The view from my couch
Shane Huffman - On Top of His Game
by Cheryl Lauer
August 24, 2005
I've known Shane Huffman a couple of years, mostly just to casually speak to him when I saw him around the racetrack. I've always found him to be an interesting combination of competitive aggression on the track and simply a "regular guy" when he's off the track. Once he recognizes you, he always goes out of his way to speak when he sees you no matter how busy he is or how his race has gone. I find this very refreshing and it has always struck me that Shane definitely hasn't forgotten the basic values taught to him by his parents.
When I recently heard that Shane had worked in a Hickory furniture plant before becoming a full-time racer, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to find out more about his background and what brought the 2003 USAR champion to where he is today.
During the July race weekend at Hickory, Shane took the time between practice and qualifying to spend some time with me, letting me ask questions about his background. Anyone who spends any time with Shane will find that he is quick to to tell you how fortunate he feels he has been throughout his racing career.
He credits his uncle, Carroll Watts (who is also a racer) for getting him interested in racing. When Shane was 15-years old, he took a little bit of money he had earned mowing lawns and borrowed the rest from his Grandmother to buy his first go-cart. Definitely not as young as some drivers we see in race cars today, but still young enough to build a good foundation for future success. Shane raced his go-cart for about four years and then bought a Mini-Stock car in 1994. His uncle raced alongside him from the time he entered the Mini-Stock Division. Shane ran his 4-cylinder Mustang in this division for about a year and then was fortunate enough to meet Phil and Joe Murray, who he says are "some really good people." They gave him the opportunity to move up to the Limited Sportsman Division and run at both his home track in Hickory and nearby Tri-County Speedway as well. In 1995, Shane won three poles, three races, and captured the Rookie of Year title in the Limited Sportsman Division at Hickory.
Shane's next car owner was Mike Lackey, for whom he drove between 1996 and 1999. In their first year together, Shane won an impressive nine poles and 11 races, as well as the Limited Sportsman Championship at Hickory. During this time, Shane actually made his first start in USAR in 1998
In 1999, Shane won the track championship at Hickory and ran in the USAR races at Hickory and Tri-Country that season. During the 1999 season is when Shane quit his "day job" to race full time admitting that it was taking a real chance, but he felt he had to go for it if he ever intended to become a full-time racer.
In 2000, Shane moved up to the USAR series and ran about three-quarters of the races that year. He admits they were underfunded, so in 2001 they "took a step back and revamped." When he returned to USAR in 2001, he got his first win at Coastal Plains Speedway. By this time his team was co-owned by his Uncle Carroll and Rhett Durham, with Durham bringing the sponsorship side of the deal. I'd mentioned that Shane always seemed to have food sponsorships when he was with his # 84 USAR Pro Cup team. He explained that this was because Durham was a food broker and was able to obtain sponsorship through products like Johnsonville Brats and Jennie-O-Turkey.
Armed with some sponsorship help from Johnsonville, Shane made a serious run at the USAR championship in 2001, winning four races along the way. The team had some trouble in the last few races of the year and fell short of their goal to win the championship that year. Unfortunately, in 2002, Shane did not win any races.
2003 saw Shane teaming with Jennie-O-Turkey as his sponsor and winning an impressive seven races and the Southern Division Title. Shane looked to be a shoe-in for the championship that year, but the five championship races came down to a fierce battle between Shane and another driver. Surprisingly, it was not the 2003 Northern Division Champion, Jeff Agnew, but a driver in the Southern Division who actually missed the first three races of the year, Benny Gordon.
Shane and Benny were at the center of all of the action (and a lot of controversy) in the five championship races that year. Both are hard racers and were involved in a few on-track skirmishes. Shane took the victory in the first race at Winchester, Indiana but Benny grabbed the wins at Jennerstown, Pennsylvania and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Just when it was looking like a rookie driver would deny Shane his first championship, Huffman came back strong and won the last two championship races at Jefferson, Georgia and Lakeland, Florida. He not only clinched the championship at Lakeland in the final race, but had to battle three-time series champion, Bobby Gill, for the race win that night.
In 2004, Shane won three races, including the inaugural event at Bristol Motor Speedway. His bid to win a second championship fell a bit short because mechanical woes and accidents caused some inconsistency in his finishes. Adding to a less than championship season, Shane was told at the end of the 2004 season that his current team was going to have close up shop because Durham was unable to secure further sponsorship for them. This left Shane and his team in limbo at the end of 2004.
Just when things were looking pretty dismal, an unexpected source provided some hope. Troy Baird, car owner of 2004 USAR Champion, Clay Rogers, called Shane in December and said, "I have a deal of a lifetime for you!" Shane frankly admits his first thought was "yeah, right.." Then Baird went on to explain the owners of the very successful Knight's Industries were looking to start a race team, and might be interested in having Shane drive for them. When he hung up the phone, Shane thought, "Man, this is too good to be true." After playing telephone tag with Pete and Bud Knight, Shane said he was literally "sitting by the phone waiting for their call" when it finally came on a Thursday afternoon. He went down to Summerville, South Carolina the following Saturday to meet with the Knights in person. They made him feel "real comfortable right off the bat" and that they'd signed a deal within 45 minutes after meeting face-to-face.
After working with Pete and Bud Knight for the past seven months, Shane says they "treat me like part of their family." It's obvious that relationship has paid off because Shane's new #81 team came out of the box strong in February, winning the first two races of the 2005 season and three out of the first four races as well.
When asked how much of his original team came with him to Knights Racing, he explained that his 2005 team includes some crew members who have been with him all the way back to 1995, such as Mike Sigma and Chad Kirby. His crew chief, Rick Eckerd, has been with him since the middle of the 2003 season. They have been able to mesh well with some new crew members joining the team this season. "Everyone has jelled together really well and you couldn't have asked for it to go any better," Shane said. You certainly can't argue with the results as the team has now won seven out of the first eleven Southern Division races in 2005. In the races they didn't win, they were strong contenders, finishing in the top 10 or being caught up in accidents and having only a single engine failure. Shane has also swept both races at Peachstate Speedway, making a drammatic pass for the lead with five laps to go in the most recent race there.
I asked about the interesting race strategies the team has employed to get some of their wins this season. Shane explained, "I think a lot about these races. How to do things. I'm constantly thinking inside the car, trying to strategize and work stuff out. Sometimes, if you make a call, right or wrong, you have to stand by it. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but sometimes it does. It's gone our way this year." Shane is quick to point out that everything they do is a team effort and that his team is always there to stand behind him if he makes a call from the cockpit. An example he gave was, "At Myrtle Beach, I chose to stay out at the lap 173 caution when the team was wanting me to pit. It was a mistake really, because it was a battle to get back to the front. But if we'd have lost, you know, those guys would've still been behind me."
When asked about the smart racing he did at the April Peach State race to save his tires until the end, Shane admitted it was a bit of risk. But with only nine cars on the lead lap, he just kept the leader in his mirror when he dropped back to save his tires. They knew if they didn't get a caution, the plan might backfire, but it didn't and they won the race. Shane went on to say, "I think it has to do with being here a while; knowing these races and learning how to race. Being patient, knowing you don't have to go out there and lead every lap. I think that is where Bobby [Gill] had everybody beat for so long – because he knew how to race. If you look at him, watch him and pay attention to how he does it, eventually you learn. "
"I think right now, I feel like I'm at the top of my game – driving the best I've ever driven and racing the smartest I've ever raced. Of course, I've got the best equipment I've ever had too. It makes a big difference." The results certainly speak for themselves with Shane's seven wins this season and his current 108 point lead over Mark McFarland in the Southern Division.
Despite his confidence, Shane is humble when asked about his aspirations to get into NASCAR at some point. I remembered seeing him run a Busch race at Richmond in 2001. Shane talked about just missing out on an opportunity he had to run a Busch car for Andy Petree in 1999. He actually tested a car for Petree at Memphis, but sponsor concerns had the car owner choosing to put Ken Schrader in the car instead. Shane points out it was the right thing for Petree to do because Schrader sat on the pole at the next race at Phoenix and just about won the race. "It worked out for him. He did the right thing, but I'll always wish I'd had the opportunity."
When asked about whether he tried out for Jack Roush's famous "Gong Show", Shane describes trying out in 2001 about two weeks after they tested Kyle Busch. "They'd pretty much already made their decision on him. Austin Cameron and Sara McCune also tried out, but I ran a lot faster than them. I think timing is everything. They had one spot and they'd signed Kyle." Shane is realistic about opportunities like that now, admitting he thinks his age is one thing that hurts him. (It's really amazing that someone who is only 31 is now considered "too old" by NASCAR standards.)
Shane thinks he's closer now to breaking into a higher level series. By doing things the right way, he feels things are going to happen with his current team. But he is quick to assert he's not going to jump into anything just to get into NASCAR. "I feel right now I've got the best opportunity I've ever had. I'm doing the best that I've ever done as far as driving the cars and the way things are happening. If someone was to call, it would have to be a pretty good deal for me to leave this right now because I'm not gonna walk away from here. I have the BEST opportunity I've ever had here with Pete." He went on to say that Knights Racing is hoping to put Shane in about four Craftsman Truck races next year, and if they find additional sponsorship, they're hoping to run the entire season. Shane pointed out that if the deal with Knights Racing hadn't come together in December and they didn't start working on the team as late as January, they might've been able to run some truck races this year.
If his on-track performance in 2005 wasn't already an indicator, talking to Shane certainly illustrates how much he has matured since his early days racing in USAR. He knows what it takes to win championships. With patience and a strong team behind him, he's got a real shot at becoming a repeat champion in 2005. Shane sums up his partnering with Knights Racing: "It's been a good deal." I'd say that's quite an understatement with the season they've had so far.
Right after my interview with Shane, he backed up everything he'd been saying by going out and winning the race at his hometown track in convincing fashion. He battled side-by-side with Rogers lap after lap and then held off other challengers for the lead after Clay cut a tire. What really made a statement at the end of the race was that Shane stopped at the flag stand and asked for the checkered flag. Instead of doing the childish burnouts that have become the norm in NASCAR lately, Shane waved his winning flag out the window while doing a "Polish Victory Lap" to salute a clearly enthusiastic hometown crowd. In his post-race interview, Shane said "that's how they did it when I was sitting in the stands here twenty years ago." (Remember I said Shane was one driver who didn't forget his roots?)
Shane makes a point of crediting the values his Mom and Dad instilled in him as the guiding principles in his life. Like many USAR drivers, his parents, Rita and Charlie, travel to Shane's races every week to provide support and encouragement. To me, it's quite obvious; they help keep Shane grounded and appreciative of all the opportunities he's gotten along the way. The salute to the crowd shows he definitely has not forgotten that the fans are an important part of this sport. Shane Huffman is at the top of his game by more than just his on-track performance.
Tonight, Shane goes out to try and get back to back wins as the Pro Cup Series runs their annual race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The way his season has gone so far, it seems a real possibilty that he can back up last year's win.
As always, I wish Shane and all the other USAR teams and drivers the best of luck for the remainder of the 2005 season!
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