SOUTH BOSTON, Va. – The reminders are there, subtle hints of what is possible. All one has to do is look up.
Yet, there isn’t always time to take a break in the infield at South Boston Speedway. The search for speed rarely rests. There’s a part to inspect, an idea to ponder or tweak to make to the car.
But in those scarce free moments for drivers parked along the frontstretch pits, they can look up, scan the crowd and its multi-colored shirts, some representing their favorite drivers, and see the grandstand sections named for competitors who once raced at this 4/10-mile track before going on to greater acclaim.
Denny Hamlin became the latest driver to have a portion of grandstands at South Boston named for him, joining Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, Southern 500 champion Jeff Burton and others.
The honor was bestowed upon Hamlin when he returned to the track to host the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown (A one-hour recap of the event airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN). The Late Model charity race ended with a dramatic finish and NASCAR placing one driver on probation for his actions after the checkered flag waved.
Late Model racing remains special to Hamlin and so does this track. Growing up in Chesterfield, Va., outside Richmond, Va., Hamlin would join his father about once a summer for trips to South Boston. When Hamlin moved into Late Model racing, he began to run at this track.
At this level, the driver is a part of the crew. They’re expected to work on the car, push it to inspection and do much of what any other crew member would do – unlike in the Sprint Cup Series where crew members rarely let drivers work on the car.
Winnings can be small. Money often goes back into making the car go fast with maybe a little left for a post-midnight trip to Waffle House.
South Boston Speedways marks the fulcrum of Hamlin’s career. It was here late one season while standing in line to register for that night’s race that car owner Jim Dean overheard Hamlin say that this race likely would be Hamlin’s last. Hamlin’s family no longer could afford to support his racing. Dean spoke to Hamlin briefly, starting a series of events that led to Hamlin’s sudden rise to the Sprint Cup Series.
“I remember calling my mom real quick, ‘Hey can you print up some kind of resume or something?’ ‘’ Hamlin recalls. “I remember handing it to him, and I remember racing probably my worst Late Model race. I’m thinking so much for that opportunity, blew that, but, lo and behold, he called me on Tuesday and said him and his driver had a disagreement and my opportunity was going to be driving his car the following week at Myrtle Beach.’’
Once Hamlin reached NASCAR’s top stage – where he’s won 25 Cup races, including a Southern 500 – he looked for a way to connect to his racing roots. At the same time, Tony Stewart was running his charity race at Eldora Speedway’s dirt track.
“I didn’t grow up on dirt, and I knew that there were several of us that didn’t grow up on dirt,’’ Hamlin said of his idea to run a Late Model charity race.
“I remember I used to live for the big Late Model race at Martinsville, and I always wanted to host a race like that that was one of the highlights to the local guys’ season. Martinsville is still the top of the line. I hope over time, with more sponsors, of course, grow the purse and make the field even tougher to get into and be that pinnacle event that I used to look forward to when I was running Late Models myself.’’
Each time Hamlin returns, the task becomes harder to win. He’s won once in eight years of the event. Twice Late Model regulars have won.
“Any of the guys here are definitely deserving of being in the top three series,’’ said Timothy Peters, 2004 track champion who has won eight Camping World Truck races, including at Daytona.
C.E. Falk, a Late Model regular, beat Hamlin in a door-banging final lap to win this event in 2010.
“If you were to write fairy tales for a living, that’s how it would go, David beat Goliath type of thing,’’ Falk said of his win against Hamlin when the event was at Hamlin’s home track, Southside Speedway.
Late Model regular Matt Bowling won this event in 2014, beating a field that included Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Hamlin. That win carried through the rest of the season for Bowling.
“Everybody got their confidence back up, me especially, and let me know I could do it,’’ he said.
While this race is a chance to recapture the roots for those who have reached NASCAR’s top ranks, for Late Model drivers it’s a chance to show that they deserve a chance even if they don’t have the financial backing of others.
“The opportunity and the window is almost shut for those guys,’’ Peters said. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of people that believed in me and financed me to help me get there. Everybody wants to be a Truck, Xfinity and Cup driver and it’s very hard to get there regardless of the talent that you may have. That’s what’s so frustrating at times.’’
Hamlin worries about those who don’t get the opportunity he did. He didn’t bring sponsorship money. He just had talent. That’s often not enough these days.
“I think the competition has gotten better,’’ Hamlin said of Late Model racing, “but it’s just trying to convince these teams owner to go out and find the next talent.’’
That driver is there, whether at South Boston or some other track. It’s just a matter of getting the chance Hamlin did.