You might be shocked by the number of race fans who want to talk to me about their street cars. And I'm not talking about "I heard you have a Corvette, I have one too. Aren't they awesome?" I mean guys (and some gals) who get me cornered, wanting advice on what aftermarket headers they should get for their Mustangs. At an autograph session last year, I had an old dude who had left work to drive across town -- with his hands still dirty -- just to ask me what kind of spark plugs I thought he should run in his old Dodge pickup. Lucky for those folks, I like to talk about that stuff. However, in the NASCAR garage, I'm part of an increasing minority.
Don't get me wrong: We have plenty of drivers who could take apart their own cars, or yours, and put them back together. But we also have an embarrassingly large group of guys who couldn't change their own oil if they had to. They might not even be able to change the air freshener hanging off the rearview mirror. And I'm talking about guys who have won a lot of races.
How can that be, you ask? Well, there are two reasons. First, being a great mechanic doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot with the race cars we drive every weekend. Those machines are created by engineers, not grease monkeys.
These days the keys to speed have less to do with shocks and springs -- physical stuff I can fix with my hands. Sure, there's still a little room out there for what we refer to as "redneck engineering," but today's NASCAR is more and more about data gathered at the wind tunnel by aerodynamicists or chassis construction based on geometry calculated by a table full of guys at their laptops. We'll go do a midweek test session and I'll run some laps, then walk over to the eggheads (with their PCs plugged up to the car) and go, "Those felt good. What do you guys think?" They don't even look up. And when I try to talk to my engine tuners about motor stuff, it sounds like they're speaking Portuguese, so I just nod and try to act like I know what they're saying.
This disconnect between drivers and their cars is only getting worse. Racing has become more of an engineers' sport, and the newer generations of drivers don't know much about cars and don't really care -- they just get in and drive 'em. If it doesn't work, these guys don't know how to ask for what they need to fix it; they've never been underneath a car on a rollback, and they don't even bother to guess. They just get on the radio and whine like they always have: "I can't drive this piece of crap! Fix it!"
As a result, the gap between drivers and crews is growing larger with each passing year too. Just recently I was watching an old Winston Cup race on ESPN Classic, and there was a big wreck. They showed a shot of the garage with all these crews thrashing on their cars, and there were Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant in there with them, working shoulder-to-shoulder. I was so damn jealous watching that.
So what does an old garage rat do when he can't work on his own race car? I fiddle with my cars at home. Every driver I hang out with, the real car guys, have a personal shop with some rides they tinker with all the time—mostly classic stuff. Some of them bought old Ford coupes, the kind that Junior Johnson used to run moonshine with, but a lot of us have cars that you might think were nothing, like a 1980s Jeep Wrangler or a generic-looking Chevy Cavalier. If you look under the hoods, though, we've got them up-fitted with enough technology to make Vin Diesel and Paul Walker cry.
We all have at least one crazy-nice street ride that was a gift from a sponsor or our team's car manufacturer for winning certain races or a championship. And no, sometimes I don't understand all the electronics in those rides any more than I do the engineering in my race car. But I sure know how to find its limits. You may have noticed that while none of us publicly condoned what Kyle Busch did back in May -- driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone -- not one of us said we'd never done it. If I'd had that car, a $375,000, 552-horsepower Lexus LFA, I would've had to test her out too. Let's see an engineer do that.
Driver X is a NASCAR star. This is his second column in a series of unfiltered looks into the lives of professional athletes.