WELCOME, North Carolina — Three months ago, Daniel Hemric competed in the Xfinity Series championship race, driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.
Hemric’s shot at a NASCAR title in his rookie season might not have been possible if not for a 1999 Ford Mustang GT.
The car became his saving grace in early 2006, but it didn’t belong to Hemric, who was weeks away from turning 15 years old.
The owner of the light Atlantic blue car was Tim Ladyga, then a rear tire changer on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car in the Cup Series.
At the time, Hemric was racing Bandoleros, but his career had hit a wall when it came to the financial support of his mother and stepfather, who worked as service writers at a car dealership in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.
“That was really all we were going to be able to do,” Hemric, now 27, told NBC Sports.
That’s where Ladyga came in.
He had been friends with Hemric’s stepfather, Stephen Christopher Woods, when they raced pro stocks in the Northeast in the 1990s at tracks like Connecticut’s Thompson and Stafford Speedways.
When Ladyga moved to North Carolina in 1997, Woods invited him to Concord Speedway to watch a 6-year-old Hemric compete in a go-kart race.
Ladyga thought what he saw was “pretty cool.”
“It just got bigger, bigger and bigger,” says Ladyga. “We watched more and more and more.”
After a while, the family’s interactions trailed off. A few years went by without any contact between them.
Then one night at Millbridge Speedway, a dirt track in Salisbury, North Carolina, they crossed paths again at a go-kart race.
Ladyga spotted someone familiar competing.
“Whose that kid?’” Ladyga asked his wife, Cheryl.
“That’s Christi and Woody’s son, Daniel.”
“The kid in the go-kart back at Concord?” Ladyga responded. “God almighty, look at him.”
Ladyga described Hemric as “winning everything he drove that night.”
His interest in Hemric’s racing career rejuvenated, Ladyga began helping the family on its go-kart and Bandolero endeavors. Eventually, Woods asked him to supervise Hemric at the track one weekend when work got in the way.
“I think he kind of saw what I was doing with what I had,” Hemric says. “I was never going to get the chance to do anything else.”
The duo had a rough go at it their first weekend alone.
“I think something broke every time we went on the race track,” Hemric recalls. “He was miserable, I was miserable. When he left that race, he was like, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to get you a race car.’ At the time, the next step was Legend cars.”
Ladyga brought up the matter to Cheryl.
“We need to buy this kid a Legend car. He’s good,” Ladyga said.
“We ain’t got money for that,” Cheryl responded.
Fueling the Habit
For Ladyga, auto racing is a “drug.”
“Once you get hooked on it, you can’t get out. It’s so, so intense and it’s just something you want to do. Either you do it or you don’t. It’s one or the other. Most people stay and do it. The ones that just get burned out of it never come back, you know.”
Ladyga developed his love of racing from living in a family where an uncle raced stock cars from the 1960s to early ’80s and his dad drag raced near his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut.
Eventually, Ladyga gave racing a shot. He bought a super late model for his uncle to race.
“My uncle drove it for a few races and I was like, ‘Why am I spending all this money for him to race for? Why can’t I race it?’” says Ladyga. “So I raced it. We were probably better off putting somebody else in. I tore it up more than I did good.”
When not racing, Ladyga worked at a tire company, changing tires on tractor trailers and heavy equipment. Eventually, his passion led him in 1995 to go from Connecticut to North Carolina every other weekend to help build and work on his brother’s late model.
Two years later, right after marrying his wife, the couple took two weeks of vacation in Daytona and North Carolina. Their return to Connecticut didn’t last long.
Ladyga informed his bosses he was moving of North Carolina. Four days later, the Ladygas packed a U-Haul and their cars and headed south.
Once in North Carolina, Ladyga set out to get on a national series team.
“In the beginning it’s hard and you just keep beating on doors, beating on doors, beating on doors trying to get a job,” says Ladyga. “I was working with a late model team at first. We off-road raced back with my brother in the ’80s with Walker Evans and Jimmie Johnson and Ivan Stewart and them guys. … We wound up meeting Walker down here and that’s how I got my foot in the door, working for his Truck team.”
By the time Ladyga became involved in Hemric’s racing fortunes a decade later, he had finished his first season with the No. 48 team in the Cup Series after a stint with the No. 31 car at RCR.
Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his racing addiction.
It led to Ladyga one day arriving in front of Hemric’s house in Kannapolis, North Carolina, with a trailer.
In it was a used Legend car he bought with the money from selling his Mustang GT.
“The guy told me it was good, good car,” says Ladyga. “I didn’t know nothing about Legend cars, you know?”
Legend cars are spec vehicles built by U.S. Legend Cars International, based out of Concord, North Carolina. The cars are 5/8-scale fiberglass versions of old NASCAR modifieds.
The car Ladyga rolled out had an engine. It lacked a seat.
“Think you can drive this?” Ladyga asked.
Hemric jumped in the car and took off down the street.
GETTING THE GANG BACK TOGETHER
A decade later, Richard Childress had an important question for Daniel Hemric.
Hemric had been announced as joining RCR in September 2016 after two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series.
Childress asked Hemric who he wanted as his crew chief during his rookie year.
“Right off the top of my head I knew Danny Stockman was my guy,” Hemric said. “Growing up with Austin and Ty (Dillon), I got to know Danny through Austin’s Truck (series) deal …
“As Stockman and I started working together, we knew he was going to be the leader and crew chief of our team. He already knew Ladyga and I’s relationship. He knew where we stood with each other and is as passionate about racing in general.”
At the time, Ladyga had returned to RCR to work as an underneath mechanic on its Cup operation after a tenure at Hendrick that included four straight championships with the No. 48 team.
When Hemric told Ladyga he was coming to RCR, Ladyga didn’t hesitate. He went to the team’s management and told them he wanted to work on Hemric’s car.
“Most guys, if it was their choice, once they get to the Cup level, that’s where they stay,” says Hemric. “Once they get out of that, that’s their retirement, so to say. He was willing and sacrificed everything that entails with taking a step of a tier back to make sure he was a part of our deal.”
In more than 20 years in auto racing, Ladyga had never been seriously injured on the job. He had never missed a race he was supposed to work.
That changed last August.
Around 4:30 p.m. the Friday before the Xfinity race at Road America, Ladyga was driving a zero-turn lawn mower into the back of a truck at home.
While going up aluminum ramps, the deck of the mower hit the tailgate.
The mower turned sideways and flipped off the back of the truck. Ladyga jumped off and landed in the rock filled driveway. The impact broke the femur in his right leg, fractured his hip in six spots and tore his knee up.
Ladyga later told a paramedic they needed to hurry. He had a race to fly to in Wisconsin.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the paramedic responded.
When a nurse entered Ladyga’s hospital room the next morning, they found him in tears.
The nurse asked what was wrong.
“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve missed a race,” Ladyga said.
A rod was placed in his leg. Doctors told him full recovery from his injuries would take six months to a year.
Without Ladyga working on the No. 21, Hemric made his march to the Championship race. As the finale neared, Hemric also lost Stockman, his car chief and an engineer to a four-race suspension for an infraction in the playoffs.
As Hemric progressed in the playoffs, Ladyga was adamant that he wanted to attend the final three races of the season.
His doctors repeatedly nixed the idea.
But three months after his accident, Ladyga made it to Homestead.
“For myself, that was huge to see him,” says Hemric, who finished fourth in the standings after mechanical problems in the race. “I think it was a great motivator for him to get back because he saw how strong we were becoming. To know that having him is just kind of the missing link to kick off 2018 all back as one group, that’s big for me. I’ve been with this guy through just about everything.”
The trip to Florida took a bit out of Ladyga.
“The old leg felt like it was ready to fall off,” he says. “But I made it through the weekend.”
The mechanic exceeded his doctor’s expectations on when he’d be back at work.
With a limp, Ladyga walked back into the RCR shop on Dec. 5.
The two sit at a conference table at RCR’s Welcome, North Carolina, campus two weeks before the start of Hemric’s sophomore Xfinity season.
Having his former Legends owner help put together his Xfinity car every week is “everything” for Hemric.
“I know I have a guy that’s willing and capable of doing anything that needs to be done,” Hemric says. “Ladyga is known, not only through my eyes, but everybody here, to be the first one here and one of the last ones to leave. Capable of doing anything on the race car that needs to be done at any given time. That’s a huge asset, not only from a race team standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. If I need something done, if I’m out of town, no matter what’s happening, he’ll figure out a way to get it done for me.”
As his racing career progressed over the last decade, Hemric says he tried emulating the work ethic and “resilience” Ladyga displays.
“He thrashed and did whatever he could, no matter what it was to provide the best for me or his wife or his race team, whoever he’s working for,” Hemric says. “He constantly gave everything he had.”
Including his car.
“Timmy’s heard me say this for 15 years, is that everything happens for a reason and you just got to have faith that it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to,” Hemric says. “I know that very moment has someway or somehow trickled down to me being here … and I’m thankful for that.”
As for the Mustang? Getting rid of the hot rod doesn’t nag at Ladyga.
“I bought it back a few years ago.”