Keith Simmons, now...
(Above and below) Among the tracks Simmons will promote are Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway a
Simmons found success early fielding dirt-track teams. Here Simmons (far right) celebrat
One of Simmons first moves from dirt to pavement came in fielding ARCA cars, like th
At the start, there were dirt cars. The people involved with dirt-track racing have always been Simmons passion. He built cars for many top dirt drivers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Later Simmons moved into pavement racing, and became recognized as one of the best engine men in the business, having provided power for the likes of Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Kenny Irwin Jr., Davey Allison, Sterling Marlin, and many others.
Now, hes back to dirt again, only in a far different capacity. Hes left the world of Winston Cup to become an owner and promoter of dirt tracks in Iowa. His approach is the same as when he pieces together an engineslow, methodical and, eventually, successful.
Simmons recently sat down with Stock Car Racing to review how his career has taken him full circle, and to describe why he thinks hes hit pay dirt.
SCR: So, where did racing start for you?
Simmons: It all started back with my dad who always took me to all the dirt-track races. He took me, but he really didnt want me to be involved at all. But you know how that goes, so I got a Street Stock type of car together back in 1971. Now, I want to make it clear that I didnt drive the cars. Never have, except for a few mechanics races. But there was no way for me to drive because there was nobody to do my job. My forte has always been to build cars and engines and keep them running.
SCR: Were you successful in this first effort?
Simmons: Yes, we were pretty successful running mostly on tracks in western Illinois and eastern Iowa. But, on occasion, we did step out a little and run at some of the big races. For example, my cars were able to qualify for the feature at the World 100 at Eldora. [Our car] was running as high as fourth one time, but fell back. For the 10 or 11 years I did that, I had a lot of good drivers running for me, including the likes of John Connolly, Tom Matthews, Jim Leverington and Tom Hearst. They made me look good. I probably did the best with Hearst, especially in 1982, when we won the first NASCAR Weekly Racing Series national championship.
SCR: Since you have long been known as an engine man, were you trying to make more power out of engines back in those early dirt days?
Simmons: Yes I was. I guess I was one of the first to do some design work on camshafts, cylinder heads, and intake manifold modifications. I was trying to run higher-ratio rocker arms and produce better air flow. For several years, I had a partnership with Gary Oliver of Tri-City Buggy where, I provided the engines for, and raced his house car.
SCR: So then, I guess it was a change of direction to pavement about this time?
Simmons: Yes. In 1983, I cut back my dirt racing career and got into building Busch Grand National engines. It was about this time that I got into a limited ARCA deal. Bosco Lowe was doing all the driving for me at the time, and he was a talented short-track racer. We did pretty well in ARCA for a couple of years, finishing sixth in the points in 1985. We won our first ARCA race at Cloverleaf Speedway in Ohio. Little did I realize how much more expensive it was with the tires and engines.
Considering the amount of experience I had, and the level of the competition, Im real proud of that accomplishment. It was sure a new deal for me. In 1986, I combined all of my equipment together with that of (ARCA driver) Bob Schacht. We finished fifth in the driver and second in the owner points. We won the St. Louis road course race. I also gave Davey Allison one of his first ARCA rides, and wouldnt you know, he finished second at Talladega. It was during these days that I did it allowner, engine builder, crew chief, truck driver, you name it and I did it.
SCR: You had a turn back to the dirt in the 1987-1988 time period, right?
Simmons: Thats true, but first I managed a team owned by Johnny Johnson, and we ran some Busch Grand National races with Rodney Combs as the driver. Had to give a former dirt driver a chance. Ran the Buick V-6 engines in the cars. Had some engine problems, but we also had some pretty good runs. I only ran half of the Busch races with Johnson, and then got hooked back up on the dirt with Tom Hearst the second half of the season. Tom was out of a ride and I sure didnt want to see a guy with that talent sitting on the sideline. Things really worked out well for us as we won 11 out of 13 races. Nothing seemed to go wrong during that run.
SCR: Didnt you go back to Busch Grand National Series in the late 1980s?
Simmons: Yes. I got together with Jim Jeffries, and we went to Daytona and then ran about half of the season. We had Bobby Dotter driving for us, but we just couldnt seem to get untracked no matter how hard we tried. One of the highlights of the season, though, was that we did sit on the pole at Louisville. But after all the misfortune, we finally decided to hang it up at mid-season. Then, I got hooked up with the Ford Busch team of Ron Neal and Kyle Petty and helped them. At the time, I was working with Robbie Loomis, who is now Jeff Gordons crew chief.
SCR: It was about this time that you got hooked up with Bill Davis, wasnt it?
Simmons: I was able to hook on with Bill Davis because of my Ford experience, his team being the only other team in Busch Grand National that fielded Fords. There I was, a jack-of-all trades, doing just about everything. We had the Carolina Ford Dealers car with Mark Martin driving. Even though the competition was practically all GM, we ran real well, with several wins those two years. We were doing it pretty much on our own at the time. Of course, Mark was also running Winston Cup where he finished third in 1989 and second in 1990.
SCR: So, where does Jeff Gordon fall into this story? Simmons:
That happened the following year (1991), when Bill Davis relocated to North Carolina, and I moved down there to be with him. It was at this time, following persuasion from Ford, that Jeff Gordon came on the scene. I sure had no idea at the time that this kid was going to be what hes ended up being. I knew that he had driven a lot of dirt in open-wheel cars, so we had something in common there. We really clicked working together. That first Busch Grand National season, he won the Rookie of the Year award with three seconds, a third, and 10 Top-10s. In 1992, the Baby Ruth sponsorship came along, along with Ray Evernham, who had earlier worked with Jeff on the Outback Steakhouse Busch car. Things went really well that year, and we set a new record with 11 poles and four second-quick clockings. We finished fourth in the points, with three wins and 22 Top-10s. Then, as is well known, Jeff decided that he would move to the Rick Hendrick operation with Ray going along with him. There were some pretty hard feelings about the situation, and we tried to keep them from going. But, things like that happen in racing; its the way of life.
SCR: So, I guess Bill Davis Racing basically had to start over again for the 1993 season.
Simmons: Things moved pretty well during the transition, and would you believe, we picked up the guy that just won the 2000 Winston Cup championship in Bobby Labonte. Like Jeff, I knew this guy was going to be pretty good, too. There was, of course, a motivation in our team to beat Jeff and Ray in the race for the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, but we ended up in second place. We had an excellent sponsor in Maxwell House Coffee.
SCR: Didnt Bill Davis switch to Pontiac about this time during the 1990s?
Simmons: Thats right. It happened in 1994 when we basically traded all our Ford equipment to Rusty Wallace for his Pontiac stuff. We labored that year with Bobby, only finishing in 21st position in the points. The future was uncertain then, with the loss of Bobby to Joe Gibbs Racing and the loss of our Maxwell House sponsorship, but Bill has come back strong in the years to follow and his proved to be a strong car owner, as the 2000 season proved with Ward Burton.
SCR: So, didnt you move on to Felex Sabates (SABCO) at that time?
Simmons: I parted on good terms with Bill, but I thought that it was the move for me to make at the time. But like everything else Ive done in stock car racing, there were some interesting twists in this tenure, too. Much of the work that I did with SABCO was with both qualifying and restrictor plate engines, along with other duties. I was with SABCO until the end of 2000, but there was one period of nine months (November 1995 to August 1996) that I was away from SABCO. During that time, I worked for two more teamsnamely the Richard Childress and Darrell Waltrip teams. Then Felix contacted me and said that hed like to have me come back to SABCO. I started out working with Kyle Petty, Robbie Gordon, Joe Nemechek, and Wally Dallenbach. Then, in 1998, Sterling Marlin and Jeff Green came along. This past year was really busy, and very sad, with the death of Kenny Irwin Jr., who was running with us that season. I also managed the engine department for two full-time and one part-time Busch Grand National teams.
SCR: So, what pushed you away from Winston Cup racing at the end of last year?
Simmons: Well, circumstances dictated the change. Indy Car owner Chip Ganassi bought controlling interest in the team from Felix, and the word quickly came down that he [Chip] wasnt interested in an in-house engine department. I quickly realized that I was going to be out of the picture in a hurry. There were some opportunities with a couple of other Winston Cup teams, but I decided it was time to make a change in a different direction. So, I looked back to my love of dirt, and my whole world has changed since then. I really think, though, that in view of all the circumstances, that it was the correct move to make. Again, I think that things happen for a reason, and it was as though I had a premonition that something like this might happen.
SCR: What do you mean by that?
Simmons: Well, during the 2000 season I had started negotiations with track owner Al Frieden about buying the assets and promotion rights of Frieden Inc., which involved a number of dirt tracks. Al recently passed away, but we had all the purchase arrangements confirmed before his death. The deal involved my buying Farley Speedway in Farley, Iowa, and assuming the leases at Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway in Dubuque, Iowa, West Liberty Raceway in West Liberty, Iowa, and Davenport Speedway in Davenport, Iowa, the latter which would only see special events run. I also plan to run special events at Pecatonica Illinois Speedway, a track that has been closed for 22 years and has been recently restored by a fair board. They are all half-mile dirt tracksthe same tracks that I ran when I started this long racing adventure. I might run some open wheel races at Pecatonica, but 95 percent of the racing at these tracks will be dirt Late Model Stock cars. Guess you could say that I have made the full circle in my racing career. But I am really happy to be back here. I felt comfortable in Winston Cup, dont get me wrong, but this might be where I really belong. The way Winston Cup is headed, with the schedule increase, I think its become a young mans sport. Im 46 now, and I really dont think I could devote the proper attention to it now. At my age, I think I can use that experience to my advantage, and hopefully be successful in this dirt promotion deal. But all that said, I wouldnt have traded that Winston Cup experience for anything.
SCR: Youve got a couple of young sons. Do they have any indications that they might be interested in a career in racing?
Simmons: You know, my dad never wanted me to get into racing, and he told me so more than one time. Im not going to encourage or discourage racing with my kids. Within reason, Ill let them do their own thing. If they want to get into it, they will have to show me that they have the desire to enter the sport. And I will sure tell them that they really have to want to succeed in this business, and they will never have to work so hard in their lives.