Speed’s still the only one

Published 10:57 pm Monday, July 3, 2006

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — The only Mississippian to win a NASCAR Cup race says it’s going to take someone with initiative and broad appeal to work his way into the sport’s top driving circuit.

“NASCAR’s not going to come looking for somebody from Mississippi,” Jackson native Lake Speed told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

“If there’s somebody in Mississippi that wants to make it, they’re going to have to do some research and do some development and go out there and put a program together.”

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Speed was 32 years old in 1980 when he sold his go-kart business to raise money to start his career.

He says it’ll take that kind of dedication — and a track record of success — for the next driver from the Magnolia State to reach racing’s big leagues.

“If you’re not the top dog at your local track,” Speed said, “you’re never going to get an opportunity to get in there.”

Only a few people from Mississippi have been involved with the sport at its highest level, and there are no Mississippians driving in the Nextel Cup, Busch or Craftsman Truck series.

Gone are the days when drivers had that folksy brand of Southern charm.

Because the sport has grown exponentially through the nation and world, Speed says team owners now are looking for drivers with broad appeal.

“You need to be neutral, middle of the road,” Speed said. “You don’t want to be thought of as high and mighty or your nose stuck up in the air, but you don’t need to be a country bumpkin, either. … There’s drivers out there that can drive the wheels off a car but can’t present themselves.”

Jason Walters, a 27-year-old Clinton native and car chief for the No. 27 Busch Series car driven by David Green, says would-be drivers need money and persistence.

“You want to drive, you’ve got to either have a lot of money or some exceptional talent. And it usually takes money to show that talent,” Walters said. “All I know to do is go to one of those teams and just hound them until they give you a shot.”

It also takes someone with a knack for marketing, Speed said. Speed recently spoke to Jess Williams, a 20-year-old Hickory Flat native who is in his second season of racing in the Super Trucks Division of the Dodge Weekly Racing Series in Nashville.

“The biggest thing I tried to get across to him is, there’s no shortage of race car drivers out there,” Speed said. “But what there’s a shortage of is people who know how to market and drive a car both.

“Companies don’t spend $10-15 million to put their name on the side of a car unless it’s going to make money. It’s an investment for them, it’s not an expense.”