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The Power of Numbers

The recent Sprint Cup adventures of Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team at Joe Gibbs Racing have been fun to watch.

Not only has Hamlin won three of the last five races, but his victory at New Hampshire last weekend was apparently the result of sheer destiny. Hamlin met with race fans and tweeted like a swami with a Smartphone as the day of the Sylvania 300 approached. Not even incorrect tire pressures for qualifying could de-rail the FedEx Freight Express. Starting 32nd was little more than a hiccup for the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin raced into the lead on lap 94 and led an additional 99 circuits en route to his fifth Cup victory of the season. Life looks good right now for the No. 11 team, especially when its oh-so-confident driver can predict specific wins weeks before the green flag flies.

When I watch the success of Hamlin and his race team, a part of me is happy to see their accomplishments. Five wins in 2012 (so far) is no small feat, and the fact that Sunday’s victory was the 100th win for Joe Gibbs Racing gave the season another milestone to celebrate. Hamlin is an expectant father, which is always exciting in a terrifying sort of way, and he’s enjoying a run of seemingly good health (no gashes on his hands or blown-out knees like we’ve seen in years past). A positive season makes for positive energy, and all race teams deserve as much.

Another part of me, however, watches the success of the FedEx team with disdain. Dare I admit that part of me is wildly jealous about Hamlin’s winning ways in the No. 11 car? Yes, I do dare…. I have to admit that it’s difficult to watch Hamlin and his team race through the Chase in hopes of winning this year’s Sprint Cup title.

Celebrating success is one thing; being reminded of failure is another.

Allow me to explain. I enjoyed very close ties to the No. 11 back when it was a Winston Cup entry. It was during the 1998 racing season that a publisher asked me to consider writing a biography of the Bodine brothers. The publisher worked with manuscripts about both sports and New York history, so a book documenting the Bodines from Chemung seemed to make a good fit.

My closest connection with the family was through middle-sibling Brett, who had graciously written the foreword for my first (and, thus far, only) book. I first met Brett during the early 1980s when he drove a NASCAR Modified for a team based in my hometown; it was that experience (I helped with the car at a race one weekend) that led to his assistance with my book in 1997. This new project would require even more of his insight and assistance.

A quick telephone call to Brett led to him calling Geoffrey and Todd to see if the book project sounded good to them. Within an hour, I had an answer for my new publisher: all three Bodine brothers were onboard and ready to go. The publishing company quickly “green-lighted” the project and a formal contract arrived at my house about a week later. All systems, as they say at NASA, were “go”.

The biggest obstacle the project initially faced was the matter of access – how could a mere academic (me) gain constant access to three drivers whose schedules were a perpetual whirlwind of racing, testing, sponsor appearances, and media responsibilities? I wasn’t a “real” writer following NASCAR in the way that a newspaper, magazine, or internet journalist would – my work needed to wind around my teaching load and any time I could wrestle free for travel.

Early work on the book was pretty smooth since background research could be done either at home or in a library. As long as I could periodically travel to North Carolina and upstate New York, specific material about the brothers and their family’s history could be collected fairly easily. When in doubt, I could conduct interviews over the telephone or via e-mail, as well, although this method tends to siphon-off much of the “human” element one can observe through a face-to-face exchange.

Doing “face-to-face” interviews at races was going to be another story. Much of my education in cultural studies focused on the benefits of “participant observer” field research. “Fieldwork”, as explained by William Shaffir and Robert Stebbins in their 1991 publication Experiencing Fieldwork: An Inside View of Qualitative Research, “must certainly rank with the more disagreeable activities that humanity has fashioned for itself. It is usually inconvenient, to say the least, sometimes physically uncomfortable, frequently embarrassing, and, to a degree, always tense” (1).

To sum up my early fieldwork experience on the Bodine project in a word: “You bet!”

Not that conducting this fieldwork was always an inconvenient, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and tense experience. It was often precisely the opposite. Never before had participant observer research been so exciting and fun. In order to get a complete understanding of what the Bodine brothers dealt with as both racers and businessmen, I had to spend time with them “behind the scenes” in-and-around NASCAR Nation. This meant going to races with the brothers and observing how the culture of stock car racing affected their lives. To get the unlimited access needed to conduct such intimate fieldwork, Brett Bodine suggested – during a meeting at his shop during the winter of 2000 – that I “join” his race team.

This was back when Brett Bodine was one of the few (if not only) owner/drivers regularly competing in the then-Winston Cup Series. At the end of 1995, Brett bought Junior Johnson’s race team after spending that year driving Johnson’s No. 11 Lowe’s Ford. Bodine had spent two seasons with Bud Moore, then five years with Kenny Bernstein, during which time he scored his first career win (at North Wilkesboro in 1990) and finished second in the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400.

By the end of the 2000 season, Lowe’s was long-gone as a sponsor and the thrill of being an owner/driver seemed to be fading. Bodine signed a sponsorship deal with the “Ralph’s” division of the Kroger grocery store chain, yet was forced to try and find a partner to operate the team. An agreement with California hotelier Richard Hilton (the father of pseudo-celebrities Paris and Nicky) never materialized and the year looked to be a wash-out.

One high note for 2000 was reached in August when the No. 11 Ralph’s Ford set the all-time qualifying record for a stock car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brett’s fast lap of 181.072 came on the second day of qualifying, which led fans (and team members) to wonder what might have been had that record-setting time been established on the first day of time trials.

Needless to say, Brett Bodine had little to lose by allowing me to sign on with his team for the 2001 season. My NASCAR license read “Winston Cup Series crew member”, but my primary role was to observe, take photographs, ask questions, conduct interviews, and stay out of the way.

I was really good at this last job. My go-to participant observer/researcher moves included leaning against a workbench in the hauler, leaning against stacks of tires in the pits, and – whenever necessary – leaning against the No. 11 Ford itself. I got so proficient at my crew member role that I eventually added some advanced skills such as drinking coffee and/or eating while leaning against the aforementioned items.

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While Brett Bodine did land Hooters for a sponsor in 2002, the absence of scantily clad waitresses in tank tops and orange shorts was glaring. Howell however was a worthy replacement. Thankfully he left the orange trunks at home.

Had Bodine’s No. 11 Ford been operating with an annual budget of $18-20 million dollars of solid sponsorship, I could have stayed with my primary role on the team as leaner/coffee-drinker/eater. Unfortunately, an under-financed NASCAR team is often an under-staffed NASCAR team. I was quickly called into service to help where and when necessary. Growing up around racing helped me to earn my keep by running errands, chaperoning sponsors and guests, assisting with pit stall set-up, and – beginning with the 2002 race at Las Vegas – catching rear tires (albeit not always very well) during pit stops. If NASCAR ever made a documentary about my weekends with the No. 11 racing team back in those days, the entire soundtrack would be one long rendition of “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph….

And that’s not intended to be a comment about the nature of how things worked at Brett Bodine Racing. Those were dark days because sponsorships came and went, especially during 2002 when a last-gasp telephone call to Atlanta resulted in a deal with Hooters Restaurants – a sponsor whose image caused other firms to pull their funds from Bodine’s cars. Another sponsorship “offer” – a three-race deal worth about $300,000 to the team – turned out to be more promise than payoff.

Such is the vicious cycle of automobile racing. You can’t win without sponsors, yet you can’t get sponsors if you don’t win. This equation eventually led Brett to shut down the No. 11 team in 2003. NASCAR then assigned the number to Joe Gibbs, who was setting up a new team for Jason Leffler, who would ultimately be replaced by Denny Hamlin. In 2005, the latest chapter in the history of the number eleven began.

And stop for a moment to consider the historic significance of cars running the number eleven in NASCAR competition. Drivers whose cars featured the number include Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Buddy Baker, and Fireball Roberts. In the NASCAR version of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, the number eleven provides a thread that connects Emanuel Zervakis to Geoffrey Bodine to Junior Johnson to Brett Bodine to Denny Hamlin – all names joined by various affiliations both on the track as well as off.

In fact, if Denny Hamlin runs the remainder of the 2012 Cup season in the No. 11 Toyota, he will – at Homestead-Miami in November – match the number of starts made by Brett Bodine when he carried those digits. Currently, Bodine sits second in races run in the No. 11 with 259; Denny Hamlin is at 251 starts. The record for starts in the No. 11 (at 323) was established by Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett. Hamlin can eclipse that number if he stays with the No. 11 for the next two seasons. Given his current air of confidence and stability, I’d say that milestone is clearly within Hamlin’s reach.

It was an overall lack of stability that resulted in the failure of what could have been a truly complete book about the struggles and triumphs of the Bodine brothers – not failure on their parts, but on mine. Part of my failure was my inability to ride out the professional and personal turmoil that plagued the three men. As they dealt with losses in rides, sponsors, teams, and relationships, I dealt with my inability to manage such changes and make sense of it all. The book project eventually faded into files full of draft pages, newspaper clippings, and a canceled contract with a respected publisher.

Despite all this, I still watch with great interest as Denny Hamlin wheels the No. 11 Toyota into Victory Lane. One part of me believes Hamlin and his crew certainly deserve to be standing there, while another part of me imagines what could have/should have/might have been. When the number eleven went from Brett Bodine Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, much of my affiliation with NASCAR went with it.

But I still have my three Winston Cup crew member licenses that say “car No. 11”. Regardless of what I ever write, or what I ever accomplish, those three credentials – however minor they are – are my own little piece of NASCAR history.

Just like the number eleven….

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