The view from my couch
Clay Rogers: Who Says Opportunity Only Knocks Once?
by Cheryl Lauer
September 30, 2010
Long-time NASCAR fans may remember back in 2001 when Matt Kenseth’s crew chief, Robbie Reiser, gave an opportunity to a talented short-track racer in what was then called the Busch Series. Reiser put 20-year old Clay Rogers in the #17 Visine car to drive the standalone Busch races with Kenseth driving most of the companion events with Winston Cup that season. Prior to this chance in NASCAR, Rogers ran the competitive USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series.
Despite high hopes all around, things didn’t go as expected for Rogers and the team back in 2001, with Visine pulling their sponsorship that fall and forcing the closure of the team. Rogers first chance at “the Big Time” didn’t end well. In 2002, Rogers returned to the USAR Series and since that time has won three championships in the series and in 2010 seems posed to win his fourth championship in 2010.
Since returning to USAR in 2002, Rogers has driven for several different teams, along with running some races in the truck series along the way. His current team in USAR recently announced that they plan to move their team and Rogers to the Truck Series in 2011. Anyone who follows the USAR series will know that Rogers and the #16 Lamb & Robinson Team have proven to be a very powerful combination this season. Clay has had an impressive six wins and six poles in nine regular season races in USAR, but is surprisingly winless through the two Championship races so far.
Based on Rogers’ total dominance in the USAR regular season, it’s really quite surprising to see him winless in the Championship Series. That’s not to say he hasn’t been in the mix and that he currently leads the championship points by 34 points over closest competitor, Caleb Holman. While Rogers and the 16 team have been very competitive, his competitors have definitely stepped up their game for the final five races of the 2010 season.
At the most recent USAR race on September 11th at Bristol Motor Speedway, Clay was kind enough to take some time and sit down and tell me about his racing background and what brought him to where he is today. Through the interview, it became quite apparent that while still only 29 years old, Clay has an impressive history in racing which began at a very young age.
Clay grew up in Mooresville, North Carolina and is proud to say he’s one of the few people originally from a town that has become what Clay calls “the NASCAR Mecca” these days. He got the racing bug when he was very young: “We had “yard carts” that we ran around the yard. A good friend of mine named Ted Hill started racing go-carts competitively when I was seven-years-old, and I went to a couple of his races.” After that, Rogers says he was hooked and started begging and pleading with his Dad to him a go-cart until his father finally gave in and bought him one. In 1988, Clay raced his go-cart in the rookie class at Millbridge Speedway, a dirt track between Mooresville and Salisbury, North Carolina. He ran go-carts there from mid-1988 to 1995 winning two national go-cart championships along the way.
In 1996, Clay moved up to the Allison Legacy Series, which runs smaller “turnkey” stock cars (about three-quarters the size of a normal stock car) and run “crate” engines . In his first year in the Legacy Series, Rogers won the North Carolina State Championship. “It’s kind of funny -Blake Bainbridge ,who used to be my crew chief in USAR, won the national championship in 1996. That’s how we got to be friends - racing against each other.” In 1997, Clay ran the Legacy Series again and also ran a couple of late model stock races at Concord at the end of that year. Concord is pretty much Rogers “home track” and where he went full-time late model racing in 1998 finishing second in points at the track that year. “In 1999, I actually didn’t run the whole year because near the end of the season, I started running some Pro Cup.” Clay made his USAR Pro Cup debut in June of 1999 at Concord: “The day I graduated high school, I ran the 250 lap Pro Cup race and the 150 lap late model race, all on graduation day.” Clays laughed when he said, “I was a tired puppy at the end of the night. I thought I was going to man up and make it to some of the parties, but never made it.”
Clay went on to run three more USAR races in 1999 and then began running the series full-time in 2000. He won four poles that season and got his first win at his Concord in October of 2000. Rogers ran for a family-owned team initially in the # 151 since he ran #51 in late models and then in the #02 in 2000.
When I asked Clay how the opportunity with Reiser Enterprises came about, he said: “That’s actually pretty interesting. A friend of mine worked under Robbie at Roush and he knew they were looking for somebody to drive their Busch car part-time in 2001.” Clay was asked try out for the ride, along with two other drivers: Rodney Childers and Tracy Hines. (Childers now works as crew chief for David Reutimann in the Cup Series.) “Rodney was a good friend of mine who I was teammates with when I ran late models. They took the three of us to Hickory Speedway with the Busch car and tested us in November. It was kind of funny - Rodney and I actually rode together to the test. For whatever reason, they ended up picking me.” The plan was for Clay run 13 Busch races in the #17 Visine car in 2001; mostly at the standalone events away from the Winston Cup Series. At most of the companion events, Kenseth would run the car. Clay’s debut in the Busch Series was in February at Rockingham where he finished 17th. His best finish of the season was a 13th place at Memphis Motorsports Park.
Unfortunately, things for Rogers and the team didn’t work out as they planned. “They were in the second year of their contract with Visine. Around September when the planes hit the towers, Visine said they weren’t coming back and so they put Matt Kenseth in the car full time to try and gain sponsorship for the next season.” Unfortunately, that didn’t work out either and Reiser ended up dissolving the team at the end of the year due to lack of sponsorship.
In 2002, Clay returned to the Pro Cup Series in his family-owned team and ran the Southern Division in the #29 car. That year, he won two poles and got one win at Winchester, Indiana. In 2003, he won the pole and the race at Concord while running part of the season for his family-owned team and part in a car owned by the legendary Haskell Willingham.
In 2004, Clay was offered the opportunity to drive the #44 in the Southern Division for a team owned by Johnny Dangerfield and Troy Baird at East Coast Motorsports. This was a real turning point in Clay’s career as he now had the equipment that seemed to really showcase his talent on a consistent basis. When asked how this came about, Clay said: “They had good equipment and the budget we needed to work with. They had a lot of faith in me and so Bill Boger and I drove down to their offices in South Carolina and told them we had a shop in Concord – to send their stuff up there and we’d win them a championship. And so we did.” On the way to the 2004 Pro Cup championship, Clay got four poles and four wins, with the wins coming at Lakeland, Peach State, Hickory and Southern National.
Clay and East Coast proved a potent combination and achieved a lot between 2004 and 2006, winning their second championship in 2006. Despite their success together, Clay unfortunately again found himself without a ride at the beginning of the 2007 Pro Cup season. “East Coast really wanted to go truck racing and just couldn’t put the sponsorship stuff together. So for some reason they decided if they couldn’t go truck racing, they decided to not race at all. So at the beginning 2007, I started the year just sitting around.”
But in April of that year, Clay got called up to drive a second Bowen Homes car for a team owned by Mike Phelps and David Bowen, “They already had Buckshot Jones in a car in the South and they started running me in the Northern Division.” Getting off to a late start that year, Clay only ran five races with Bowen between April and June of 2007. Using his familiar #29, Clay made the most of the opportunity and won at Peach State Speedway in June of that year. “We’d already missed so many races, we really didn’t have a chance at the points” so the team decided not to compete in the USAR Championship Series. “I got the opportunity to go drive some truck races at the end of the year for Spears Motorsports in the #75 - and then that team shut down at the end of 2007.”
Despite a career with highs such as the two USAR championships in 2004 and 2006, Clay also experienced equal part lows when one by one teams he drove for shut down due to factors beyond his control. Then in 2008 when driver Travis Kittleson and the #54 JCR3 team parted ways, Clay got another opportunity with a strong Pro Cup team. Clay won three poles in 2008 and brought home an exciting win for the team in the inaugural Pro Cup race at Rockingham Speedway. Then in 2009, Clay and the JCR3 team hit their stride, winning five poles and getting an impressive six wins on the way to another championship for Rogers. He won three races in a row during the regular season at Langley, Winchester, and Myrtle Beach, then dominated the Championship series winning three out of the five races at Concord, Rockingham, and South Boston. Unfortunately for Rogers, his success with yet another team proved to be bittersweet, “We won the championship with them in 2009 and then they closed down.” This left Rogers yet again in an off-season where he wasn’t sure where or even if he would be racing in 2010.
Fast-forward to the present and the driver who didn’t know if he’d even have a ride in 2010 has finally found a home with a longtime Pro Cup team, owned by Jim and Jamie Mosley. This dynamic combination has dominated the 2010 season. Clay’s talent coupled with the dedication of the Lamb & Robinson team has placed Rogers in position to win a record-tying fourth series championship in 2010.
When asked how he ended up replacing four-time USAR champion, Bobby Gill, at #16 team, Clay said, “I’d known them for a while. Actually in 2007, when Bobby won the championship, I actually went to some of the races with them when I wasn’t running. I helped them out as set-ups were evolving and we were doing coil-binding stuff. I’d always been pretty good friends with Bob over the years, and so I went along and kind of consulted with them and got to know them a bit. Then over the off-season this year, they decided things were getting stale with Bobby and things weren’t the way they were in the past few years and they decided to make a change. So when I heard Bob wasn’t going to be driving the car, I decided – I hated to do it, but I had to call them. I was sitting there with nothing. So I did call them and drove up there [to Tidewater, Virginia] and met with them. We made a handshake deal that day.”
I remember the first race at Gresham this year listening to Clay and the team the scanner during the very first practice and how surprised I was at the great communication Clay had with the team. I pointed out to Clay how they seemed to hit it off immediately and appeared to be having a lot of fun during his first official practice in the #16 car. I said obviously having worked with the guys before goes a long way towards making things work and Clay said: “Yeah, it does. Most of the operations I’ve been able to be a part of, specially in Pro Cup, were family-owned deals. People like Jim and Jamie Mosley, they race – they do this stuff for fun. And if they aren’t having fun, they aren’t gonna want to do it. So you gotta keep the mood light and have a good time. Everybody’s going to get frustrated at some point, but I feel like a big part of our success this year is because our guys always seem to be smiling and having a good time. Of course, it’s easier to do that when you are running well, which we’ve been very fortunate enough to have that, but it’s been a good time. As long as Jim and Jamie are having fun and going to the race track and competing for wins, there’s no telling how long they will race.”
It’s been quite amazing to see how Rogers never missed a beat when moving to a new team in 2010. For he and the team to be so dominant right out of the box is really a testament to Clay’s versatility and pure talent behind the wheel. I wondered if the technical knowledge Clay gained from working with some of the NASCAR teams in the past might have helped strengthen the Lamb & Robinson program. To me, it just seemed like things really clicked so much better than in the past with Clay’s old team or how the #16 performed with their former driver. Clay explained: “There were some things I have always prided myself on being pretty chassis-smart. And the reason I am is because I know a lot of smart people and I talk to them on a regular basis. I’m always learning. Every week, I’m on the phone, trying to learn. I guess I’ve just had the opportunity to know a lot of smart people in the sport. I’ve grew up in Mooresville – I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve watched it go from a one gas station town to the NASCAR Mecca that it is now. I’m fortunate to get a lot of crossover information, but we took the things that I liked and the things that they did and melded them together. And it’s just been a real pleasant situation.”
I asked Clay if he had a favorite track on the current Pro Cup schedule, and he chucked and said, “I gotta tell you, I’m kind of partial to Rockingham and I love to go there. It’s always fun to come here to Bristol too and I also like Iowa. But Rockingham just seems to bring out something in me. I think it stems back to when I ran my first Nationwide race there and I didn’t fare to too – I mean, I finished 17th, which looking back on it now, wasn’t a terrible finish. But for the competitiveness in that series and it being my first race and all.” meaning he had very high expectations, “I came out of the Pro Cup series winning and I went over there and was a small fish in a big pond. Of course, it was also the first race after Earnhardt got killed, so that was a real emotional weekend for me and I always stayed mad at that racetrack. I feel like every time I go there, I just take it out on the track.” Conversely I wondered which were his least favorite tracks or the ones he found most challenging and he again laughed saying “There’s a big list of those.” I pointed out how he has won at all of the tracks on the current schedule, except for Greenville-Pickens and Clay replied, “I’m definitely not a fan of Greenville. I used to really hate Myrtle Beach. I still don’t like Myrtle Beach - I just happened to figure out how to run there.“ Responding to me pointing out he won there three times there along with several other tracks on which Pro Cup has run, Clay said, “I love Bristol. I don’t like the slower race tracks. I started racing to go fast. That’s what I like doing. That’s what’s fun about coming here [Bristol]. You’re hauling ass. And Rockingham and Iowa and those places. You just don’t get those thrills at Hickory or South Boston or Langley. That’s probably the least fun - there’s nowhere to get away there.”
Discussing how the Lamb & Robinson team plans to go truck racing next season, Clay said, “That was really a decision based on the team’s side between Jim and Jamie - something that they have been wanting to pursue for a while. They are lucky they have great sponsors like USG and Tidewater Interior Products and Building Specialties that stick behind them - through their Lamb and Robinson business. So they have a lot of great relationships there. I guess they are looking for something a little bit different – a new challenge. And I am as well. I’ve been racing in this series for the better part of 10 years. That’s where I want to be. I don’t have visions of grandeur anymore. I know I’m almost 30 years old and I’m not going to be the next Cup superstar.“ I pointed out that years ago, it was easier to break into NASCAR when you were in your 30s because the sponsors weren’t so demanding and drivers were given a chance to get their feet wet. Clay explained, “The Truck Series feels like somewhere you can make a home. That’s not the name of the game in that series. You got mostly veterans wining races in that series. It’s a fun garage to be in. It’s really nothing more than the glorified Pro Cup garage. Everybody over there seems friendly and there’s not all the pressure like you get in the Nationwide or Cup Series garage. And it’s a place where we can go and race and have fun - be competitive and make a living doing it. Being almost 30 now and having a new daughter, 10 months old – that’s how I have to look at it. I’ve always raced for fun - I still race for fun, but it also has to make monetary sense. That’s one advantage I’ve had over the years – I’ve never had to hold down a regular job. I’ve always been able to focus on racing and that’s been a huge advantage. If I was to have to go get a regular job, I really feel like it would take a lot away from how much I could concentrate on learning and getting better.”
I asked if the team planned to run the entire Truck Series in 2011, including Daytona and Clay said, “There are still some details that have to be worked out. That announcement was definitely a bit premature – whoever squeaked to the reporter up there in Chesapeake that put that story out. We know we’ll run 12-15 races for sure, but there are still some meetings on the horizon with some sponsors. I’ve love to sit here and be able to say we could run the whole season, but right now, I don’t see that happening." I pointed out how much more expensive it is to prepare a truck for Daytona and Clay replied, “Exactly! I mean, we’d love to go race at Daytona. We have the capabilities. It’s just monetarily for what you spend to run at Daytona, you can run three other races. We’re looking at that side of it too.”
Now that there are signs that USAR is about to sign a long-term sponsor, would this impact the decision by Clay’s team about going to the Truck Series. Clay said, “That situation – the situation Pro Cup is in right now really has no bearing on why this team wants to go truck racing. We’re perfectly happy racing here. We enjoy the series – we all do - and love it. This was something that they’ve been talking about for years and when we came out of the box as strong as we did, and Jim and Jamie saw how everybody was working together and having a good time and making progress on everything, I think it kind of brought a lot of those ideas to the forefront. And they said, “okay these are the people and this is the driver we need to make that next step.” That really had no bearing with anything inside the series at all."
I asked Clay’s opinion about some other Pro Cup teams who are thinking about going truck racing too, on a very limited basis and whether he thought the possibility of a sponsor for USAR might change their minds. “I think so. Biggest thing you have to keep in mind is that the truck series needs people.” Clay is absolutely right – the Truck Series has actually had a short field a couple of times this season and there are drivers in the field, either starting and parking or who are really over there head running there. Clay seemed to feel this was the right time for some of the very talented racers from Pro Cup to break into the Truck Series, “95% of the people here in this field are good enough behind the wheel to go up there and be competitive as a driver on that level. It’s just a step up from the technology side – on the team’s side, there’s a huge difference. But, we’ll see how some of those guys fare. I’m sure some of them will change their minds if things lead that way [towards Pro Cup getting a title sponsor in 2011]. But as far as our team that had no bearing on it at all.”
Clay’s career statistics in the Pro Cup Series show he is definitely ready to step to a new series and face new challenges. In 159 starts in Pro Cup, he has 32 poles, 29 wins, along with 83 top 5s and 110 top 10s. He’s finished in the top 10 69% of the time. Before the points reset leading into the Championship Series, he had a 267 point lead over second place Logan Ruffin. This was reduced to a 15 point lead after the reset, but with the 34 point lead he currently has over Caleb Holman, Clay is certainly on track to win his fourth USAR championship in the 7 years. That’s pretty impressive any way you look at it. And to accomplish this with three different teams again speaks to Clay’s talent behind the wheel of a race car.
Looking forward to this week’s USAR race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, no one would be surprised if Clay gets back to Victory Lane despite the stiff competition in the Pro Cup Series. Throughout his career, Clay has demonstrated how adaptable he is to not only different teams, different equipment, and new tracks.
I want to thank Clay for his time in sharing his racing history with me. I wish good luck to Clay and the Lamb & Robinson team, along all of the race teams this week at North Wilkesboro and for the remainder of the 2010 USAR season!
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