Bristol special tie for Bazemore

By Jeff Birchfield

   For most race fans, Jeff Byrd is simply known as the President of Bristol Motor Speedway. For NHRA Funny Car star Whit Bazemore, Byrd is the person he credits for having a racing career.
   Bazemore was the teenage son of an Atlanta advertising company employee and a homemaker, who only had dreams of blasting down the quarter-mile when he first met the future BMS President.
   "Racing is such a different sport to build a career in," explained Bazemore. "It's so expensive and it's difficult to get an opportunity to prove even to yourself what it takes. When I was younger I always wanted to race cars and it wasn't possible.
   "My parents couldn't go out and buy a race car team and say here you go. Even if they could, they wouldn't have. So I had to figure out a way to go to the races and be involved."
   That way turned out to be working as a photographer after meeting Byrd, then an employee in the R.J. Reynolds racing program.
   "I was a young 16 year-old kid at the U.S. Nationals in 1979 when I met some Winston people," said Bazemore. "The next year Jeff hired me to take a couple of rolls of film. He told me at the time to give me a call over the winter and maybe he could hire me next year full time. I'm not racing, but I'm making a living from racing.
   "I was doing all I thought I could do. Long story short, he hired me and I ended up with a decent business. But I always wanted to race. After tons of speeding tickets, I woke up one day in 1985 and I was like I'm going to do this."
   Then 22 years-old Bazemore took action to change directions in his career path.
   "It helped that I got incredibly bored with the photography business," said Bazemore. "I did the Skip Barber racing school and did a couple of those races and liked it. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened because I ran out of money."
   For a while Bazemore found himself bouncing back and forth between a career in racing and simply working to make a living.
   "I went to Frank Hawley's drag racing school, got my license, and Frank helped me get a job driving an Alcohol Funny Car," said Bazemore. "In the meantime, I was dead broke. I could call Jeff Byrd and they all (at R.J.R.) knew what I was trying to do. He would hire me when he really didn't need to so I could eat.
   "I made so much more money doing photography than racing. I could live doing the events I shot for them, compared to racing where I wasn't making any money and working all the time, but you know how it is when racing is in your blood. I owe a lot to a lot of people, but I owe the fact I have a career doing this to Jeff Byrd more than anyone else."
   Now established as one of the top stars in NHRA's Funny Car division, Bazemore is the fastest qualifier going into today's Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol.
   He is also one of the top drag racing representatives for the Chrysler Corporation. Despite little resemblance to a street car, the Matco Tools Mopar machine is an important cog in the company's racing program.
   "A Nextel Cup car isn't a street car any more than this is," said Bazemore. "A Formula One car isn't either and you have manufacturers spending hundreds of millions of dollars. It's the engineering side and the marketing side why the company is involved.
   "Our Dodge Stratus replica body has been developed by Chrysler engineers. We run a Chrysler hemi engine, a replica of a 426 (cubic inch) engine. There is a big tie-in with Chrysler and Mopar and the car itself. There is also the win on Sunday, sell on Monday, putting your name and drivers in front of fans."
   NHRA fans appear to be more old-school than fans of other major racing series with a larger interest in the techinal aspect of the sport.
   "There is a big do-it-yourself category here," said Bazemore. "You have a lot of automotive companies involved. Honestly, I think our crowds are changing. I see it becoming more family-oriented, upscale and more educated.
   "It's good for the sport, but you don't want to lose touch with the older fans. I think the more from a marketing standpoint, the more discretionary income the spectator has, the healthier the sport is going to be and the more desirable we will be to corporate America."
   Bazemore, now 41, can back up his role as a spokesman with sterling credentials as a driver. Sixteen NHRA Funny Car victories top career highlights, while Bristol marked the 25th time in his career, Bazemore has won the top qualifying spot. One goal he desperately wants to achieve is a first series championship, as two times in the past three seasons he's been the runner-up.
   "The Funny Car division is more balanced than it's ever been," said Bazemore. "You have a handful of big teams like ours that have multiple cars. You end up with more cars properly funded. When that happens, it becomes more competitive and people get closer on the race track.
   "It gets harder to win, but it's healthier for the sport and more entertaining for the spectator to watch. When you have 12-15 good cars instead of three, it's definitely healthier."
   With the competition comes pressure. Leading up to the Bristol event, chat rooms were buzzing with fans clamoring for top teams to change crew chiefs.
   In Bazemore's situation there are high expectations with car owner Don Schumacher a former U.S. Nationals winner.
   "Don is a fair person, easy to work for, but he's here for one reason and that is to win," said Bazemore, who owns two U.S. Nationals trophies himself. "If I don't hold up to my end of the deal, I won't be here very long. He's extremely motivated, an aggressive kind of car owner.
   "You can't pull the wool over his eyes. He's intensly competitive and that is the best kind of car owner to have. I think we have the best chance to win chance to win the championship of any team out here. That's why I'm here to put myself in the best possible position to win a championship."
   Outside of racing, Bazemore is an avid cyclist. Rehabilation on a stationary bike from leg injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident led to an interest in the hobby. Whit met his wife Michelle, a semi-pro cyclist, on a bike trip and was recently feature in "Bicycling" magazine.
   The hobby has even taken away some time from the Indianapolis resident's interest in other forms of racing.
   "I like all kinds of racing, but since I've been married and into cycling I don't have as much interest in being at the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway," said Bazemore. "I'm not there going to IRL testing or qualifying. It's still exciting living in Indianapolis and is convienent travel-wise with the team based there."