimes Jack will lose me in a conversation," said Jamie McMurray, Roush's driver of the No. 26, which finished second in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday. "Not just me, he'll lose numerous people.

"But Jack's really, really smart. He's not just smart about racing, he's intelligent about numerous things."

He's also direct.

"Just very stern," McMurray said. "A lot of times, Jack will say things that people maybe find hurtful. Jack is just brutally honest. He says it the way it is."

Roush also is giving to a fault, particularly when it comes to making sure his drivers and their teams have all it takes to win.

"The guy is just such an inspiration," said Doug Yates, who formed a partnership between Yates Racing and Roush Fenway.

Yates' introduction to Roush came in the early 1990s. Roush was frustrated over not being able to beat Dale Earnhardt on restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona, so he collected Yates and his father, Robert, and flew to Detroit to find a solution.

"He said, 'Let's go put all of our technology together, and we'll go and beat Dale Earnhardt," Yates recalled.

One has to remember that at the time, Roush considered the elder Yates his archrival. To offer to join forces showed just how far he'll go to win.

"We stayed there and worked around the clock for three days straight," Doug Yates said. "We were in the dyno cell at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and back in there at 7 the next day. Jack was in there the whole time."

When they put the engine to the test at Talladega, Davey Allison qualified on the front row for Yates. Roush's best car? Well, it started near the rear.

"So we didn't talk for a long time after that," Yates said with a laugh. "But I saw his drive and determination at that time, which was pretty cool."

Roush is cool in an odd pocket-pen case kind of way. In many ways, he's a product of where he grew up in Manchester, Ohio, a town so small there wasn't a McDonald's when Yates went there for the funeral of Roush's mother a few years ago.

"What amazes me is how can a guy run all of the things he does and know that much about them," Doug said. "He has 2,000 employees and builds propane trucks for a hobby. It just amazes me how he multitasks."

Roush admittedly isn't as good at that as he once was. The man who once survived on a few hours of sleep a night needs a solid eight to function.

"If I don't, I might bite somebody when it wasn't required," he said.

But the teeth marks don't go nearly as deep as they once did, and the snaps don't come as often. He's even mellowed on his strategic attacks to some degree.

"I've figure out I can't stop growing older, but I am determined to never grow up, so I still have that boyish look at competition that I had when I was 16 years old and wrecked my first '51 Ford racing with my buddy," Roush said.

"I still have got my passion for racing and competition, and that won't diminish. I've just figured out how to pace myself."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.