Tony Stewart probably said it best. The 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion was signing autographs at a grand opening for another Home Depot store. It was midway in the '03 season, and Stewart was still in the hunt for a repeat title. But he wasn't optimistic about his chances.
"It's tough to repeat," he said. "To win a title, so much has to go right. And a lot of those things are nothing a driver has control over, like getting caught in a wreck you had nothing to do with, or like a mechanical failure on a part that just shouldn't break.
"Then you figure it all has to go right two years in a row," he explained. "The odds are really against it."
Yet it happens. It is becoming rare in Nextel Cup, but at local tracks there are some drivers who so dominate their hometown oval that what they can't control in luck they can make up for in skill, familiarity, or consistency. Their houses and shops are filled with trophies, and they emerge as icons among their peers.
Some of the best ones go on to become champions in NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Racing Series. Some are track champions, others win divisional titles, and a few go on to become the nation's top short-track driver.
It isn't all driving skill, says Andy Bozell, who has conquered all comers at Kalamazoo Speedway for the past seven years. It is knowing how to be around at the end of the race, scoring as many points as possible, and being able to wring every ounce of performance out of a car without crossing the line and ending a good run on the outside wall.
Bozell and four other of short-track racing's most successful drivers shared their secrets of what they see as keys to becoming a track champion over and over again.
OK. They didn't share all their secrets. But here are the ones they-and some of the people who have watched them dominate their ovals-were willing to talk about.
Raw PowerBozell won his track titles and the NASCAR national weekly series championship in 1998 in one of racing's toughest classes.
He drives a 2,600-pound Outlaw Modified in a class with no engine rules. You stuff as much power as you can find between the framerails and hang on.
"We run at Kalamazoo Speedway, a 31/48-mile high-banked oval, and we turn 12.5-second laps," he said. "So it's pretty quick."
Bozell likes the track. It is 20 miles from his home, the management is fair, and the track pays a good purse. That's important when you expect a race car to pay for much of its own keep.
"Consistency is the key," he said. "You've got to be on the track at the end to score points."
To do that, you have to recognize when you have the car to win, and you have to keep it underneath you until the checker flag falls.
"We don't dominate the competition," he said. "There are a bunch of cars at the track every weekend that can win."
Bozell says he has won some championships with as few as four wins in a season, and others with as many as seven.
"But we always score points," he said. "Last year our worst finish was Fourth."
He says a driver must recognize when he has a car capable of winning and when the best he can do is finish Third or Fourth.
"You can wreck a lot of cars trying to take a Third place car and force it to First," he said. "If you want to win a championship, you have to look at the larger picture."
Part of that is looking at what other teams are doing.
"I always look a few series up from where we are," said the engineer-by-day. "I look at the latest technology in Cup, Busch, or Craftsman Trucks and study what they are doing and then decide if it is something we can adapt. There are things you can always learn from other teams."
"The guy comes off the trailer ready to race," said Gary Howe, owner of Kalamazoo Speedway. "While a lot of teams are working on their cars in the pits, Andy's crew know what they want to do and have already done it before they arrive at the track.
"They aren't a big-funded team, but they really work well together."
Bozell said he's been able to find and keep a good crew for a long time. "Everyone knows what to do on the car. Everyone has his own job, and we don't worry about them doing it."
"They excel at it," said Howe.
Bozell said his team motto is "You win races in the shop Monday through Friday. You prove it on the weekends."
As a result, Bozell said his record is four DNFs in seven seasons.
"And two of them were crashes," he said. "You can't miss all of them."
Knowing What It TakesRacing success has always been about knowledge. Even back in its moonshiner days, the difference between winning and losing-either on the track or the back roads-is knowing how to get the most out of an engine and chassis.
It's no different today, according to Mark Wertz, two-time regional champion from Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia.
"One of the best investments a new driver can make is to go to a chassis school," he said. "A two- or three-day school is expensive, but it will be the best money a new racer can spend."
Wertz races a NASCAR late-model on pavement and said he reads everything he can find about suspension dynamics and how they apply to a short-track car. He said chassis setup should be the first priority for any new race team.
"You have to know how suspension dynamics work and how things like weight transfer affect a car," he said. "Until you know that, nothing else you do will really make much difference. If you aren't up on your math skills, a driver needs to find someone to work with him who is."
Wertz encourages young drivers to seek advice from those who have been successful at a track.
"But one of the things new drivers do is they listen to everyone," he said. "If they talk to 50 people they get 50 different ideas, and when something works, they won't know which did it."
He said it is critical that one person on the team becomes the crewchief-no crewing by committee-and makes the decisions.
Like most successful drivers, Wertz works at keeping his team intact. They've been together since 1998.
"We get together Tuesday and Thursday nights," he said, "unless we had a catastrophe at the track that requires something special."
He said the work night begins with dinner-he buys-and ends at 10 p.m.
"I want guys to get home to their wives at a decent time, so they get to come back the next night."
Bulldog Tenacity"There are a lot of guys out there who have fast cars," said Ted Christopher, 2001 NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series national champion. "And there are a lot of guys who can drive fast in time trials. But that doesn't make them racers."
That happens on the track, wheel to wheel in the corners.
"I think that's where I'm strongest," he said. "I always focus on the car in front of me. I don't care where I am on the track, I'm always digging to pick up one more place. If there's a mistake new drivers make, it's to get behind a fast car and follow it. You don't pass anyone by following them. You end up taking the checker behind them.
"The key is to see where they run and find a way around them. Make your car handle better than theirs so you can pass them on the inside or outside, wherever you can force them to go."
"He races like it was a chess game," Mark Arute, who operates Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, said of Christopher. "He doesn't make any rash moves on the track. He takes his time, he knows his competitor's moves and anticipates what they'll do."
Christopher doesn't believe in conceding he may have only a Third-Place car some night and not be able to win a race.
"I never go out there saying I will win," he said. "But the only time I have a Third-Place car is when the checker falls and I'm in Third Place. Up until then, I'm trying to get around the car in front of me for Second."
Arute said Christopher "looks two or three cars ahead of his and has his moves planned out before he gets there so he's always progressing through the field."
Arute figures Christopher has an advantage over some of the competitors in that he races all year long in just about anything that has wheels.
Christopher had 20 races in before the end of Daytona Speedweeks and figured he would race in as many as 100 features before the season is over.
"He's tested in USAC Sprint Cars and in an Indy Racing League car," Arute said, "so he has a good feel for what different cars do on the track. It lets him turn a lot of laps."
The track uses a full invert based on winnings, so Christopher usually finds himself digging his way through the field.
"I always figure I'll start at least in 15th spot," Christopher said. "I don't even bother looking."
"It suits his driving style," said Arute. "He's a much better chaser than a leader. He's the kind of guy who is much more likely to pass for the win on the last lap than get out front and dominate an entire race."
Know The Track Ed Kosiski remembers what it was like growing up the son of a racing father.
"We'd go to a track, and even if we won, he'd tell us what we did wrong," he said. "He was always looking for a way to make us better."
Kosiski won the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series championship in 1998, adding the title to more than a dozen track and regional championships he has on Midwestern clay ovals.
If he has a secret, he said, it is his knowledge of the clay and being able to predict how it will change by the time his race group hits the oval.
"It's hard to explain without standing next to the track," he said. "The clay changes color as it gets raced on, and you have to adjust the car to accommodate the change."
Kosiski said he watches the races before his to see where cars are working best, whether or not there is a "cushion" of clay to give the cars a place to run their outside tires, and where on the track the surface has been "raced out."
"And once the race is underway," he added, "a driver has to change his style, because on a dirt track the surface can change almost lap to lap. How you drove at the beginning of the race isn't going to work at the end of it."
That ability to change with the surface comes with lap after lap of practice.
"There's no substitute for seat time," he said.
His dad also insisted that while Ed was learning, he begin at the back of the field.
"He figured you couldn't run out front until you learned to get there," he said. "So we learned to keep our focus on the car in front of us and not worry about the ones behind us."
His team arrives at the track with the same basic setup almost everywhere they go.
"We know what works in most places, so all we have to do is play around with shocks and spring rates. It's all little stuff, but it all adds up. And because we arrive ready to race, we have time for the little things that make the difference."
His advice to novices?
Ask questions. Talk to the drivers who are running well no matter what the track conditions.
"And don't be in a hurry," he said. "You have to be on the track at the end if you want to accumulate any points. I've seen so many guys come out and they can win a race or two every season, but they are so inconsistent that they never end up in a position to win a championship. They give races away because they don't look at the big picture."
Maintain PerspectiveAfter 10 years of driving the same cars on the same track, it should come as no surprise that Bruce Quale has more than his share of victories on Magic Valley Speedwa in Idaho.
"It took some time, but I guess I've learned my way around the place," he said.
"I'm sorta the old guy in the class," he joked. "A lot of the guys I started with have moved up."
With a sealed crate engine, his Grand American Modified is far from the most powerful car in the feature.
"So we put a lot of emphasis on handling," he said. "Our goal is to put the car underneath the competition in the corner. If we can get ahead of them, we can hold them off down the straight. It's only a third of a mile track, so it is the turns where you make the passes."
He came up through the ranks until climbing into a Grand American Modified 10 years ago.
"If I had a secret, that would be it," he said. "I've been in the same class so long that we just know what to do."
At Magic Valley Speedway they invert the top in points and start last week's winner in the back of the main every week.
"Starting in the back most races, I have worked at being patient and smooth at the beginning of the race, looking far ahead to the cars in front, and trying to stay out of the wrecks," he said. "And I try to save the tires and brakes for the later stages. We pay attention to lap times throughout the races, and often my quickest laps of the main event are late in the race when others have slowed down."
While he begins each night with a baseline suspension setup, he's not afraid to change spring and shock settings to get things dialed in correctly.
"We keep a fairly open mind on setup," he said. "Sometimes we do things that are just the opposite of what 'the book' says to do, but for us it works. And if we aren't the fastest car out there during time trials, we don't panic. If we are way off, then we'll begin to worry and begin throwing things at the car to try to figure out why. That is especially the case if we haven't changed the car since we had it out the previous weekend. Then we know something is wrong."
Quale has given up on his dream of making a career in racing.
"We're doing it for fun now," he said. "We try to keep racing in
perspective. So if we aren't having a good time, we sit back and find out why.
"Winning's great, but that's not the only reason to race."
5 Top Tips From 5 Top Drivers1 Be prepared Don't do things at the track that should have been done in the shop. Show up ready to race
2 Respect your crew Work to keep them together and let them know you appreciate their help
3 Know your car and don't race it into the wall Be patient. You can score more points by finishing Third than you can by finishing on the end of a hook
4 There's no substitute for seat time
5 Don't give up handling for horsepower You can have all the power in the world, but it won't do any good if you can't get by the car in front of you