HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The kid was 10, more limbs than muscle, but it didn’t take the wrestling coach long to see the youth’s potential. He saw the toughness passed down from the kid’s fireman father. The kid was raw, fierce and hard to pin.
One day, the coach told the kid that he needed to wrestle more often in Saturday tournaments. This would help him improve and possibly lead to a college scholarship and the potential for a better life.
The kid missed those tournaments because he raced go karts. The coach didn’t see a future in that so he talked to the father, told the man what the boy could be. The father said if that’s what was needed, they’d curtail the kid’s racing so he could wrestle more often.
As he listened to the men talking, tears welled in Kevin Harvick’s eyes.
Rick McKinney laughs about what he tried to do with Harvick nearly 30 years ago.
“I’m the guy that almost screwed up his whole life,’’ said McKinney, who spent 25 years coaching high school wrestling and is a seventh-grade life sciences teacher in Clovis, Calif. “He could have been making $60,000 a year teaching and coaching someplace instead of being one of the best drivers in the world.’’
Harvick enters this weekend on the cusp of a second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. He’ll race Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the title Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway on NBC.
Only 15 drivers in NASCAR’s history have won more than one Cup championship. The last three drivers to have won at least back-to-back titles had the surname Johnson, Gordon or Earnhardt.
Harvick is in this position because of a determination harnessed from his wrestling days in Bakersfield, Calif. Alone on the mat against an opponent, a competitor can either wilt or face the challenge. McKinney steered Harvick through those years, forming a bond that remains between coach and athlete.
“At that particular point in your life, you don’t really know how much you can get out of yourself and you don’t know about that competitive nature that you have inside of yourself,’’ Harvick said of his high school days.
“I think that (wrestling) taught me how to push myself. It instills this different type of mentality that is instilled in your brain when you go through those day‑to‑day wrestling practices and the meets and the matches and the intensity and the days where you just drag yourself out of the room and have to go to class. It’s a hard, hard sport. Those were four of the best years that I’ve probably ever spent in my life in learning about myself.’’
McKinney admits he often tested Harvick on the wrestling mat. Instead of matching Harvick with someone closer to his weight – Harvick notes he weighed about 86 pounds as a freshman – McKinney put Harvick with a heavier teammate in practice at times. Harvick was told he couldn’t stop until he had taken down his opponent. Other drills included the wrestlers starting on their back and told not to get pinned.
Less than 72 hours before his championship quest, Harvick smiled at the memory of completing those drills on a sweat-slicked mat in a sweltering wrestling room.
Harvick also relishes the slogans McKinney repeated. One that McKinney often preached to his team was that “You can’t be Clark Kent when you practice and expect to be Superman and win. Be Superman all the time.’’
A few years back, McKinney was with Harvick at Auto Club Speedway. They talked about putting forth a full effort each time, and McKinney asked Harvick if he recalled one of the team’s slogans. Harvick responded: “Be Superman all the time.’’
Tony Stewart sees Harvick’s focus and determination — not just as an owner or a friend but as a competitor.
So fierce is Harvick on the track that a duel eight years ago remains fresh with Stewart. It was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Harvick led with less than 20 laps to go. Stewart had the faster car – at one point he got on his radio and said “here kitty, kitty, kitty” – but couldn’t get by.
Stewart pounced when Harvick left a lane low with 10 laps to go entering Turn 1. Harvick responded. He slipped underneath Stewart in Turn 2. They hit and drag-raced down the five-eighths of a mile backstretch before Stewart pulled ahead and went on to win and climb the fence back when he did that.
Stewart likens Harvick’s resolve inside the car to a pair of former champions.
“Kind of compare it as a cross between Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte,’’ Stewart said, noting drivers who combined to win nine championships and 98 Sprint Cup races.
“It’s a scenario where you’ve got a guy that the circumstances don’t rattle him. It doesn’t matter what the task is ahead. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had pit strategy that’s got him in the back. It just doesn’t faze him, and it’s easy to rattle guys, but he’s just someone that has that calm, cool nature like Terry Labonte had, but he’s got that aggressive nature like Dale Sr. had, as well, and he’s got a good blend of both that makes him so tough.’’
And dominant. In an era of close competition, Harvick has finished first or second 36.6 percent of the time since last season. To put that into perspective, consider that Truex has scored a top-10 finish in 38 percent of the races during that same time.
Harvick says another key is that he also has learned to better control his emotions in the car. He was known to berate his pit crew on the radio at Richard Childress Racing. While there have been ups and downs since joining Stewart-Haas Racing before last year (crew chief Rodney Childers replaced the pit crew before last year’s Chase and transmission woes had plagued the team this season before a change in brands last week), Harvick has maintained better composure.
“When I came to Stewart‑Haas, I wanted that perception to go away,’’ Harvick said. “I wanted those past moments and radio conversations and things that happened at RCR, I wanted those things to not happen at SHR. That was definitely one of my goals, and yelling at Rodney, who is the calmest, quietest guy in the world, is not going to be very beneficial because it’s just not his demeanor and how he acts towards things. So I think Rodney’s demeanor really helps me.’’
Earlier this week, McKinney emailed Harvick, offering words of advice, including the slogan about being Superman.
They communicate often. Harvick noted that McKinney wrote him before the Dover race in the Chase when Harvick had to win to keep his title hopes alive.
What Harvick had to go through at Dover was just what he had done many times before in wrestling. No place to hide, challenge in front, either get it or be beat.
“I can remember being dead tired, many a times getting my ass whipped in the middle of a wrestling match and (McKinney) looking over between periods and whatever he would say and come back and win the match,’’ Harvick said. “He had that way of saying things to you to say, ‘All right, I can do this,’ and just to motivate you to do things that you might not otherwise have been capable of doing.’’
There’s no more coaching left for McKinney this weekend. He’s imparted the knowledge and infused it with motivational sayings. Now, it’s time for the driver who still calls McKinney “Coach” to take those lessons, combine it with his experiences, and go race for another championship.