NASCAR driver Bobby Hamilton Jr. escapes from the pressures of racing at his restaurant.
By wire services
Published May 26, 2005
SPRINGFIELD, Tenn. - Bobby Hamilton Jr.'s face beams from photos on every wall.
His life-size cardboard cutout stands at the back, while the neon Tide clock of a Nextel Cup sponsor hangs over a soda fountain. The black and white floor mimics Victory Lane, and the menu featured on the dry-erase board offers down-home Southern cooking.
This is the Courthouse Cafe, Hamilton's restaurant and his escape from the rigors of life on the NASCAR circuit.
"There's no pressure, just your employees," Hamilton said as he sat at the lunch counter. "It's your hangout time."
In his first full Nextel Cup season, Hamilton has needed a sanctuary from the track.
He has the solid backing of PPI Motorsports Inc. boss Cal Wells III, plenty of advice from friend and 2002 champion Tony Stewart and a wealth of experience to tap in his own father, veteran driver Bobby Hamilton.
But that doesn't ease the relentless pressure to qualify high, run strong and finish well each week.
Hamilton hasn't done much of that this year, except for qualifying second at Atlanta and finishing 11th at Las Vegas. Seven times he has qualified 26th or better, yet he's finished 35th or worse in seven races, including four straight 37th-place finishes, leaving him 37th in the points race.
But he finished fifth in the Nextel Open last weekend as part of NASCAR's All-Star event, which he hopes will set him up for a good showing in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 on the same track.
Wells pointed out some of PPI Motorsports Inc.'s struggles have resulted from a personnel problem in the shop that has been fixed, as well as mechanical mistakes and being caught up in at least three wrecks.
It's not what Hamilton expected after five Busch Series victories, including four in 2003.
Stewart has counseled Hamilton that his run of bad luck will change. Hamilton keeps reminding himself that he's still among the best drivers in the world and that everyone's struggling as Hendrick and Roush dominate this season.
With the average age of Nextel Cup drivers skewing younger every year, the 27-year-old Hamilton knows his own window of opportunity is much shorter. That's why he's thinking about his financial future off the track.
Hamilton had been buying up buildings as investments on the town square in Springfield, about 25 miles north of Nashville, when he heard the owner of the Courthouse Cafe might be interested in selling.
"I looked at the incoming and outgoing, and I thought, 'That place is making money. We ought to keep it open and see how long it takes me to run it into the ground.' But it just took off," he said.
Hamilton isn't just lending his celebrity to the restaurant in exchange for a cut of the profits.
He doubled the space by doing the work himself - with the help of his wife, family and friends. He clears tables, washes dishes and talks with customers.
"That's what's kept this place decent. You can come in and see a Nextel Cup driver washing dishes, cleaning floors," Hamilton said.
Running a restaurant is a complicated business that requires constant oversight. Hamilton quickly learned he needed employees he could trust while tracking his costs and haggling with suppliers for the best deal.
But the more time he spent in the restaurant, the more comfortable he felt as a Nextel Cup driver when dealing with both sponsors and fans.
"When fans came up, even at the worst time in the world when you're just furious and running last, all of a sudden you put that face on and you do your deal.... It's also helped with my Cup deal just adjusting to different situations. That's been the cool part," he said.
Earnhardt trial begins
A life insurance company cheated the widow of race car driver Dale Earnhardt out of millions of dollars by refusing to pay up when he died, said her lawyer in the opening statements of a civil trial.
But United of Omaha argued the $3.7-million policy was never in effect because Earnhardt had not taken the required physical before he died in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Richard Childress Racing took out the policy on Earnhardt's behalf and made the first $5,000 premium payment. It received a second bill just two days before Earnhardt died in the last-lap crash Feb. 18, 2001.
John Morrow, lawyer for Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, accused the insurer of failing to properly investigate the claim. But Coles countered that despite the payment, the policy hadn't attached to Earnhardt because he hadn't undergone the physical.
HALL OF FAME BID: Representatives from neighborhood groups, chambers of commerce, local government, private enterprise and the Central Florida Sports Commission are putting the final touches on a proposal to bring the NASCAR Hall of Fame project to the Daytona Beach area.
Officials said the proposal will include a letter of support from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Daytona Beach is vying with several other cities, including Charlotte, N.C., Richmond, Va., and Kansas City, Mo., to be the site of the proposed facility.
The Daytona Beach project, expected to cost $107-million, would be built entirely with private sector funding.