|ESPN.com: More Sports||[Print without images]|
|Johanna Long joined the Nationwide Series with little fanfare and modest support.|
NEWTON, Iowa -- Johanna Long was sprawled on the couch in the front of her Nationwide Series hauler at Iowa Speedway this May, disarmed and chatty as her parents sat nearby.
She fidgeted with her phone, perhaps waiting for NASCAR veteran David Green to respond to a question. Her customary spotter wouldn't be at the track that day.
She had just discussed earning respect, being awful at ballet as a little girl and her gratitude for those who had extended themselves to extend her career from Late Model racing back home in Pensacola, Fla., to the second-highest rung on NASCAR. And then there was a lull.
When asked by a reporter if she had ever gone so long -- 20 minutes, 43 seconds to be exact -- without the inevitable Danica Patrick question, her cheeks bunched around that brightening smile, then bent into a wry grin.
"Think you're the first," she said. "I like it."
It's not that Long disdains the former IndyCar star-turned-full-time Nationwide Series driver. It's just that her journey is different from Patrick's. Despite the fact they both happen to be females undertaking their first full -- or in Long's case, almost full -- Nationwide Series schedule, they have little in common in age, background or resources.
Or attention. Long, at 20, 10 years younger than Patrick, has flown under the radar despite becoming the youngest female to start races in two of NASCAR's top three series -- trucks and Nationwide. She has designs on that final step.
"In a dream, I have two years in the Nationwide Series, and I keep that learning curve until I am successful and feel like I have learned a lot," said Long, her black wayfarers pushed back atop her head. "One year, hopefully, I can make it to the Cup series. That's really what I want. It's something I've been working for. It's going to take someone to take some chance on you, and have that sponsorship and have that team. You have to have someone who wants to see you race and someone to see you get there."
Mary-Louise Miller likes simplicity. She doesn't dally with email, preferring a nice office phone. She likes that her ML Motorsports team fields its Nationwide Series team with 20 full-time employees, including pit crew, far off the NASCAR grid. The engines she leases from Earnhardt-Childress, and the chassis from "good friend" Richard Childress' shop, always seem to find their way to Warsaw, Ind., after all. Though her No. 70 Chevrolets still sport logos from the orthopedics company her husband (now retired) founded 35 years ago, they are funded almost completely by the family's personal finances.
But that doesn't mean Miller doesn't dream big dreams -- and Long is at the center of them these days. She knew who Long was before an agent inquired in December about adding the then-19-year-old to her team. After that she filled in any gaps in knowledge with some of her own due diligence.
In summation: In 38 races in 2009, racing in the ASA, Pro Late Models, Pro All Stars Series and ARCA, Long had amassed five wins, 17 top-5s and 27 top-10s. She captured the Blizzard Series title back home and another Florida-Alabama-area championship. And most important, she won the prestigious Snowball Derby Late Models race in December 2010 after finishing her first partial season in the NASCAR Truck series. She had a reputation for patience and a calculated attack, like her bump-and-run on Landon Cassill to win the Snowball. And folks just seemed to gravitate toward her.
"I liked her from the minute I met her," Miller said. "She brings excitement to our team and to NASCAR. She has a sweet, kind, wonderful laugh and smile. She's a Southern belle, but when she gets in the car, her personality changes and she's there to win the race."
Long's mother, Brenda, said Miller "loves Johanna. She believes in Johanna, to give her this opportunity we couldn't have given it to her." Her father, Donald, a former Late Model racer who retired from the cockpit to work on his daughter's cars, likes Miller's measured approach.
"I think realistically when you have someone who is honest about the progress and the goals you're trying to set and they have realistic goals, I think it fits," he said. "I think her fans are a little impatient at times, but I think it will be to the advantage."
|For Johanna Long, being a woman in the same series as Danica Patrick, the questions and comparisons are inevitable.|
The two-year deal Long signed was mutually beneficial, Miller said. Long was afforded a rare season of acclimation to Nationwide after parts of two seasons in trucks without the immediate pressure of worrying about her next ride. Miller captured what she hopes is a rising, popular performer.
"We knew she would be able to succeed in every possible way as a racer, as a human being," Miller said, "and we knew the first year would be maybe a little more of a challenge for her. We felt like the first year would be a learning experience for her as well as us, getting to know her and what she wanted.''
In 13 races this season -- entering the series' second trip to Iowa -- Long is 18th in points, with a best finish of 12th at Daytona in July, and leads six drivers who have contested more races than her. With just eight races left in Long's first season, Miller already is thinking about a possible third year and beyond.
"I certainly do want her to stay," she said. "She is becoming well-known. She is liked. She is sweet. Yes, we would, very much. I can see the whole team going places."
Credibility is currency in racing. It buys time -- the chance to make that first spark of promise take hold. While many young drivers reach the developmental levels of NASCAR's national touring series with hope and family dollars to justify their presence, Long arrived with one of the most coveted trophies in the country (which was good, because the family dollars were running out).
Long made a splash in 2010, when at 18 she became the second female to win the Snowball Derby, beating a field that included Sprint Cup driver David Ragan, David Stremme, Landon Cassill and a bevy of the best short-track veterans in the nation. Her friend, Andrew "Bubba" Pollard, a third-generation racer from Georgia, had one of the grandest views of the spectacle.
"She knew she had a really fast race car and she knew with 10 laps to go she had to get to the front and get there fast, and she did exactly what she needed to do to win the Snowball Derby," said Pollard, who led late but finished 11th that night. "I saw her afterward and we just couldn't say anything. We were just smiling.
"You look at all the great race car drivers that have won the Snowball Derby [including Donnie Allison and Darrell Waltrip], and then there's a lot of great race car drivers who have never won the Snowball Derby and possibly never will, so just to put your name in that elite group is something major."
In the made-for-television conclusion of the story, a team owner with deep pockets and a NASCAR race team would have slipped a business card into her palm as she hoisted the cup and told her parents to give him a call. Maybe he'd even wink. It might have happened as recently as the mid-2000s, when many Sprint Cup teams assembled multi-regimen developmental systems, several hiring females and minorities on the cusp of NASCAR's diversity initiative.
But it didn't happen for Long.
"It's extremely hard," she said. "When I was younger, we were like, 'If we could just win this Snowball Derby, my name is going to be so big and a lot of people are going to notice it.' We got some traction off of it, but it's not like I got any big sponsorships or anything like that. I did get the Nationwide ride, and I'm really happy for the opportunity I've been given. We just have to keep on digging and hope for the sponsors."
Long debuted in the NASCAR Truck series in 2010, ran seven races with Ballew Motorsports and her family's Panhandle Motorsports team and returned for 17 more in 2011, registering an 11th-place finish at Texas. The resources of his asphalt and grading company at a limit, Donald Long was forced to contemplate a retreat to Late Model racing before Miller agreed to sign his daughter.
Pollard, who in 2005 was invited to compete for a job at Roush Fenway Racing on the team's "Driver X" reality show, marvels at the mental composure Long has displayed in earning respect while standing her ground as she enters each new level.
"I can only imagine what Johanna has gone through the last couple years as a female, knowing what I went through mentally in the 'Driver X' show," he said. "The emotions, being nervous, having the confidence to know you can do it. I know it's been tough on her to have the confidence to get going. It definitely is tough when you're in a position and have to perform, but I think she's handled it very well.''
The same can be said of the Patrick comparisons, many foisted upon Long by fans hoping she can serve as some counterbalance to their particular grievance with the polarizing star. Circumstances sometimes thrust them together awkwardly, like when their media availabilities occurred on the same day at Talladega this spring.
Long was reserved, still learning the nuance of open-room sessions, and the media-savvy Patrick arrived in Mardi Gras beads that are the currency of bawdy behavior on the track's raucous campgrounds. Stylistically, it wasn't a fair fight. But it's not one either wants. It's certainly not one Long needs with so many other things to learn.
"She doesn't talk about it much," Pollard said. "We talked about it this weekend at Indy. I don't really want to discuss it. I don't know if I should. But I think she handles it very well. She is who she is, and she hasn't changed from day one, since she started to compete at the NASCAR level. And I told her, we've talked, I told her, 'Be who you are and don't change. Keep doing what you're doing. Let all the media do the talking.' If she runs well, the media will see the outcome."