By Mike Mulhern
So it’s come to this – Larry McClure, after 25 years, some as one of the top car owners in NASCAR, with so many impressive wins at Daytona, is finally forced to hang it up. For a while at least.
Unless something comes around his way in the next few days, the man who gave Ernie Irvan his first big break, the man who smiled as Sterling Marlin won Daytona, McClure will spend SpeedWeeks at home, up in Abingdon, Va.
Of course that – a NASCAR shop up in the Blue Ridge – is one reason McClure has struggled the last few years. Once a man could make a go of it in this sport with a few good men, wherever he called home. The Woods did it for years out of Stuart, Va. Junior Johnson did it for years out of Ingle Hollow.
But the many engineers and college graduates this sport has been attracting the past 10 years or so, a flood really, are looking for more cosmopolitan ventures after-hours, and this sport, once such a rural Southern phenomenon, has become more a big-city thing. Or at least as much a big city as the Charlotte area can offer.
Yes, I-77 has some of the worst gridlock in the state, but Charlotte does have more worldly things to do than just laying around and smelling the hay and roses.
Bobby Hamilton, when he was driving for McClure, tried in vain to persuade him to move the shop down to the Iredell County heart of stock car racing. But McClure resisted.
Kodak, McClure’s long-time sponsor, finally decided to move on, putting its colors on Roger Penske’s cars. And McClure was forced to scramble for sponsorship. And the money it takes to run one of these teams – even a single-car operation like McClure’s – has become enormous.
Nevertheless McClure tried to hold on…until finally last week he was forced to call it quits. Most of his men are now gone, some down to the Charlotte-Mooresville area. Like Chris Carrier – a country boy just like McClure, a veteran crew chief for small teams, a man who watched McClure from the start, back in the G. C. Spencer days, right up till the end.
And Carrier’s heart weighs heavy with the loss.
“For Larry to have to wind it down and not be able to continue, to me that’s heartbreaking, it’s really heartbreaking,” Carrier, now with Penske, says. “It’s very sad.
“I know those people. Some of them have been working there for 20-some years…and not a lot of people in racing can say they’ve worked for the same small business for 20 years. For them to be able to do that, with a single-car team too, is admirable.
“I feel for those people every minute of every day. I wish I could fix it. I wish I could wave a magic wand, to turn that around. But I guess I can’t. And it’s sad.
“It’s just part of today’s economy and this growing business. With Penske Racing, and Hendrick Racing, and Roush Racing, and Childress….
“The people at Penske Racing are just the same as the people at Larry’s…there are just more of them.
“There’s no good-guy, bad-guy situation in this. It’s just part of the sport.
“Maybe somebody can figure out a way to turn all this around, I don’t know. But right now it looks like there’ll be 51, 52 or 53 teams going to Daytona (vying for the 43 spots in the 500 field), and that’s a lot of competition. I’m just fortunate to be employed by one of the ones that will be there, with good resources and good backing and good people around me.
“I’m very proud to say I was part of Morgan-McClure Racing….and Andy Petree Racing (also now defunct) and Whitaker Racing and Henderson Racing…..and all the time I spent with all those people, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“The whole problem of being a single-car team and not being in the Charlotte area….but Larry had a really good run for a long time, and there were a lot of reasons for Larry to stay up there – he was proud of his home and the people up there..
“I don’t look at it as Larry should have done this or done that; he did the best he could at making the right decisions for the right reasons, with his heart. And he won 15 races. How many car owners can say that?
“I was there when Larry started it all, back when he bought the stuff from G. C. Spencer, who, bless his heart, just passed away a few weeks ago, and the sport lost one of its pioneers. Larry (in 1983) bought G. C.‘s team: one car and his three engines, and probably fewer spare parts than most Late Model teams have right now—and I’m not exaggerating – and a box Dodge truck and open trailer, and maybe 15 spare wheels.
“I remember being in G. C.‘s shop, which was in the basement of his house in Bluff city – I would stop by his house a few afternoon’s every week, because I lived in Johnson City. I went with him just to change tires, because I thought that was the coolest gig in the world.
“Now G. C. was an early riser, got up every day about 5 a.m., and when I’d drop by about 3:30 in the afternoon from college after my classes, he would use that as an excuse to stop. He would pull up a chair, get a can of Miller Lite, and start telling racing stories….and I was in seventh heaven, just 21 years old.
“I remember when Larry showed up at G. C.‘s shop that one afternoon, and I was just sort of staying out of the way, but listening. And after Larry left, I asked G. C. ‘Who’s that guy?’ ‘Larry McClure.’ ‘Who’s that?’ ‘He’s from Coburn, and got a couple of car dealerships….and I think he’s going to buy this team.’
“And that’s how Morgan-McClure started.
“Now I’ve got a daughter, 15 years old, and watching Larry’s team come along, well, it was like watching a child grow up. I was living next door, very close, and I remember seeing them do things ‘Man, that’s pretty good.’ Tony Glover jumped in a year later, and that’s when it started really going. Then Rick Wilson started driving for them, and then Ernie, and the rest is history.
“I look back on that, and I’m very happy to have been a part of that….and yet it makes me sad to know it’s history.”
And now Carrier has joined Roger Penske, where he’ll have his hands full this season as crew chief with Indy-star but NASCAR-rookie Sam Hornish Jr.
“I came back home that night after talking with Roger, and he’s just a super guy to be around. It was all very candid, but very low-keyed. And when I got in my truck and drove home, I told myself ‘Now I understand why this guy is so successful.’
“It is amazing to know the difference in this sport, from where it started to where it’s going.
“Back when, we all had to do everything – when it was time to paint the car, to set it up, to load it up and drive it to the track, it was just ‘us.’
“But that’s the way NASCAR started, the way NASCAR used to be. And that makes it sad for me, to see a part of NASCAR like that going away. And I think it’s sad for NASCAR too, and NASCAR fans. It’s history, history.
“Now there are so many people on these teams….
“Larry and I, over the winter, and the last part of last year, had some long discussions, some very personal discussions….and I think I knew what he was going through.
“Just commonsense told me it was going to be hard for him to overcome.
“Larry fought it and struggled with it as long as anybody on this planet would have or could have or would have even tried to.
“His persistence in keeping that race team going was founded on the friendships and love he had for his people. It wasn’t about ‘I can still prove I can build better race cars.’ That wasn’t what was driving him. It was about his people. He knew he hadn’t built that by himself, but with all those people, for so many years.
“I admire him for sticking with it as long as he did.”
Now at Penske’s “it is a little overwhelming,” Carrier concedes. “We went testing at Nashville the other day, and I remember thinking to myself ‘Now I know what I’ve been up against all these years.’ You think you know, but yet you don’t know until you see it: It’s like looking at the ocean and thinking ‘Man, it’s going to be hard to swim across that ocean…’ and then you look over your shoulder and ‘Man, those guys have a boat they’re floating in here.’”
Carrier this season has a new challenge – leading Hornish in the rookie-of-the-year battle, which looks to be a tough one.
Samuel Jon Hornish Jr., age 28. Ohio. Winner of the 2006 Indianapolis 500. The Indy-car series champion in 2001, 2002 and 2006.
Can Chris Carrier make this work?
“First, we need to stay in the top-30 in the points, we want to run competitive every weekend,” Carrier says. “We want to give Sam every opportunity to accelerate that learning curve….because, now his learning curve will accelerate, because he has the talent, the ability and the drive to make that happen. And when it comes on, people will be saying ‘Man, where did this guy come from?’
“Let’s face it – NASCAR is probably (ital) the (close ital) most competitive environment in all of sports. What’s it going to be like to run only 35th on some days? There’s a lot of talent out there.
“We’ve got a lot of talent here….and I’m really just the wrapper around the hot dog.
“We’re going to do it all methodically, we’re going to try to do it smart, so we don’t work our race team into a hole. It’s a long season, and it’s something Sam will have to adjust to, and he’s already thinking about that. It’s a long season for all of us, 38 races over 42 weeks, traveling here, there and yon. It’s a tough deal. That’s why it takes the best. And all these guys in this garage, they’re the best of the best.
“Someone asked ‘Why are all these open-wheel guys coming to NASCAR?’ It’s because these guys want to come to where the best competition is, and that’s right here. This is the best of the best. This is where the big fish want to swim, where all the other big fish are.”