St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

NASCAR loses its teacher

Engine builder Randy Dorton gave his students friendship and the knowledge to build winning teams.

BRANT JAMES
Published October 31, 2004

HAMPTON, Ga. - Randy Dorton was not stingy with his genius or his friendship.

It's hard to tell which will be missed more, but it explains why Dorton's influence is felt so deeply inside the NASCAR community, why the relationships he built remain as powerful as the engine programs he created for five Hendrick Motorsports Winston Cup champions.

Maybe Dorton, who died last week in a plane crash, was so free with his technical vision because he was so far ahead of everyone. Maybe he was just a good friend. But the Nextel Cup garage is filled with people who shared bonds with the 50-year-old Dorton they assumed no one else had.

"When you needed him outside of racing, he was your best friend," said Richie Gilmore, a Dorton disciple who became head engine builder, then director of motorsports at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "There was nothing you couldn't call him to talk about. We became rivals, but any time I got in a bind, he was there for me. We had gotten really tight like we used to be."

Grieving friends and counterparts continue to grapple with how to remember Dorton, killed with nine others mostly affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. But they will honor him today in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 in ways they might not realize.

A car with Dorton's engine-building imprint will win. Guaranteed. It won't require a Hendrick driver. Dorton's proteges work for more than half the 43-car field, and his methods permeate the rest.

Said former engine builder and current team owner Robert Yates: "He created the most feared, most respected organization in NASCAR."

And the most copied.

Gilmore worked under Dorton at Hendrick for eight years - rooming with him for two - and was the assistant engine builder on Terry Labonte's 1996 championship team. When Gilmore left for DEI in 1998, he took Dorton's knowledge and eventually 30 of his employees, 11 of whom worked directly with Dorton. Gilmore's engines helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip win 11 of 16 restrictor-plate races since 2001. Another former Dorton protege, Mark Cronquist, is Joe Gibbs Racing's head engine builder.

"We're all students of Randy Dorton," Gilmore said. "The DEI engine program is laid from what Randy did. He's got two students on the board of everything that comes into the sport from General Motors."

Ray Evernham, who won three titles as Jeff Gordon's crew chief, carried Dorton's methods with him when he established Dodge's program. Doug Yates has patterned his team's shop after Dorton's.

But the blueprint is not all parts and wires.

"Randy was a genius mechanically, but he had something special with people, too," Evernham said. "He was a guy who after a race would spend the flight home reading to my son and things like that instead of worrying about what we had to do tomorrow."

Dorton always contended there was no secret to his success, simply organization and a collection of dedicated workers. He fostered loyalty in those employees who would have worked 14-hour days if he had asked, but Dorton ingrained in his proteges a desire to go full out from 8 to 5, then give the same effort at home.

"He was a guy that always had a plan," Gilmore said. "If "A' didn't work, you went to "B' and then you went home to your family because they were as important as the job."

Hendrick drivers such as Gordon and Jimmie Johnson always assume they have the best engines. So do many of their competitors, which has led many teams to lease Hendrick engines.

Dorton said before the Talladega fall race, "You hate to see something you put so much time into go up in smoke," but they often have on a team that has won 128 races in 20 years of Cup competition.

"When I won my first race in Fontana (Calif., in 2002), I was in the middle of a burnout. I could hear somebody over the radio saying, "Easy on that thing, take it easy,' " Johnson said. "I kept going and threw all the rods out of the side of the engine ... and just destroyed this engine. The first person I saw when I came in Victory Lane was Randy, and this thing was dripping oil everywhere. I felt horrible."

Dorton didn't confine his loyalties to team boundaries, either with friendship or technical advice.

"Randy and I didn't trade secrets people would be mad about," said Yates, whose daughter introduced Dorton to his wife, Dianne. "I'd call him. I wouldn't call him out in front of everyone, but I'd call him and he'd answer."

The Dortons became friends with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle and their wives, but Biffle didn't know how good of friends until after Dorton's death.

Dorton's widow told Biffle: "He really cared about you. He said he couldn't talk about you at work because he worked for Hendrick, but he always had his eye on you and was watching you like you were one of the cars he worked on."

But really, he worked on them all.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.