Photo: Daniel McFadin

Daniel Hemric’s journey to Xfinity Series aided by loyal mechanic

Leave a comment

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.

Daniel Hemric celebrates a 2014 Legend win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a car owned by Tim Ladyga. (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

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.”

Daniel Hemric drives his No. 21 Chevrolet during Championship weekend last November at Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

SIDELINED

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.

YEAR TWO

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.”

 and on Facebook

Richard Childress Racing names crew chief for No. 21 Xfinity car

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that Andy Street has been promoted to crew chief for the No. 21 Xfinity car that will feature drivers Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala this season.

Street has been with RCR for 16 years. He joined the team as a design and test engineer. He served as an engineer in Cup, scoring 10 wins with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Most recently, Street’s role was as an engineer in the Xfinity Series. His duties included R&D work as a design engineer specializing on chassis and suspension systems.

“Andy is a brilliant design engineer, who has spent a lot of time and effort at RCR over the past 16 years,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition, in a statement from the team. “When Andy stepped into the Xfinity Series crew chief role in Richmond Raceway last fall, I was very impressed with how he went about the weekend running and leading the race team. He proved he is worthy of this role. He’ll be the perfect complement to both Justin Alexander and Randall Burnett because of his engineering background and having worked with both of these guys on the R&D side of the company.”

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
Leave a comment

One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
1 Comment

Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

Follow @JerryBonkowski