INDIANAPOLIS — There is no such thing as a dumb question, or so we’re told from the age of 7 by every parent, grandparent, babysitter, schoolteacher and editor we encounter. But every now and again, you’ll hear one that makes your head spin.
Here was young Alex Bowman during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, telling one and all what it’s like to be filling Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s shoes at Hendrick Motorsports, when from the cluster of cameras, notepads and recorders there floated a question — more a collection of words — that went like this:
“Alex, you’re from Tucson. Historically, NASCAR drivers come from the Southeast and there’s been some from California. But being from, you know, such … not off the beaten path, but, like, in Arizona … it’s an obscure place for a NASCAR driver to come from.”
Bowman, as composed a young racer as any you’ll ever meet, had the correct first response, which was to sigh. He is too polite to have followed that sigh with the correct second response, which would have been to marvel that in the year 2018, people still make these kinds of observations.
Putting aside the fact that both J.J. Yeley and Michael McDowell come from Phoenix, and that both have been active in NASCAR for several years — McDowell made 249 Cup Series starts in the last 10 seasons and Yeley has combined 258 Xfinity Series outings with 283 Cup Series starts — this is less a matter of geography than of history.
From the dawn of organized automobile racing, there have been those ambitious individuals who steered their careers toward whatever form of the sport was perceived to be the highest. Bowman, born in 1993, was in a quarter-midget at age 7, and by 2008 he was the national champion in USAC’s Ford Focus midget division. His formative years coincided with the NASCAR boom. Small wonder that he chose to follow the footsteps of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and, yes, Yeley, each of whom traded open-wheelers for stock cars because NASCAR was the biggest of racing’s big leagues.
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But when it came right down to it, Bowman was also following the lead of the great Roger McCluskey, although you’d have had a frustrating time explaining McCluskey to that cub reporter in Charlotte.
McCluskey, too, came out of Tucson, but because he’d had the misfortune — or maybe the good fortune — to be born when teenaged drivers weren’t catapulted into the spotlight, he apprenticed for years on a dirt-track trail stretching west to the Pacific. Winning races with the California Racing Ass’n lifted him toward USAC and by 1962, when he was 32, McCluskey was fighting Parnelli Jones for the national sprint car championship.
Though Jones won that war, McCluskey had five victories to Jones’ four. A year later, McCluskey grabbed a national title of his own. He forever proved his grit by winning another in 1966, the bloody USAC season that sent five sprint car drivers to their graves.
But in his day — a time of Foyt and Andretti and the brothers Unser — Indy cars were the summit of American motorsports, so McCluskey headed there. And in 1973, hustling a year-old McLaren for gentlemanly Lindsey Hopkins, he earned his biggest championship. In retirement, he became one of USAC’s most respected officials.
Cancer took Roger McCluskey in 1993. He never lived to hear that he had come from an “obscure” racing state.
Nor did Bill Cheesbourg, an Indy car journeyman but a giant of the Arizona short-track scene, or the great Indy car mechanics Clint Brawner and Wayne Leary. Then there was Bobby Ball, a star with AAA who died too young, and maybe the ultimate Arizona racer of all, Jimmy Bryan, who stayed too long and paid the price.
Bryan, a giant out of Phoenix, could win anywhere, as evidenced by his score in the 1958 Indianapolis 500. But what he loved most was throttling unruly champ cars through long power-slides on one-mile dirt tracks.
In 1957, at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, he crashed through the wooden fence, slowed just enough to regain control, veered back onto the track and won the race to the delight of his hometown crowd. Thirty months and 2,400 miles removed from that Phoenix glory, the deadliest mile of all, Pennsylvania’s Langhorne Speedway, took Bryan’s life. You can bet anything you own that right now, today, somebody somewhere is telling a Jimmy Bryan story.
And how many thousands of fans across this land have thrilled to Wayne Weiler, Don Davis, Ron Shuman, Leland McSpadden, Danny Drinan, Billy Boat or, lately, Billy’s on-the-gas kid Chad Boat? How many have cheered on a Gary Stanton sprinter or one of Bob Fletcher’s Cobre Tire champ cars?
Arizona, off the beaten path? Yeah, right. Such places barely exist anymore. Hang a map of the United States on your wall, throw a dart with your eyes closed, and it’ll likely poke a hole within an inch or two of some accomplished racer’s hometown.
The real takeaway from that awkward moment on the Charlotte Media Tour wasn’t that a fast kid from Tucson had a top-shelf Cup Series ride, but instead that at least one reporter seemed shocked by that.
Give the last word to Alex Bowman, who wrapped up that long sigh, accommodated his questioner with a brief defense of his home turf, and summed it all up like this: “It’s a cool place to be from.”