Bowyer empowered by Emporia

Kansas townsfolk rallied to launch a young star. Now he's doing them proud as a Chase driver.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

Tim Karrick was rushed, juggling cell phone calls and sections of 8-inch pipe bound for a waterline repair, hoping to finish his work before Clint Bowyer rolled back home the next day.

There are fewer returns to Emporia, Kan., since Bowyer became a full-time Nextel Cup driver last season, but they have always been a cause of anticipation. Not for a local made good, but a good kid made good.

The 28-year-old son of a tow truck driver left this burg tucked between Wichita and Kansas City, but took his friends with him in the way he races, the way he conducts himself. He wouldn't have the job at Richard Childress Racing, a spot in the Chase for the Championship and a heralded homecoming at Kansas Speedway today without all that Emporia gave him.

"His dad will come close to annoying you to agree with you," family friend Dick Ross said. "Nobody is better, though, in this community at helping people. I don't know how many jillion people get their cars towed free through some buddy deal with Clint's parents."

Karrick's cell phone beeps. It's Bowyer, checking on the car the 45-year-old racer is preparing.

"See, that's how it goes," Karrick said, laughing. "Clint gets to play, and I still have to work a 40-hour week. No, I'm just kidding. Clint's the best."

Learning to win

Chris Bowyer enjoyed his weekend dirt biking, so it seemed natural when his boys, Andy, Clint and Casey, competed in motocross. Clint, who began at age 5, won more than 200 races. But his father's limited mechanical knowledge was a liability when Clint's interest turned to four-wheel machines at 16. So he began assembling a regiment of friends, townspeople and racers, who initially joined because of their friendship with his father, but stayed on for years because of how much they came to like Clint.

Among them was Ross, a drag racer and truck repair business owner whose skill with motors made him invaluable, and whose fussiness over the appearance of cars instilled the same in Clint.

"We all obviously really liked him and liked working with him," Ross said of the group. "I would have helped anyway if Clint came to me without his dad's involvement, but the way it happened made it easy."

Karrick was 17 years older than Bowyer and trying to forge the same career path when he befriended the Bowyers.

"He not only was a racer at a level Clint wanted to compete at, but he was willing to help a kid out," Chris Bowyer said. "He knew he was going to come up there and beat him sooner or later. He's a guy who had aspirations to do what Clint did, but family and work, it just never happened for him."

"Tim was the man," Clint Bowyer said. "That's how you learn to win, is racing against the best."

Karrick offered Clint advice on driving a car and Chris on building one. Clint learned fast, winning Modified championships at three Kansas tracks by age 21.

Karrick and Bowyer began racing against each other in the NASCAR weekly series in 1999 and Bowyer surpassed his mentor, winning the Midwest championship with crowns in different divisions and two tracks, and was second nationally with 12 wins, nine poles and 32 top-five finishes in 2002.

Karrick, insisting he learned more from Bowyer than he ever taught, deflects his importance. "Clint was just a hell of a shoe and needed some guidance and I didn't guide them much," he said. "I just pointed them in a direction."

That direction was soon straight up.

Speedy climb to Chase

Rain had shortened the 2003 ARCA race at Charlotte, and Bowyer, in his second start in the minor-league series, was helping push his car to the garage.

Childress, who won six titles at NASCAR's highest level with the late Dale Earnhardt, turned abruptly, startling the driver.

"I said, 'Come on guys, let's keep pushing this thing so he can talk business,"' said Karrick, who had come along to change tires.

Childress noticed Bowyer in his first ARCA start at Nashville. That Bowyer had the same sponsor Sonic as Childress' Busch car likely prompted initial curiosity. Bowyer's second-place finish did the rest. Chris Bowyer wrote a letter to RCR soon after the Charlotte chat, inquiring about some used parts but slyly including his son's cell number.

Bowyer's phone rang at work in an Emporia body shop a few weeks later. The next morning his plane lifted off for North Carolina. He waited an agonizing four days knowing Childress was interviewing other prospects.

"He called me," Chris Bowyer chuckled, "said, 'I'm over to his house. He said, 'I've seen stuff you could only dream of seeing, the Earnhardt museum and all.' I think they obviously had a little bit of a connection."

Bowyer signed to split time with Kevin Harvick in a Busch car in 2004, winning his first pole (in his third start) at Talladega. He won twice as a full-time Busch driver in 2005 and made his Cup debut, then became driver of RCR's No. 07 Chevrolet last season, finishing a solid 17th with 11 top-10 finishes.

After being dogged this year as the only winless Chase qualifier, he won his first Cup race at Loudon, N.H., two weeks ago.

This weekend in Kansas, his mother, Jana, continues to beg and barter for enough pit passes for family and friends.

"You just don't know how to describe it, how fortunate we've been," Chris Bowyer said. "So many hundreds and hundreds of people go to North Carolina with a dream and come home with their tail between their legs real quick. Sometimes you wonder how you made it."

Everyone pitched in for a cause they believed in.

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.


Today's race

LifeLock 400, 2 p.m.; (Kansas City) Kansas Speedway; TV/radio: Ch.28; 1010-AM