For North Harford graduate, real life is the pits Viers, other locals break into NASCAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rick Viers was busy tearing down the motor in Harry Gant's No. 33 car after a third-place finish in the Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham Speedway last March when he heard a former classmate from North Harford High hollering to him from across the track fence.

"You really do work for Harry Gant. I didn't believe it."

Viers promptly answered: "You and a lot of other people didn't believe it."

It was a proud moment for Viers. He had backed up his boasts in high school, and one of his classmates was there to see it happen.

Viers, 28, had told his high school classmates that he would either drive race cars or work on them on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit some day.

Viers was only 25 when he became a full-time paid member of Gant's pit crew. He is so firmly entrenched with the Gant team that he, his wife, Margie, and son, Bradley, make their home in Asheville, N.C., which is the site of Gant's garage.

Viers carries the title of mechanic in charge of the left-side tires. Some day he hopes to be a crew chief for Gant or somebody else.

Viers is one of several natives of Maryland and nearby Delaware who play a prominent part behind the scenes every Sunday in the success of top drivers such as Gant, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Ernie Irvan, Ted Musgrave and Hut Stricklin.

Certainly, the good old boys from the South still are most prominent in NASCAR Winston Cup, but Viers is one of many Northerners leading an invasion into their circle.

"Ten years ago, if you came on the scene and said you were from Maryland, the first thing they called you was a Yankee," said Viers. "But there's a different breed of people coming into NASCAR now. The drivers and mechanics are scattered out more across the country than they used to be. You have the Bodines [drivers Geoff and Brett from Chemung, N.Y.], Derrike Cope [from Spanaway, Wash.], Alan Kulwicki [from Greenfield, Wis.] and Ernie Irvan [from Modesto, Calif.]."

This infusion of Northern and Western drivers, many of whom have college degrees, has helped NASCAR fight its longtime image of being something less than a real sport filled with a bunch of beer-drinking, women-chasing men from the South with redneck attitudes.

"The stereotype thinking is that this is a redneck sport with a lot of partying and things going on," said Viers. "But I'm here to say that not many of the people in NASCAR are doing things like that. This is a multimillion-dollar business with race team shops being built in Charlotte that are worth millions of dollars. When people see those sophisticated buildings, they respect us as a ++ legitimate business."

Viers said the entry of Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs as a car owner in NASCAR this year has been a major boost to the sport's image.

"Joe Gibbs is a Christian and I'm a Christian," said Viers. "To me, he sets a good example for the sport. He got into the sport the right way. He contacted Max Helton, chaplain for NASCAR, and Max hooked him up with Interstate Batteries."

Viers is typical of most men who wind up in the pits on Sunday afternoons.

He hung around tracks -- Dover Downs, Richmond, Va., and Pocono, Pa. -- as a youngster and picked up lug nuts as souvenirs and dreamed of being a driver.

He flirted with success on the small-time stock-car circuit for four years and won the track championship at Old Dominion in Manassas, Va., in 1986. But a lack of sponsors prompted him to give up driving for a spot with Gant's pit crew.

"I had an offer from a top car owner like Leo Jackson to work with a great driver like Harry Gant," said Viers. "I was the youngest guy [25] on the team at the time, and I couldn't pass up getting that kind of experience. Now three years later, I have my own home in North Carolina and live a comfortable life. As a driver, the amount of money I made when I won the Old Dominion championship was too sad to tell [it was $1,700]."

There are other intriguing stories from Marylanders in NASCAR.

Tommy Morgan, who has lived in Joppa for most of his life, has been so successful on three different pit crews the past three years that he has been able to buy a second home on Lake Norman, near Charlotte, N.C.

Morgan, 42, was a general mechanic and fabricator (maker of car parts) for Cope when Cope won the Daytona 500 in 1990. He was the crew chief for Jimmy Means last year and now is the general mechanic and fabricator for Musgrave, who finished eighth at Daytona this year.

Morgan never wants for a job because of his 20 years of experience in a racing career that began in the pits at such Maryland dirt tracks as Dorsey and Hagerstown.

Morgan was the crew chief for the Bobby Ballantine team in 1985 when driver Ronnie McBee won 14 of 14 races at Dorsey. Three years later, Morgan got his big break into NASCAR when racing consultant Buddy Parrott hooked him up with driver Eddie Bierschwale.

Unlike most pit crew members, Morgan said he never really wanted to be a driver. He said he got his fill of driving when he raced motorcycles in the late 1960s.

Morgan said he often dreams of a major track being built in Maryland so he could spend more time with his parents.

"I know Gov. Schaefer has visited Charlotte and Talladega to check out their tracks," said Morgan. "I believe the state could support a major track. I come home for Mother's Day and Christmas, but that's about it. My home life is messed up because I'm gone so much. When I was crew chief for Jimmy, I was in the shop five days a week until 10 o'clock [at night] a lot of times and 2 or 3 [a.m.] some times. But there have been a lot of good moments, like my mom and dad seeing me on TV working in the pits and a few hours after a victory when you have time to relax before getting ready for next week."

And there's the saga of Tim White, who is from the small town of Pittsville on the Eastern Shore.

White, 28, has been working for six years without pay for Darrell Waltrip as a gas runner, and wound up on the cover of the Winston Cup Scene magazine standing with Waltrip in victory lane after Waltrip won the Charlotte 600 in 1988.

"With all those big shots around, I was the only one with Darrell in that photo," said White who pays his own way and often drives all night to get to the races within 500 miles of Maryland. "It's something you think about all your life."

It's rare that a volunteer like White spends six years with the same driver. But he said he has no desire to work for anybody else.

White hopes that some day he will be offered a full-time paid position with Waltrip. But until that happens, he will continue to work 40 hours a week building yachts at his primary job and lettering cars as a second job.

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