Last season, Kelly Bires was one of the up-and-coming drivers in the Nationwide Series, finishing 13th in points with six top 10 finishes. This year… he’s been forced to take pretty much any open ride that comes up. After no sponsorship forced his No. 47 JTG Daugherty team to turn to Michael McDowell, Bires was left out in the cold and forced to take rides with “start and park” teams — cars without enough money or resources to go the distance — in order to stay in the sport.
Being left out in the cold in this tough economy is enough to get any driver down. But Bires has made the most of it, finishing 10th or better in each of three races he’s been allowed to finish this season. That included a fifth place run at Iowa behind the wheel of the No. 10 Braun Racing Toyota, one of several teams the young driver hopes to align with in 2010 as he looks to get his career back on track.
Our own Jeff Meyer sat down and talked with Kelly at Iowa Speedway Saturday, discussing how he got his start in racing, the ups and downs of starting and parking, and whether the series he loves so much is headed back in the right direction.
Jeff Meyer, Frontstretch: Kelly, for those fans out there that don’t know, tell us how you got your start and on up to where we are today.
Kelly Bires: Well, I am originally from Wisconsin so I started go kart racing at nine years old. I did the go karts till about 15, then I jumped into an Allison Legacy car, which is a ¾-scale, like a late model or stock car… and that’s the first time I ever got in an enclosed cockpit. Did that for a year and a half, then jumped into a super late model, which are very, very competitive around Wisconsin throughout the state. I ran them for, I guess it was three or four years, and then got into the ASA Late Model Series. I ran the national touring series one year in 2006 and won the championship, which led into the opportunity I got with the Wood Bros. and JTG Racing to run a limited schedule in the [then] Craftsman Truck Series.
I was bumped into a Busch car in ’07, about halfway through that year, ran through 2008… and here we are today.
Meyer: Growing up, who was your favorite race car driver?
Bires: Growing up, I was a big Jeff Gordon fan, but just when I was real young… like when I was racing go karts and stuff, Gordon was the man! Then I kind of hit on Matt Kenseth, just because he was doing everything around the state of Wisconsin where I was from. He took the same route that I took [later on]… he ran the Late Model and all the ASA stuff and he got the opportunity with Robbie Reiser, which led him to where he’s at. So we kind of have a lot in common, the direction we came through the ranks.
Meyer: Now that you have been on the NASCAR scene a few years, has there been any one veteran driver that has helped you out the most?
Bires: I would say Mark Martin. The first year that I actually got into NASCAR, I was scheduled to run 19 races in the No. 21 truck and he was going to run the other six, so we actually got to share the ride. We also got the opportunity to test a couple of times together, before the season started. We are the same size and we can get into the same seat! He was really impressed with me and what I could do with the race car and where I had it set up. Ever since then, we’ve had a great relationship on and off the track, so anytime I need a little bit of advice — whether it’s business-related or not — he’s the guy that I can pick up the phone and call that steers me in the right direction.
Meyer: Last year, you ran the entire Nationwide Series with some pretty good results. This year, do you find it frustrating to be running a limited schedule for what many fans and journalists alike perceive to be “start and park” teams?
Bires: Last year, we had a really good year. We had a lot of bad luck, with parts breaking and seven DNFs, but we still finished 13th [overall] and we were a car that was capable of finishing sixth or so in points in my first full year in the Nationwide Series. So we come to this year, and with the limited funding that the team had it left me basically without a full-time ride… so I have had to do some “start and parks.” I actually did a couple for Braun Racing here, just because I didn’t have a sponsor for the race, but the car is still running for points to secure it to be in the Top 30. The way NASCAR’s got the rules, you gotta make every attempt. We did a couple, which led to this race here today in Iowa where we are going to run a full race. It’s just stuff you gotta do sometimes. I’ve run a couple of races for Kevin Harvick, so this is actually the third full race that I’ve run this year… but it’s just one of those years where you got to do it [start and park to stay visible in other races] and work on 2010 stuff.
Meyer: Is there really that much disparity between the teams like KHI, Roush, and Gibbs that are the “haves” compared to the smaller “have nots” in this series?
Bires: Well, Kevin and Delana Harvick, they kinda took me under their shoulder and gave me a great opportunity to run two races in which I finished fourth and 10th. I’m running one more for them in Memphis. They’ve got first class equipment, and just to get in that car, I mean, they’re running for the owner’s championship, so it’s a cool situation. It showed what I have [in terms of] ability both on the track and off the track… so it was great.
I think there’s a lot of people that deserve not to be running, and there’s a lot of people sitting out that should be running… but it’s just the way the sport is now. It is just the way the economy has kind of thrown everyone for a loop. It will all sort itself out eventually, though, and I believe the people that deserve to be driving will be back on the track.
Meyer: If you were not racing, what other “life’s work” might you be doing?
Bires: (laughs) I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always wanted to race since I was young, and that’s what I pursued and worked hard at. To get here, it’s taken a lot of years, a lot of hard work to get to this level and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do… so I don’t know. I’d probably be graduating from college right now and pursuing a regular 9 to 5 job like everyone else, but I didn’t want to do that so I took the risk to come to the NASCAR level and succeed.
Meyer: Do you follow any pro sports, and what are your favorite teams?
Bires: Well, being from Wisconsin, I’m obviously a Green Bay Packer fan and a Milwaukee Brewers fan. That’s just bred into you when you are born I think up there. I like all the sports: football, baseball, basketball. I used to play quite a bit of sports when I was in high school so you know, being a Packer fan and a Brewer fan are probably my two favorites — but I’m also a big fan of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Meyer: What do you think about the whole Brett Favre “I wanna play, I don’t wanna play” situation?
Bires: Well, we’re all big fans of Brett Favre, no matter where he’s playing. He’s done us good for the Packers. I wish he’d just have retired as a Packer, and not had to go through all the stuff that he went through… but I’m still a Brett Favre fan and always will be.
Meyer: Having lived in Wisconsin for many years myself, I know that this debate comes up sooner or later; is it a “bubbler” or a “drinking fountain?”
Bires: (Laughs) Is it a bubbler or a drinking fountain? It’s definitely a bubbler!
Meyer: So far in your career, what has been your strangest request from a fan or the strangest thing you’ve autographed?
Bires: There’s been so many, I don’t know which would be the strangest; but ya know, they’re what makes our sport work here. Without the fans, there’s no way we could be out here week in and week out. Usually, though, no request is really strange. It’s our job to try and fulfill their requests, but there has been some stuff that I’ve had to say that is not quite appropriate. Usually, it’s all good though; race fans are cool, they are unique from any other sport and it’s always fun to have them.
Meyer: When you get home to Wisconsin, what’s your favorite food to eat?
Bires: Oh… I like Culver’s Restaurants. I miss them. They don’t have them down south. They’ve got the good ice cream and butter burgers and everything else, so that’s probably the number one place I look forward to going to eat. Then there’s a couple of local restaurants back home that, when you don’t have the ability to go to them at your will, you miss that so I always try to hit them back up! But yeah, there’s a Culver’s not too far from here (Iowa Speedway) so you can’t beat ’em. It’s a great place to eat!