by Bobby Markos
When one studies the history of NASCAR, it is easy to gravitate to names like Petty, Pearson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson. Their names hover towards the top of the “all-time wins” and championships lists, and their accomplishments set the bar each new generation of drivers strive for. But, for every superstar, there has been a field full of racers whose success can be measured in different quantities. And while their “numbers” may not equate to those of the sport’s greatest, their dedication, time and energy made up the fabric of NASCAR’s lineage.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has found an unlikely hero in this week’s guest, Jimmy Means. A humble Sportsman driver from Huntsville, Alabama, Means arrived on the NASCAR Cup scene in 1976, and was a fixture in the series for almost 20 years, making 455 starts in the process. Dale Jr. first laid eyes on Means at a Cup race he attended with his father at North Wilkesboro Speedway in the mid-80s. He was captivated by the contrast he saw in Means’ independently run team versus the bigger Cup organizations of the time. During their interview, Jr reflects on how he admired that Means and his team had to work harder to keep their car on track. Ever since that moment, he was tuned into Means' career.
The conversation also talks about Dale Jr.’s friendship with Means’ son Brad and their upbringing on the weekly Cup circuit. Listeners are given insight to life on an independent team, as Dale recalled stories of finding the bigger team’s leftover equipment in the garages and salvaging it for Means’ racing efforts. Means also talks about the independent teams’ cost-saving measures, such as sharing crew members, hotel rooms and borrowing cars.
One of the highlights of the episode is tale of the 1987 Oakwood Homes 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Means had the opportunity to fill in for a sidelined Tim Richmond in the Hendricks Motorsports Folgers #25. All those close to the situation knew this was the chance of a lifetime for Means, with endless possibilities coming from a solid finish in the prestigious car. But misfortune would strike, and rest was lost in “what might have been”. Dale Jr. and Means take us back to that day and deliberate what went wrong and what could have been different, as well as what that day meant for Means’ future.
The exchange covers Means’ teenage discovery of racing and post-driver’s seat career, and all the years in between. Listeners can expect a look into racing like never before.
Also this week, Dale Jr. shares his impressions of the Cup Series’ first trip back to Road America since 1956, the lengthy caution periods and what he’d like to change about the stage racing system. He also fills us in on his new 1966 Nova Wagon project, as well as a hilarious story involving a fire detector mishap. During “Ask Jr”, Dale weighs in on his road course mentor, the best rivalry is motorsports and some insight into the making of “Lost Speedways” season two.
Additional reading about our guest:
While on his paper route at the age of 13, Means saw a program from Huntsville Speedway while collecting from a subscriber’s home. He knew then, he wanted to be a race driver. Upon graduating, Means found himself at the very speedway that piqued his interest, and within a couple years escalated from the cadet division to the flourishing NASCAR Sportsman scene.
Means proved to be a scrappy prospect in the series, even having a dust-up with legend Red Farmer to win his first Sportsman feature at Birmingham Speedway. But, after a couple of years of weekly competition, Means stamped his passport to the big time with a couple of track championships in 1974 at Huntsville and the famous Nashville Fairgrounds.
The next stop would be Daytona, where Means would make a couple attempts at the Sportsman Permatex 300 race. After serious crashes in back to back years, Means decided he would not attempt Daytona again unless it was in a Cup ride. This opportunity came in 1976, when he made his Cup debut driving for Bill Gray. While his finish in the race was unremarkable due to an engine failure, it started a long career of 455 starts, that featured 17 top-10 finishes and a career-high points campaign of 11th place.
During Speedweeks of 1994, Means witnessed two tragedies that brought him to the conclusion of his driving career. He promptly put Brad Teague in his car for the race, and his career as a car owner began, a role that he still fills today.