All eyes will be on Elliott Sadler in 2003 as he moves from Wood Brothers Racing to debut the No. 38 M&M's Ford of Robert Yates Racing. Sadler took time recently to discuss his career move, and proposed an interesting way for drivers to settle their differences.
"I didn't want to be the person responsible for the Wood brothers losing their sponsor and maybe having to get out of racing."
SCR: Was it difficult to go to Eddie and Len Wood early in 2002 and tell them you wanted out of your contract with Wood Brothers Racing?
Sadler: That's by far the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, and by far the most difficult minute of my life when I took the time to tell Eddie at the airport in California, because they're just such great people. But I felt it was something I needed to do. I thought long and hard about it, but when the time came to make that decision--to actually go through with it--it was very tough internally.
SCR: How long did you agonize over that decision before you finally went through with it?
Sadler: A few months, and then, finally, I wanted to save a sinking ship. We weren't running like we should have, and I was scared of Motorcraft pulling out and leaving the Wood brothers without a sponsor. I didn't want to be the person responsible for the Wood brothers losing their sponsor and maybe having to get out of racing. So I decided to step forward and ask for my release. Maybe it would give me some chances to go other places and also give them a chance to find a great driver for this race team.
SCR: It's almost like you single-handedly set Silly Season in motion. Were you surprised by the frenzy you triggered in the sport when you asked out of your contract?
Sadler: I didn't know there were that many people paying attention to what was going on with my life and my career, but it got really hectic. Some of it was fun. I got to meet a lot of great people, a lot of great owners and sponsors. By meeting with some of the business managers, I really got to see the way a lot of different race teams are run and how they work. It was pretty neat, a good experience. There were some hard decisions to be made. When you've got friends involved with different race teams, it makes it tough sometimes, but it all worked out great.
SCR: How did you hook up with M&M's? How did that deal transpire?
Sadler: Robert (Yates) called me and said he had a deal with a sponsor and wanted me to meet with these guys to do an interview deal and see if they liked me and if I fit in with what they were looking for. I can't remember exactly what race it was, but I had a meeting with Robert, Doug (Yates), and the M&M's people and just had a two-hour pow-wow on what could've, should've, or might happen in the future. I got a phone call a few days later saying they wanted to do the deal and we actually signed on the same day, M&M's and I did. So it was a pretty special day for all of us.
SCR: The rumor was that you were shopping around a sponsor. So apparently, it wasn't M&M's.
Sadler: No, I didn't have any sponsors at all with me. That was one of the things that bothered me the most about Silly Season. Everybody was really hitting it on the head. The media was doing a good job on what was going on--other than that I had a sponsor with me. If I had a sponsor with me I would have given it to my brother (Hermie) so he could run the full season. That would mean more to me than anything. But as far as my having anything with me, that never happened. That never came true or even was a possibility.
SCR: So Robert initiated the contact?
Sadler: When he heard that I had asked for my release, of course, he knew and everybody else knew then that I was available. We started talking and thought that this might work or that might work, and I went to Dale Jarrett and asked him would he mind or would he give me his blessing if I came over there to be his teammate. I asked him if he thought it would work and could we work together, and he said yeah. Robert and I kept talking and kept talking and it seemed like everything just fell right into place. I've made a lot of good friends over there so far, and I'm looking forward to racing with them.
SCR: What appealed to you most about Robert Yates Racing?
Sadler: The biggest deal was how sincere he was when he was talking to me, Robert himself. When a car owner will sit there and tell you, "Hey, we're just going to try to out-work everybody else to stay ahead of the game," that really makes me feel good. And their engine program is second to none. That's something they take pride in, something they work hard at. Also, Fatback's (Michael McSwain's) attitude was a big part in it, how much he loves racing. Probably the biggest deal I really liked was Dale Jarrett as a teammate. He's a great guy, somebody I've always looked up to, and I think we're going to be great teammates together.
SCR: Given everything you experienced this year, do you ever look back and wish the sport were simpler, like back in the '90s when you were running at South Boston Speedway in Virginia?
Sadler: Yeah, this sport is definitely different. In the last five years it has grown so fast and times are changing so quick, it seems like every week there's something new that you need to be running on your car just to make it run fast. It's just a steady change in pace. It's very fast paced off the track as well as on the track. Yes, it was a lot easier running South Boston in the '90s, but you just have to keep up with the times.
SCR: What will you have to accomplish in 2003 before you consider it a success with Yates?
Sadler: We need to finish in the Top 10 in points, and I need to win some races. That's for my first year there. That's a championship contending team. Ricky (Rudd) has won a race in that car every year he's been over there and has led a ton of laps. Coming in there, I need to lead some races and run up front. I think we can do that. It's going to happen, but that's what we need to do to feel like we've done our job our first year together.
SCR: Given all that's gone on, with you and Ricky Rudd essentially trading rides, what's your relationship with Ricky like?
Sadler: It's been fine. Business as usual. Ricky and I have always been friends and never had a cross word to say to each other about anything. I feel like I hit a home run with my deal, and I definitely feel like the Wood brothers hit a home run with Ricky. Eddie was the first person I called when I was going to sign my deal with Robert, and I think I was one of the first people he called when he got his deal done with Ricky. That's the kind of respect we have for each other. I think Ricky is going to help this program a lot with his experience. He's used to running his own team when he owned a single-car team, and I think the experience he's going to bring to this team is going to help these guys a lot.
SCR: Finish this statement: If I were Mike Helton, I would ...
Sadler: Knock down the bankings at Talladega and Daytona so everybody will quit crying about restrictor plate racing.
SCR: So you think that's the best solution?
Sadler: I don't know. I wouldn't want to be Mike Helton for all the money in the world. He's got the toughest job in racing. He's got 43 different owners and 43 different drivers pulling him in so many directions it's hard to make everybody happy, but he does a great job pacifying us. I tell you, he is definitely the right man for the job.
SCR: You made a perfect helmet toss at Ryan Newman's car during The Winston this year, blaming him for a crash that took you out of the race. Have you and Ryan mended fences since then?
Sadler: Oh yeah. I was mad at him for what he did because we tore up a good race car and it shouldn't have been torn up. I was really upset about that because the guys work so hard in the shop to put these things together. We've talked since then and everything is fine and we haven't had a minute's trouble since then. It was just a heat-of-the-moment deal. I probably should not have done it but it was The Winston, with a lot of money on the line, and it's for the fans, so I thought the fans might get a kick out of it.
SCR: Would you like to see the helmet toss become part of the pre-race show?
Sadler: Yeah, I think I can throw a helmet a right good ways, or throw it pretty hard, so I might have a chance to win something like that.
SCR: You were pretty accurate too.
Sadler: I played baseball all through my whole life and I play softball now. I thought if I didn't throw it like I was supposed to, they might kick me off the softball team.
SCR: Are you NASCAR's biggest wrestling fan?
Sadler: Oh yeah. I probably know a lot more about wrestling than some of the other guys in the garage. I do a lot of stuff backstage with them and know the guys on a personal level. I think that gives me the inside track on what's going on in wrestling.
SCR: Any similarities between NASCAR and the WWE?
Sadler: I think sometimes after some of these short-track races we ought to set up a wrestling ring and let everybody go at it instead of throwing helmets and booties and hand gestures and stuff like that. Just let the fans stay there, set up a ring in the middle of the track, and let us go at it.
SCR: Would you rather wrestle Ward Burton or Jimmy Spencer?
Sadler: I would like to try Jimmy Spencer. I like Ward. He's from Virginia. I probably could toss him around a little easier, but I would like to try Jimmy. He's a big boy, and I would like to get him in there and see what he's got.
SCR: You mentioned baseball. Did you play any other sports in high school?
Sadler: I played baseball, basketball, football, cross-country, golf, and soccer. I played all those in high school.
SCR: Did you follow racing closely while growing up?
Sadler: Yes. I had three uncles who raced. My dad raced. My brother raced. I've got five first cousins who race now. We always followed racing. I used to go to Richmond and buy tickets just like everybody else. I used to go to Rockingham, used to go to Martinsville, used to go to North Wilkesboro. There were a lot of different places we used to go to watch the races. I was a big fan long before I was able to participate in this sport.
SCR: Who was your favorite driver?
Sadler: I liked Cale Yarborough growing up, and I liked Sam Ard a ton in the Sportsman Division, what is now the Busch Series. I was a huge, huge Sam Ard fan.
SCR: What current or former driver do you try to mold yourself after?
Sadler: I have all the respect in the world for everybody who drives in NASCAR, but the guy I really like emulating the most is D.J. (Dale Jarrett). What he does off the track and the type of personality he has and what he stands for and the way he's represented this sport is second to none. If there's anybody I would try to mold myself after, it would be him.
SCR: And the whole world awaits the answer to this one: What's your favorite color M&M?
Sadler: I like the green one right now. The green one, she's looking pretty good. Back when I was growing up, if you had a green M&M you were supposed to hit a home run, so green has always been my favorite.
SCR: I hear there's a new M&M's paint scheme on tap for next year.
Sadler: They've got some pretty cool paint schemes lined up for next year. I think everybody is going to enjoy them. They've done some cool stuff with the characters on the car, and I think everybody is going to get a pretty good kick out of it.
SCR: Look for a green No. 38, I take it?
Sadler: It looks good.
Bio Name: Elliott Sadler
Hometown: Emporia, Virginia
Resides: Emporia, Virginia
Marital Status: Single
Will drive M&M's No. 38 Ford of Robert Yates Racing in 2003; driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for four seasons, 1999-2002; returned Wood Brothers Racing to Victory Lane with win at Bristol in 2001; five-time winner in Busch Series; former track champion at South Boston Speedway in Virginia.