Setzer and his No. 46 Morgan-Dollar Motorsports teammates are front-runners in the Truck S
Sometimes the road to success can be long, but for Truck Series veteran Dennis Setzer, the first stop on the journey to a successful driving career was just a stone's throw away from his home in the small town of Newton, North Carolina.
Like many drivers from his generation, Setzer, 44, began his racing career competing in local Late Model and Sportsman divisions on small-town tracks scattered throughout the Southeast. Ironically, though, his boyhood dreams of racing weren't fueled behind the wheel of a stock car, but on the back of a motorcycle.
"I grew up about a mile and a half from Hickory Motor Speedway, and as soon as I got my dirt bike at 9 or 10 years old, the first thing I did was start making trails to the speedway," Setzer recalls with a laugh.
Billed as The World's Most Famous Short Track, Hickory Motor Speedway (HMS) is the oldest continually operating motor speedway in the country and was a regular stop on the NASCAR Busch Series schedule from 1982 to 1998. Legendary drivers Harry Gant, Dale Earnhardt, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Isaac, and others have competed there over the years.
Growing up in the shadow of HMS, Setzer was exposed to many of NASCAR's most famous drivers, but it was through his dad, Jerry, that Setzer's passion for racing developed at a young age.
"My dad raced a little bit in the lower divisions at Hickory and a couple of tracks close by, but we always went to the races whether he could afford it or not," says Setzer. "He was a furniture worker and he didn't take a lot away from the family to go racing, but he enjoyed it very much."
Setzer has his sights set on a Truck Series title.
Setzer's desire to race grew increasingly stronger by the time he reached high school, and with the purchase of his first car at age 17, he was well on his way.
"When I was in school, at 17 years old, me and a group of guys got together and built an old Street Stock car and started racing that thing," says Setzer. "We would go to school all day, work a part-time job in the evening, and then work on the car all night, so basically, school was sleeping time for me."
Setzer's dad continued to support his son's dreams of racing and even served as chief mechanic and driver for their hauler while the two raced the local short-track circuits across North Carolina.
"He was right there when I was 16 and 17 years old and all the way up through my later years," says Setzer. "He'd be underneath that car with me putting transmissions in and helping buy some tires and stuff for those Street Stock cars I tried to own myself. He was right there by my side.
"I would say along about the mid- to late '80s I got an opportunity to drive for Ed Hall from Raleigh, North Carolina, who is Bobby Isaac's brother-in-law. My dad and I would both take off work on Friday, drive to Raleigh and race Friday night, drive back home after the race in Raleigh, and get back in the van and go back to Asheboro Speedway on Saturday morning and race Caraway Speedway on Saturday night. So my dad spent a lot of time with me on the road helping me get around different places and supporting me any way he could."
Racing is not cheap, and Setzer, who continued to work a full-time job, soon realized he needed to pursue other options if he wanted to further his career.
"I started catching rides with different people," recalls Setzer, "and I got a little bit of local sponsorship with a good friend of mine, Terry Shook, from The Jewelry Exchange, and that worked out a little while.
"I met and started dating my future wife [Darla] at that time. Her brother, Jerry Fox, had always owned race cars, and he and a group of guys out of Taylorsville, North Carolina, and myself started racing in 1982 and still had a car together in 1996. I raced many, many years with those people, and any opportunities I've had in racing are directly because of those people who helped me out originally."
By the early '90s, Setzer had made a name for himself in the Late Model and Sportsman divisions along the East Coast, recording seven track championships at four different tracks while also venturing into the Busch Series with a total of six starts from 1991 to 1993.
Setzer's calm demeanor is an asset inside his Chevy truck on race day.
But after a disappointing end to the '93 season, Setzer decided it was time to make a change and nearly walked away from a full-time racing career for good. "In 1993 we almost won the national championship for the Winston Racing Series, and my wife and I had been married 10 years at that time," Setzer explains. "I decided that it was going to be my last year of hard-core, full-time racing because I had never raced full time to make a living.
"My wife had never said anything, and she put off having kids this long, so we decided about that time that it was maybe time for us to start a family, and so I decided I was going to cut back my racing drastically." The Setzers now have a son, Brandon, age 11.
Ironically, around the same time Setzer was thinking of scaling back his involvement in racing, he got the break-or the call-he was looking for. "About that time," recalls Setzer, "Alliance Tractor Trailer Training Centers with the No. 59 car called, and Robert Pressley had decided to go Winston Cup racing and they needed a Busch driver. Terry Shook and Marlin Wrights and some other people in racing suggested my name, and [from then on] it was just a dream come true."
Setzer went on to make his Busch Series debut in impressive fashion during his first full season in 1994. He finished Ninth in the final point standings and came away with two wins, one at South Boston Speedway in Virginia and the other in an emotional win at his home track, Hickory Motor Speedway. "Oh man, that was unbelievable right there," says Setzer.
"We'd just come off a win at South Boston a couple of weeks before that-and in my rookie year in the Busch Series. I think at that time nobody had won two races in their rookie year and that was a pretty big deal."
A victory at Charlotte helped propel Setzer to the top of the series points standings in m
Setzer persevered through sponsorship and financial woes over the next couple of seasons in the Busch Series but managed to keep racing. He made his first start in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1995 while still running in the Busch Series on a limited basis, and continued to race in both series over the next three years while also competing in seven Winston Cup races in 1998.
During the '98 season, Setzer received another break in his career after he was asked to fill in for owner/ driver Bob Keselowski of the No. 29 K-Automotive Truck Series team. Keselowski was injured at the time, and Setzer replaced him behind the wheel for 13 races.
Setzer took advantage of the opportunity and raced his way to six Top 10 finishes and one Top 5-a win in the Dodge California Truck Stop 300 at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, California.
Those results earned him a full-time ride with Keselowski the following season, and Setzer quickly went about proving that season wasn't a fluke, finishing Third in the final points standings in 1999 with 19 Top 10s, 11 Top 5s, and three wins.
Despite a Seventh Place finish in the point standings in 2000, it wasn't enough to keep the K-Automotive team afloat, and a lack of sponsorship forced Setzer to look for other opportunities.
As fate would have it, David Dollar and Charles and Rob Morgan, the owners of the Oklahoma-based Morgan-Dollar Motorsports team, were looking for a driver to take over the seat of their fledgling Craftsman Truck Series ride after Rob Morgan, who drove the No. 46 for the first three seasons, decided to step aside.
"We were sitting in a minivan in Dover, Delaware, literally discussing drivers we should approach for the next season when we got a tap on the windshield," explains Dollar. "I rolled the window down and it was Dennis Setzer. He said, 'Hey, I heard you guys may be looking for a driver.' I said we were and he said, 'Well, I think I might be interested,' because, unfortunately, the Keselowski's were losing their Mopar sponsorship.
"Dennis was high on our list, but with us being an unproven race team from Oklahoma and things like this, we thought that maybe we needed to set our goals a little lower. But Dennis wanted to see what the opportunities were, so we spent quite a bit of time together, and I'm just so thankful that a man of his caliber and skills took a chance on a young ownership group and a team based in Oklahoma. It's just unbelievable."
Crewchief Danny Gill and Setzer are opposites, says team co-owner David Dollar.
Though the team experienced growing pains, the success of Setzer and Morgan-Dollar proved unmistakable in their first season together. Despite a switch from Ford to Chevrolet, the team managed a Top 10 finish in the points its first year while also recording the team's first win.
"We were very excited but we felt like we had the potential to do better," says Setzer, and better is exactly what they did. Setzer finished Ninth in points during his first season with Morgan-Dollar Motorsports in 2001, and moved up three spots to Sixth in 2002. He then posted his best career finish in the Truck Series with a runner-up finish to Truck Series Champion Travis Kvapil in 2003. Setzer, who says his team has its best equipment and facilities ever, has spent several weeks this season atop the points standings.
A large part of Setzer's success on the track can be attributed to his calm and cool demeanor behind the wheel, but the communication and chemistry between him and crewchief Danny Gill has also proven to be a vital part of Morgan-Dollar's success.
"Well, its definitely a unique one," says Dollar of the relationship between Setzer and Gill. "Dennis is calm, cool, and collected on the track, and off the track through all the testing and everything, he never gets frustrated. Danny, on the other hand, is just so fiercely competitive, which most crewchiefs are. They get really wound up. It's like the old adage that opposites attract. You take Danny's spirit and enthusiasm and high-strung lineage, and you match that with the old 'Cool Hand Luke' in Dennis, and they make a perfect couple."
Gill, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native, started working with Setzer in 2001 about four or five races into the season before leaving at the end of the year for personal reasons. Gill rejoined six or seven races into the '02 season and has served as crewchief for Setzer since.
Together the two have proven to be one of the best driver/crewchief combinations in the Truck Series with the results to back it up, including a series-high 23 Top 10 finishes in 2003 and a series record of 20 consecutive Top 10 finishes. Their success, like with most championship-caliber teams, is a direct result of their communication and willingness to work together.
"I think every day we challenge one another to be better," says Gill. "It just seems to work between us and I don't know why, but we definitely do have a good chemistry. He's worked with other crewchiefs and I've worked with other drivers, and we didn't find that same chemistry. We've worked for other owners and didn't find that chemistry, so we've had a good thing going over the past few years."
An equal part of Morgan-Dollar's success over the past three seasons, according to Gill, stems from Setzer's leadership off the track. "I think it's just his personality and the fact that he's genuine," Gill explains. "He walks around the shop (in Statesville, North Carolina, 20 minutes from Setzer's home) and talks to each individual as an individual. He talks to them about their families, and that motivates them to want to try harder for him. But the thing is, he doesn't do it for that reason. He just does it because he actually does care how your family is or how you're doing that day. He's a really genuine person, and that's a huge asset. Then you bolt him behind the wheel and he's probably one of the best there is out there.
"Now when he gets behind the wheel-I wouldn't want to have to run against him-he's a very aggressive race car driver, and he doesn't miss anything whatsoever on that racetrack. He's out to get every position no matter what it takes, and he doesn't mind rubbing. When he climbs out, he's your best friend in the world. On the radio, he doesn't ever come across that he's upset or get caught up in the emotion, and that keeps him level-headed and able to take advantage of situations. He's really a unique person."
A journeyman of sorts for most of his career, Setzer has found a home in the Craftsman Truck Series after years of earning his stripes and paying his dues. He's finished in the Top 10 in the final Truck Series points standings five consecutive times since his first full season in 1999 and plans to continue racing in the series as long as he's competitive.
Although he's enjoyed a considerable amount of success in the series, Setzer says the possibility of another stint in the Busch Series or even Nextel Cup has crossed his mind-and he wouldn't rule out the right opportunity-but he's perfectly content racing trucks.
"I don't have ambitions to go anywhere else," says Setzer. "I would like to keep excelling in this series, and I think that's just worked better every year."