- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
LAS VEGAS -- The fan in a white T-shirt with "Red, White and Blue to the Bone" written across the back was like a Democrat on election night as he approached the stand in front of one of the countless booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
He barely could contain his enthusiasm as he pulled out five die-cast cars to be autographed.
The only person more excited was the man in his signature straw hat providing the signatures.
"My mouth waters when I walk through the halls and look at all of the displays," Jack Roush said Tuesday from the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) Show. "I could really hurt myself."
Given his druthers between spending three days here among so-called car geeks or three days at Phoenix International Raceway this weekend for the next-to-last Sprint Cup race of the season, Roush would be in a quandary.
And he doesn't just pop in for an autograph session and vanish like most other owners and drivers who come here.
"You don't just see him at one place," said Constant Kern, the fan with the five die-cast cars from the Roush Fenway Racing stable. "You see him everywhere. He mingles with all the fans."
This show is where Roush got the big break that has led him to being one of the most successful owners in NASCAR. In 1972, he came looking for help from vendors to support his drag-racing ventures, and left with $125,000 worth of parts and equipment that allowed him to run an NHRA Pro Stock program.
A year later, he won the first of consecutive championships as co-owner/driver with race team partner Wayne Gapp.
"The foundation of my motorsports success was really spawned and fed by the relationship that goes with the SEMA Show," Roush said with a smile.
Outside of Rick Hendrick with 174 wins and nine championships, no owner has been more successful than Roush since he got into the Cup series in 1988. He has 112 victories, more than Richard Childress (89) and Joe Gibbs (68).
He's placed at least two drivers in the Chase since its inception in 2004, including all five in 2005 and three this season.
If anybody is going to stop Jimmie Johnson from capturing a third straight title, it will be a driver from Roush's stable. Carl Edwards with a career-high eight wins is in second place, 106 back, with Greg Biffle 143 back in third place.
But Roush wasn't worried about the title on this day. He told the crowd he wasn't counting on catching Johnson and that he was looking forward to making a run at the championship in 2009.
That doesn't mean he won't do everything he can to put Edwards and Biffle in position to win the final two races at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway on the chance that Johnson stumbles. There are few, if any, more competitive than the 66-year-old owner known as "Cat in the Hat."
"If you look at what he's done in drag racing, road racing and now in NASCAR, it's pretty phenomenal," said Ray Evernham, the minority owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "He ranks up there in my opinion with Roger Penske in the racing world."
Cars are Roush's world. He arguably spends more time under the hood than any owner in the sport. He's as likely to have a wrench in his hand as a pen for signing checks.
"He's been pretty innovative with the roof flaps, the kill switches on the steering wheel and some of the things he's come up with," Hendrick said.
Said Felix Sabates, the minority owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, "He's as smart as hell."
Roush didn't look so smart when the new car was introduced last season. He was left behind by Hendrick, Gibbs and even Childress, whose organizations were testing every waking hour.
Once he realized the error of his ways, he caught and passed many of them. Putting all five cars in the top 11 last week at Texas, including Edwards with the win, is a prime example of how far he's come.
"This is really the best overall performance at this time of the year that we've had," Roush told the crowd.
But Roush wasn't so much worried about performance this day, as he was checking out all the tricked-up cars and new innovations around him.
"On a regular basis I don't think I would care to interact with this group 36 times a year," said Roush, comparing SEMA to a race season. "But to come here once a year and think about building a stronger program for next year and to have a chance to talk to people that I respect what they're doing in their business it doesn't get much better than this."
Roush can walk past poker tables and slot machines in Vegas as though they don't exist, but he can barely get past a SEMA exhibit without stopping.
That's not to suggest Roush doesn't gamble from time to time. Jack Roush Jr. remembers how his dad always came back from the SEMA show with a "couple of hundred bucks in his pockets from blackjack."
But Roush does most of his gambling on the racetrack, as he did Sunday when he gambled that Edwards could run the last 69 laps on a tank of gas when most couldn't go but 65.
"I pretty much stay away from the tables here," Roush said. "I have practiced blackjack enough to know that the fact that I was able to win sometimes against the house meant I was just luckier than I should have been, and I don't want to give that back."
The car was completely out of gas by the time [Carl] got to Victory Circle. I don't think it would have driven into the garage.
-- Jack Roush
The gamble at Texas was made with much more thought than the luck of the cards or roll of the dice. Roush calculated over and over with crew chief Bob Osborne on whether the risk was worth the reward.
"Initially, I heard Bob say on the radio they were four laps short, which I agreed with," Roush said. "Then he said he was half a lap short. I went down to look at it, and it looked like if he saved gas he was a lap and a half short."
But because Edwards began the day 183 points behind Johnson and needed a win to make a significant cut in the gap, Roush was in favor of the gamble.
When a fan asked him Tuesday how much gas was left at the end, Roush made a circle with his right thumb and index finger to signify zero.
"The car was completely out of gas by the time he got to Victory Circle," Roush said. "I don't think it would have driven into the garage. It took almost 19 gallons of gas, and that was emptying the lines, and to start with it was only supposed to hold 18.4, 18.5."
Roush appeared as calm throughout the final laps as he was talking to the crowd.
"I was predisposed it was going to run out of gas and we were all going to look stupid as we let Jeff Gordon, who had not been a factor, steal one," Roush said.
Man of the people
Roush sat down for a glass of apple juice while a member of his marketing team ate a slice of pizza. A few strangers sat next to him and struck up a conversation as though he were, in current political terms, "Joe the Plumber."
"That's the best part of him," Kern said. "He's just a nice guy, and he won't turn the other way like a lot of celebrities."
Roush truly is a celebrity here, but not in the sense of typical Vegas stars such as Elton John and Barry Manilow.
"His celebrity is more based on something people are passionate about, which is cars," Jack Jr. said.
That's why Roush is as at home sitting with strangers at SEMA as he is with his crew in the garage. He often picks up tips that he'll take back to his organization.
"It's fun to interact with the fans," Roush said. "Everybody has got their perspective, and the world is as you see it. Sometimes, the fact that I'm limited on what I can see with my own eyes makes it a benefit to have the perspective of others."
Roush's style is like few other owners. He's not charismatic like Richard Petty. He doesn't have a lot of outside business ventures like Hendrick or Sabates.
But he knows cars, and he's loyal to a fault. Many times over the past 40 years he could have disassociated himself from Ford, but he remained committed even during hard economic times when other manufacturers offered more help.
Were it not for Roush, Ford likely wouldn't be in the sport.
"What I appreciate about Jack is that no matter what he does, he does it with great passion," said Brian Wolfe, the director of Ford Racing. "Whether it's flying his own airplanes or running his race teams, Jack is always personally involved, which elevates the performance of those around him."
Hendrick knew Roush would be a good owner from the first time they met because he did things his own way.
"Jack is hands-on, and he's raced just about everything there is," he said. "He knows how to compete and build a good organization. There's a tremendous base there [at Roush Racing], and he's going to be a threat to win it every year."
But for a few days in Vegas, Roush simply was having fun, enjoying SEMA by day and Broadway shows such as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Jersey Boys" by night.
"I'm going to have my fix for Broadway Las Vegas-style in place and ready to focus on what needs to happen in the next two races on the NASCAR circuit," Roush said. "I'm not wishing that bad results would visit [Johnson], but if it does, we'll hopefully be in position to pick up where he left off."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.