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Celebration greets returning driver after No. 16 finish

Zephyrhills residents cheer David Reutimann after his Busch series stock car racing debut in Virginia.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

ZEPHYRHILLS -- When David Reutimann got home Saturday night and pulled into his racing team's garage off Wire Road, he found a true hometown welcome.

Messages from friends were chalked in all colors on the garage walls. Confetti sparkled in the dirt path leading to his door; streamers hung from the roof, and he was greeted by helium balloons reading "Congratulations" and "Sweet 16." Above all of that, an impressive array of toilet paper was draped from the large trees whose branches hang over the garage.

"It was a mess," said Reutimann, a 32-year-old Zephyrhills native. "I can't believe they got it that high in some of the trees."

The balloons' "16" was a nod to Reutimann's 16th-place showing in his NASCAR Busch series stock car debut, a strong showing for a driver who started the race in the 34th position. Entering the weekend unsure if he'd qualify for the race and hoping he wouldn't wreck the only car he had, the rookie far exceeded his expectations with his finish.

"My crew chief, his basic goal was to go there, make the race, stay out of trouble and try to finish in the top 20," Reutimann said. "That was realistic. That was doable. It really went well. I would have liked to run in the top 10, but you have to be realistic. Last year, I was watching this race on TV, and this is a lot better than that."

A rainout of the qualifying round assured him a spot in the 43-car field Friday night in Richmond, Va., but it wasn't until race officials gave the command to start engines that he allowed himself a smile at the realization of what he had been able to accomplish.

"In racing, nothing's ever certain until you're really there and running," he said. "Then, you're like, "In the very least, I was able to start this race.' "

What he also started was the prospect of a real career in one of NASCAR's top circuits. The opportunity was made possible through a longtime friend and fellow Zephyrhills High School graduate, 27-year-old Brian Pattie, who had been his crew chief when the two were racing local tracks as teenagers. Pattie has found success as crew chief for driver Joe Nemechek's team and helped get Reutimann in touch with Nemechek about filling in with a one-race contract.

Having a familiar voice on the headsets to guide him around the three-quarter-mile oval in Richmond did wonders for Reutimann's comfort level in an otherwise unfamiliar environment.

"It makes you feel like when you're young, just a bunch of kids racing and winning a lot of races," he said. "When I go up there and work out of Joe's shop (in North Carolina), I stay at Brian's house. He's just like family."

Reutimann had to buy a stock car from Nemechek's team to get the one-race deal, and now the blue-and-white No. 87 car sits in his garage alongside the black-and-yellow No. 00 he drives in NASCAR's Hills Bros. All-Pro touring series. Reutimann sits atop the smaller circuit's points standings with a victory and second-place showing in two races this season, but Friday's 250 miles of Busch racing reiterated to him that while the two cars look very comparable, the similarities end with the chassis.

"There's nothing close, except that you sit in the left side to drive them both," he said. "It's a completely different breed of animal. Its weight, tires, suspension, body, horsepower, everything."

Friday's 16th-place showing earned him $10,860, but the debut could pay off in a larger sense. He's already talking about a contract for a few more races this season, particularly the second Busch race in Richmond this fall, where Virginia-based Geico Direct auto insurance might sponsor his car again. For now, he heads to Birmingham, Ala., where he'll race Saturday in All-Pro series.

After two decades of local-hero status for his driving at local and regional racetracks, Reutimann has attained a new level of celebrity after his nationally televised Busch run. He's getting handshakes and pats on the back from strangers at restaurants, at the barber shop, all around Zephyrhills.

"The whole town's been great," he said. "It makes you feel good, because you really feel like the whole town's behind you. Sometimes you think people don't even pay attention, don't even know your name, so all of this has been neat."

Couple his Busch series debut with the success he has had on the smaller circuit, then add in the birth of a first child for him and his wife, Lisa, in January, and it already has been a year worth celebrating.

"It's been a great year. . . . I've been extremely blessed," Reutimann said. "This race, it's a confidence-builder, all the way around. I don't know if it makes me any better of a driver, but it helps your confidence a lot, no doubt."

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