Grease In His Veins

Nascar: Brad Daugherty's Retirement From The Cleveland Cavaliers Opened The Door To A Return To His First Love -- Auto Racing.

April 29, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LORAIN, Ohio -- On warm summer nights in the late 1960s, Brad Daugherty would run outside to watch his dad and uncle race their hot rods down the street in Black Mountain, N.C.

The power of the engines and the squeal of the tires echoing through his hometown in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains left a lifelong impression on Daugherty.

"He's still the biggest hick you'd ever want to meet," said Daugherty's wife, Heidi, laughing knowingly at his childhood memories and considering her husband's latest pursuits.

Daugherty, 31, who retired last year as the Cleveland Cavaliers' all-time leading scorer and rebounder, owns 50 percent of Liberty Racing, which fields a Craftsman Truck team and a Busch Grand National team for driver Kenny Irwin.

When he went into partnership with businessman Jim Herrick this season, Daugherty became the only black owner whose team races full-time in the upper tier of NASCAR.

"Truck racing," Heidi said, sighing. "It just shows you can't take the country out of the boy. Nothing would suit him better. He drives a Ford pickup truck. He has a Mercedes in the garage, but he says it's `too uppity.' He doesn't enjoy driving it. He'd rather be in his pickup truck with Alan Jackson blaring from the tape deck.

"I'm just glad to be rid of the spit cup between the two front seats. To him, that was the accessory -- a paper cup with a paper towel in the bottom."

This is Brad Daugherty -- not the five-time NBA All-Star, but the man who grew up loving race cars.

"I wanted to be a race-car driver when I grew up," he said, folding his lanky, 7-foot body into an office chair in his team's garage outside Cleveland. "I had a passion for being around hot rods. There wasn't any pro basketball or football teams in Carolina in those days, and stock-car racing was what everyone watched and knew a lot about. I just loved racing."

As the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of major-league baseball's color barrier is honored and Tiger Woods' recent victory in the Masters celebrated, Daugherty is making a little history in motor sports.

He broke into it in 1984, when he fielded his own Busch-circuit team on a shoestring while still a student at North Carolina. He was the first black owner racing full-time since the late Wendell Scott, who raced on NASCAR's top circuit from 1961 through 1973.

Daugherty said his father, who died about five years ago, was "tickled" when he first got involved as a race-car owner and was proud when the outfit became the first Busch team to win with a rookie driver, a feat Daugherty's truck team has duplicated this season. His truck team ranks seventh overall this year.

And Daugherty's older brother, Greg, chief executive of an Atlanta company that publishes playbills and other arts-related material, said Brad's involvement in motor racing doesn't surprise anyone who knows him.

"He's participating in an industry that is very good-old-boy, but we grew up around it," Greg said. "We had a lot of good-old-boy friends -- guys who if, in general, you met them, you'd think were basically redneck. So once again we've judged the book by the cover, and we shouldn't."

The Daughertys' hometown, which is about 10 miles from Asheville, was a small community in which racial tensions were low and everyone mixed.

"But when stepping across the color barriers, it's always the first thing one sees," Greg said of the way his brother stands out at the predominantly white NASCAR events.

"[But] once you learn how much he loves and understands that sport, prejudices dissolve and just melt away like anything else.

"We've always kidded him about living in a good-old-boy fantasy. He's always had the boots, the cowboy hat."

Even when he was playing for Dean Smith at North Carolina, Daugherty could be found spending his free time on an oil cloth under his 1977 Firebird or building a motor for a GMC truck in the dorm parking lot.

He said he was a "grease boy," and he apparently has remained unassuming. Richard Childress, best known as the owner of the Winston Cup team of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, but also is the owner of a truck team, said Daugherty has never let his ego show and he takes time to talk to fans and sign autographs.

"Speaking directly of Brad Daugherty, he's a super nice person, No. 1," Childress said. "And I think he can help bring something to the sport."

Like Joe Gibbs, who came to Winston Cup racing after his 1993 retirement as Washington Redskins coach, Daugherty has created interest among non-racing fans.

d,0 Now, Daugherty's involvement is creating interest in new circles. Last February at Daytona, he talked with Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving about getting into racing. Daugherty told him: "Don't be pushed off. If you want to do it, just go ahead and do it."

So Erving and former Baltimore Colts running back Joe Washington are working to form a NASCAR racing team for next season, which would be the only minority-owned squad on the Winston Cup circuit.

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