Davis Heads In Right Direction : Entrepreneur, Driver Sets Goal of Making NASCAR Circuit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Davis seems to have the touch, along with the intense desire to be a successful race car driver. And he's certainly never been lacking in bravado.

He was fired from his first job as a bagger at a grocery store at 16 when he offended a customer. "I just told her she could bag her own bread if she was so worried about getting it crushed," he said, smiling.

Not to worry. He bought a used push mower and started cutting grass in his home town of Indianapolis. Several years later, after he had graduated from Indiana with a degree in business, he had a profitable lawn care and landscaping business with five crews working.

"Some guy walked in one day, and said he wanted to buy my business," Davis said. "I sold it. I had built it up from almost nothing, and that got the financial part of my life going. But I had no idea what the next step was going to be after that."

It turned out to be Southern California, the ownership of a small business that manufactures go-cart wheels, and his own move into auto racing in a big way as a driver. Davis, now 35, was 25 at the time.

The business, located in Anaheim Hills, has done well financially in the last 10 years, and his driving career has progressed at the same time. He has moved through the various types and levels of auto racing. At this point, he's setting his sights on success in stock car racing's big league, the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.

Davis, whose home is in Orange, is racing regularly this season on NASCAR's Winston West tour. It's a rung below the big-money national Winston Cup races, where the cars are faster, the crowds are bigger and many of the top drivers are the Southern good ol' boy legends of racing.

He ranks fifth in the point standings, halfway into the season, and is battling Doug George of Atwater, Calif., for rookie of the year honors. In seven races, he has been in the top 10 five times and finished twice in the top five.

Like the kid who turned a $4 lawn mower bought at a garage sale into a lawn-care business, Davis is an entrepreneur as a racing team leader now. It's still a relatively low-budget operation, and his biggest sponsor is Van-K Engineering, the business he owns.

Davis, who had raced go-carts in Indiana, got into road racing after he moved to California. He drove Formula Fords in 1985 and 1986 and won national events in the Sports Renault class in 1987. In 1988, he started racing Super Vees, which carry the look of the Indianapolis cars but are smaller. In those days, however, Davis raced only as his time allowed, and he always was driving someone else's car.

In 1989, his fourth year into road racing, he bought his own car, a Formula Mazda and made a commitment to drive the full season. He finished third in points and took rookie of the year honors. That set the stage for a move in 1990 to the Indy Lights, still a step below the Indianapolis cars but bigger and quicker than the Super Vees.

"I spent the whole season in that series, but I was always driving for people who were stretching their budgets just to be there," Davis said. "I finished 10th in points, but I felt I could have done better." He also drove one Trans Am race that year and won at Portland, and was on a sixth-place team in the 24-hour Daytona endurance race. He made his first start in a stock car later that season in a Winston West race at El Cajon Speedway.

"I'd never been on an oval in a stock car before," he said. "It was different because you are in continuous contact with the other cars, not the way it was in road racing. It was a good experience and I liked it. After that, people kept pushing me to the stock cars and telling me I needed to be in NASCAR."

He drove in two Winston West races in 1992, and wound up finishing in the top 10 in both of them. By then, he had hooked up with veteran crew chief Rod Pool of Portland. Pool's wide range of contacts on the stock car circuit was a big help, and Pool talked his friends at Roush Racing of Michigan into letting Davis drive one of their older cars in a Winston Cup event at Phoenix later that season.

It was something out of the movie "Days of Thunder," the rookie road racer from California with only token experience in a stock car taking on the sport's biggest names.

"I had never driven Phoenix and never tested there, but I managed to make the show," Davis said. He qualified 39th with a clocking of 121.245 m.p.h. out of a field of 42, ran the whole race and finished 26th. Richard Petty, Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Davey Allison and Dale Earnhart, among others, were his rivals.

"At that point, I got cocky," Davis said. "I was really cranked up after that. I said to myself, 'Hey, we're going Winston Cup racing.' I've always tried to reach a high as I could, and if it worked, fine. And if it didn't . . ."

It didn't. He raced in four more Winston Cup events in 1993, but without the same success. He remembers being left on the bubble in qualifying for two of those races, and didn't make the field for the Phoenix race he had done so well in a year earlier.

"The level of competition had taken a quantum leap from one year to the next," he said. "As far as I was concerned that was my first really disappointing year in auto racing. I had no big sponsor, and you just don't go Winston Cup racing like that anymore." As the opening of the 1994 season neared, Davis faced a big decision: go back on the Winston Cup circuit under-funded or step back for a while and put the 1993 Thunderbird on the Winston West circuit. Davis had driven three times in Winston West races in 1993, finishing in the top 10 each time.

"In the Winston West, the budgets are lower, and we knew we'd be competitive," Davis said. "We knew we'd make all the races and be assured of getting the experience. I didn't want to lose momentum, but we decided that it was the best thing for us to do at that stage. We knew we would also have to refocus our marketing efforts in getting sponsorships for the future, too."

Winston West racing is not inexpensive. The cars cost around $80,000 to build, and they must be updated frequently because of adjustments in NASCAR rules. "One difference is that we have one car ready to race, and the big Winston Cup teams sometimes have as many as eight or nine per driver," Pool said.

There are three opportunities this season for Winston West drivers to move onto the Winston Cup tour. Davis failed to qualify in the first of those three events at Sears Point Raceway near Sonoma earlier in the season.

"We just barely missed it," Pool said. "We were just a fraction out of the field. Our practice time was the 15th fastest, but we made a little mistake on the set-up on the car for the qualifying, and that cost us. The Winston Cup cars are so fast that you can't afford to have anything go wrong."

The next event of that type will be the new Brickyard 400, the first stock car race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on Aug. 6.

"It's going to be bigger than Daytona, the biggest stock car event ever held," Davis said, his words bubbling out. "They've already sold it out, 350,000 plus. It's not realistic to think we can go there and win it. Those Winston Cup teams are too well-funded. But we'll give it our best and see what happens. It will be fun going back home for this kind of event. I've already gotten some special sponsorships for that race from some businesses in Indianapolis."

"I've raced at Indianapolis in the Super Vees right before the 500, at a smaller track," he said. "I think the Speedway track will suit my driving style. It's low-banked and it's more like a road-racing track than the shorter ovals."

Pool is getting the car ready, making sure it meets all the Winston Cup specifications.

Just putting a car on the track at the Speedway will stir some strong emotions for Davis, and perhaps bring the kind of exposure that could add permanent sponsorships.

There could be some anxious moments in the days leading up to the race for more reasons than one. Davis' wife, Alexa, has an Aug. 7 due date for the birth of their first child.

"She's been great about my racing, very supportive," Davis said. "I didn't ever mortgage the house to go racing, but trying to build a career in it does cost money. You just don't get big sponsorships right off the bat. I consider it an investment."

Davis says he's committed now to stock cars, and veteran Winston West driver John Krebs, for one, thinks Davis' future is promising.

"It's just a matter of him learning the book on the other drivers," Krebs said. "He's been learning a lot this season. You can tell that. He's definitely got a career in the stocks, if that's what he wants."

Pool, who has been in auto racing racing since 1963, has confidence in Davis. "I could tell he had what it takes when he drove in that Trans Am race at the Rose Cup in Portland," Pool said. "He got bumped off the track, and I saw him collect it up, and come back and win the race. At this point, what he needs is the exposure and the experience."

Krebs, however, offers a note of caution.

"The Winston Cup series has some of the best drivers in the world," he said. "But they're also drivers with some of the best sponsorship in the world."

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