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NASCAR fills up on scrappy teams

This season has seen more low-budget cars than usual. Just don't call 'em "field fillers," at least not to drivers' faces.

BRANT JAMES
Published March 14, 2004

HAMPTON, Ga. - Kirk Shelmerdine won four Winston Cup championships as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Andy Hillenburg raced in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. But during morning practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway, they were just two nondescript guys pushing their race cars to the inspection bay, hoping their makeshift machines would be deemed fit to join NASCAR's privileged on the track.

It was another morning of making do in the trying life of a field filler, the somewhat condescending title given to men like Shelmerdine, Hillenburg, Carl Long, Andy Belmont and Joe Ruttman, drivers on the periphery of the sport's big leagues who struggle to cobble together the time, money and parts to run with the rich or for the riches in Nextel Cup.

But the financial distress, picking over refuse for parts, the indignity of competing without a chance to win - or even get close - is not the worst part. It's being called a field filler.

"I would rather be called something else," said Hillenburg, leaning against a stack of used tires bought discounted from another team. "In the '70s it was a little more glamorous. It was called independent."

Belmont doesn't so much care what anyone says or thinks. A fire plug of a man from eastern Pennsylvania, he has a racing suit that's a little too tight, a budding mullet and a look in his eye that suggests serious business. At 46, all he wants is to live the glory years of a career in which he has knocked around dirt tracks and the ARCA series for 30 years.

"Hey, man, I'm out here racin'," he said. "Call me what you want, this is Nextel Cup. I don't care one bit."

But Shelmerdine bristles at the term, especially considering his part in winning Earnhardt's titles in 1986, '87, '90 and '91 before retiring at age 34 in 1992.

"I really don't like it worth a (expletive)," said Shelmerdine, wearing his team uniform: jeans and a Harley-Davidson jacket. "We've probably worked as hard as the rest of them, if not more on an individual basis. We're here to race and here to win. If I were just here to fill the holes and take their money, I would not be trying to buy better cars and better engines."

Skeptics have decried the field fillers as bad for the image of NASCAR, hucksters throwing junk cars on the track to collect handsome paychecks, but they are likely a symptom, not the problem. With a handful of regular drivers out of work because of a lack of sponsors willing to pay tens of millions to finance a team, NASCAR has come up three to four cars short of a full field of 43 full-time teams in the two races since the Daytona 500.

The image was not helped when 62-year-old Joe Ruttman, who has dabbled in several series, including NASCAR trucks, started the Rockingham race without a crew and was black-flagged before the green flag for not having a crew chief. He banked $54,196. Ruttman, who had no other crew members, contends his crew chief had not reached the pit box. NASCAR requires only that teams have a chief. Ruttman was evasive about his crew for today.

"I think what took place at Rockingham was blown way out of proportion, way too quick because NASCAR overreacted," he said.

Shelmerdine, Belmont and Hillenburg quietly try to distance themselves from Ruttman and 62-year-old journeyman Morgan Shepherd, who started the Las Vegas race last week with one crew member.

NASCAR drivers and officials alike say publicly that the field fillers have a right to race, either out of respect for those who started the sport by towing one car and one motor to tracks around the South, or the fact none of them has interfered with racing despite averaging speeds as much as 20 mph slower than the regulars. As long as they can reach the minimum speed set each week and pass inspection, they're in. Hillenburg, 40, said he has heard one negative comment - he would not say from whom - but that driver's crew later apologized.

"They've done a really good job this year of not racing you or oiling the track down," driver Jamie McMurray said. "But to me, if a guy comes here and tries to run every lap and sets the pit crew up and makes an honest attempt, he's trying. You can't be upset at someone who doesn't have a $10-million sponsor."

Shelmerdine has three full-time employees and three cars in his shop. Belmont has seven full-time workers, two-part-timers, a dozen cars in various states of assembly and a "garage full of junk." He bought MBV Motorsports' old Pontiac bodies when it switched to Chevrolet this season.

Hillenburg's team owner, Stan Hover, has two full-time workers and a bunch of friends who drove from Ohio this weekend to serve as Hillenburg's pit crew for "a thanks and a sandwich."

All of the independent teams buy used parts that moneied teams discard after minimal use, and toil to assemble something that can first pass NASCAR's complicated inspection process, then compete. Leasing an engine can cost from $20,000-$30,000 a weekend. Hover has an engine builder, crafting motors from old parts into what Hillenburg jokingly refers to as "chef's surprise."

Shelmerdine blew an engine eight laps into last week's race at Las Vegas. An annoyance for an established team is a potential season-ending financial incident.

"Prize money pays for some of that, but we have to really, really watch it," he said.

With provisionals running low, the drivers know they soon need to improve in qualifying and racing. Hillenburg, Shelmerdine, Belmont and Ruttman fill out the final four spots in today's race, all on provisionals. Hillenburg's 34th-place finish at Rockingham - which included a 36-second pit stop - is the best performance by an independent this season.

It is and continues to be about pride and a dream. This is just too hard for it to be about quickly spent purses, Hillenburg said.

"If you told me we would run 38th or worse the rest of the season, I would quit right now," Hillenburg said. "Everything we do is a struggle, but I'm proud of this team and when we build this into what we want it to become, then maybe I think they'll start calling us independents again."

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