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Thursday, April 5, 2007
Updated: April 6, 10:17 AM ET
Colorful Sabates always good for a story

By David Newton
ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The roar of driver introductions reverberated through the walls of Reed Sorenson's hauler before last Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, but Felix Sabates wasn't fazed.

Felix Sabates
Felix Sabates has been around NASCAR long enough to know the ins and outs. And to have the stories to prove it.

The minority owner of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was on a roll, talking about everything from the legacy of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. to what he believes is the sad state of the NBA to his plan to retire in five years.

You never know what you're going to get when you sit down with stock car racing's resident Cuban-born owner, but you can bet it's going to be entertaining.

The purpose of this visit was to talk about France , who has struggled with his health the past few years.

Few if anybody in the garage are closer to France than the 65-year-old Sabates, who between fishing trips and disciplinary trips to the NASCAR hauler has spent more time with the son of the sport's founder than anybody the past 20 years.

"I can tell you a million stories about Bill France," Sabates said.

And he will.

He can tell you a million stories about anything, and he'll do it without worrying about who he insults. He's like a breath of fresh air in a garage where the dominant topics the past few months have been the Car of Tomorrow and Dale Earnhardt's contract.

He's so quotable that there's a Web site dedicated entirely to his quotes.

The best of Felix, we'll call it.

Here are a few examples:

A year ago, when NASCAR was deciding between Charlotte and Atlanta for its Hall of Fame location, Sabates said Atlanta never would win because it wasn't safe to walk around the city at dark.

That Atlanta officials were upset with his comment didn't matter.

"Why should I worry?" Sabates said. "It's true."

About the only person that can put Sabates in his place is France , who apparently had a lot of practice at it.

Sabates probably wouldn't be in the sport today if it weren't for France, who at least twice convinced him to stay.

The first time came after Sabates' team had been penalized by former Winston Cup Series director Gary Nelson. Sabates, believing Nelson was unfairly picking on him, wrote a six-page letter to France outlining why he was leaving the sport.

He delivered it to France 's office in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"He took the letter and ripped it into little pieces," Sabates recalled. "He said, 'OK, now what else do you want?' I said, 'Bill, you didn't read my letter.' He said, 'You're not going anywhere.' I said, 'Well, I'm leaving.' He said, 'No you're not.'

"He put his arm around me and said, 'Let's go have lunch.' I had all these speeches planned and all of these things I wanted to say to him and get off of my chest, and we get in the car and go to lunch and that was it."

Another time Sabates tore up his credentials and told France, "I'm out of here."

"That was on a Sunday and on a Wednesday, Bill and I went fishing," Sabates said.

Felix Sabates and Chip Ganassi
Team owners Felix Sabates, center, and Chip Ganassi, right, talk with their newest star, driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

A few days later, France asked Sabates what color his car was for the upcoming race at Dover. Sabates said it was black with silver numbers, exactly like Dale Earnhardt's famous No. 3.

"I figured if Earnhardt can get away with bumping people, why couldn't we?" Sabates said.

To which France told Sabates, "We'll see how it qualifies."

The car qualified 38th, and France spent the rest of the weekend ribbing his good friend.

"I thought he was going to be upset with me," Sabates said. "That was kind of a slap at NASCAR. I did that on purpose, and the press ate it up. We sold almost $300,000 worth of souvenirs on that one car.

"My point was, Bill never got upset with me. He let me get my steam off of me and that was pretty much it. On Sunday, we watched the race on television together."

That might one day be France's legacy in the sport, that he was able to rule with an iron fist but never took things personal.

Sabates isn't sure what his legacy in NASCAR will be. Perhaps as the man that brought motorcoaches into the sport.

"I hope not," Sabates said.

But Sabates doesn't hesitate to remind at every turn that he was the first to show up at Daytona with a motorcoach many years ago. He'll tell you how he took up half the spaces in the small parking lot reserved for drivers and how he put a sign on the door that said, "Thank you for not smoking."

"The only reason to buy an NBA franchise is ego. And I probably did it both times because of ego. I wish I left my ego at home. When I shaved that morning I wish I had put it in a drawer."
-- Felix Sabates

The sign led to another France story.

"He said, 'Who in the [expletive] do you think is sponsoring this series?' " Sabates said. "I said, 'Winston.' He said, 'Why do you have this stupid sign … on the door?'

"I was, 'Well, I don't want people smoking on the bus.' He said, 'Well, that's OK. Do you have an ashtray?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Do you have a Coke can?' I said, 'Yeah.' He popped the Coke, took a swig, lit up a cigarette and said, 'OK, what are we doing about that sign on the door?' "

While France finished the cigarette, Sabates took down the sign.

"But he proved his point in a funny way," Sabates said. "Some other people would have come in raising hell."

Nobody in the garage can tell a story quite like Sabates, whose background lends itself to plenty of stories and his accent gives them color.

He left Cuba as a 16-year-old with nothing and has built an empire that includes the No. 1 yacht building company in America, two Infiniti dealerships, a Hyundai and Mercedes dealership and several other business ventures.

He's played a major role in the Busch Series' expansion into Mexico City and predicts NASCAR will be racing in Europe in a few years.

"There's no question in my mind that we will," he said. "As soon as they build a round track somewhere -- we won't run a road course in Europe -- but as soon as they put a round track somewhere, we'll go there."

Sabates also has been a partner to the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and now Bobcats, but neither has brought him the satisfaction of racing.

"The only reason to buy an NBA franchise is ego," he said. "And I probably did it both times because of ego. I wish I left my ego at home. When I shaved that morning I wish I had put it in a drawer."

Sabates insists there's no profit in the NBA unless you're one of six or seven elite teams, that all he does is write checks for the Bobcats.

He's spent a lot of time cashing checks in NASCAR even though his organization remains second-tier compared to Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

"I know what I sold to Chip for, and if somebody were to buy out Chip today he would have a very nice profit," said Sabates, who sold 80 percent of the organization seven years ago. "… If somebody comes up with 60 million for [my] half of it, he can call it Chip Ganassi Racing with somebody else.

"Just give me my 20 percent and I'll go fishing."

Just make sure Sabates has somebody like France with him. He has too many stories to be left alone.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.