Lajoie not through with record books

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   He is the all-time leading money winner in Busch Series history with over $5 million in earnings, but it's still hard for Randy LaJoie to believe how far he has come from the short tracks of New England.
   "I would never dreamed of all this," said the driver of the No. 7 Kleenex Chevy as he tested Wednesday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "I do have a pretty darned good record. I have fallen off here in the last few years. I used to be fifty percent in the top ten (of races entered). The last few years haven't been as good for me, but I think this year we can have about 25 top tens and if we do that we have a good shot at going for a title."
   Championship runs are an area where LaJoie is an expert with two-time Busch Series titles, 15 career wins and six poles. His last number one start on the circuit came here at BMS when he was still teamed with BACE Motorsports and noted crew chief Steve Bird.
   "I've known "Birdie" since New England days," said LaJoie. "He's from New Hampshire and I'm from Connecticut. When my dad raced modifieds, "Birdie" was around the modified scene. He went to work for Dick Moroso, whom I was good friends with.
   "Then to get with him after they come off a championship season with Johnny Benson and we win two more championships. It's too bad that we never reached the full potential with that race team. It really went 'kaput', because guys weren't paying attention. If you're not at the top of your game, you're going to get beat. That is what happened to us."
   Among LaJoie's victories are two wins in the prestigious season-opener at Daytona. The last Daytona 300 win in 2001 gave some legitimacy to his current race team, owned by Ed Evans.
   "Anytime you build a new race team," said LaJoie. "And to come out of the box with a sponsor like Kleenex that had been in the sport for eight years and give them a win right off the bat, it was a shot in the arm. It might not have been a good omen, because we did struggle the rest of the season.
   "We picked up a win at Memphis, but we lacked the consistency we needed to contend for the title. This year, we are getting more consistent in an effort to win a championship."
   In addition to his Busch Series titles, he also won the Busch North Series Championship back in 1985. Despite all of Randy's accomplishments, he became an afterthought to many in the media when a fresh crop of young stars like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick entered the series.
   "That's the nature of the beast," said the 40-year old driver. "What it did for this series is that the Cup boys have taken over the Busch side. DEI ran Dale, Jr. in that program for two years and you know Dale was going to do all he could to help the kid win the championship. He had double a budget with AC-Delco.
   "Jeff Green won the series with a lot of help from Roush and then Kevin Harvick last year with RCR. Really the Winston Cup programs have upped the level in the Busch Series. We have to come and test or the guys that have Winston Cup ties are going to wear us out."
   He has raced in Winston Cup from time-to-time, but stated a preference for life in the NASCAR's number two tour. "I really enjoy the Busch Series," said LaJoie. "It's been good for me and my family and the style of life that I want. It's just getting farther away financially from the Cup series. You can make four times the money you can over here.
   "I just hope that NASCAR can do something to help the series owners out. They're putting a lot of guys out of business by controlling the TV package money. I just don't understand how you can finish last in a Cup race and make more than you can to win in the Busch race. We're playing to good crowds and have a good TV audience, but we're not getting compensated. They need to diverse the funds a little better."
   That is only one area of frustration for LaJoie with the organization and money. The expense of safety innovations appear to be a burden on the teams instead of NASCAR chipping in with their own funds to make improvements to the facilities.
   "They're not gonna," replied LaJoie when asked about the organization spending money on soft walls and other technology. "The only checks NASCAR likes to sign are the backs. They don't like signing the fronts. They happen to be the only circus in town and it's a darn good circus.
   "But, there are certain times that you would think they could give back, whether it be to the race teams or the sponsors or the fans. Hopefully, we're not burning the fans out by charging more per ticket. The old man Bill France started this organization to help the drivers. It seems like nowadays it's to help NASCAR and not to help what got NASCAR started."
   Besides piloting the No. 7, LaJoie is one of the most active participants in the drive for increased safety, owning a company that sells custom-made seats to his fellow drivers. More of his time last season was devoted to that project than in years past. "I worked hard with GM and Ford last year on a brand new seat," said LaJoie. "I came up with a new seat this year that the NASCAR people have tested.
   "It's by far the strongest, safest aluminum seat built. That's what I'm selling. I know it's better than everybody else's out there. I'm proud of what my company has done, but I'm going to get back to racing this year. I did take some focus away from driving. I'm going back more to driving. That's what pays the bills."