News & Media

Around Richmond, Markham known as more than a spotter

April 30, 2011, David Caraviello,

RICHMOND, Va. -- Curtis Markham hasn't raced regularly in years, but when he shows up to compete at a short track in central Virginia, people still take notice. That much was evident after Markham's qualifying lap for Denny Hamlin's late model charity event at Richmond International Raceway, when a fan approached him with a stack of autograph cards bearing images of the driver alongside some of his old cars.

There he was with the No. 7 Skoal Bandit Pontiac, which Markham drove for owner Quint Boisvert. There he was with the No. 63 Lysol car, which he wheeled for owner Hubert Hensley. They were vehicles Markham competed in on the then-Busch Series in the early- to mid-1990s, NASCAR entries long ago obscured by time. But here in central Virginia, where Markham was a local hero who used his short-track success as a springboard into the sport's national levels, they still remember.

"I'm real happy with the way things went for me. I only have one eye, so a lot of people were scared to give me a chance. I understand that. Having the success I've had in racing, I'm just tickled."


"I've had a lot of people say they remember me from back when I raced," said Markham, who shook more than his share of hands on pit road prior to Thursday's event benefiting Hamlin's foundation. "We're having a good time."

Hamlin's late model charity event was studded with star drivers, from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano to Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip, Travis Pastrana and Tony Stewart. But in this part of the world, few current or former drivers have accomplished more than Markham, who these days is best known as Hamlin's spotter on the Sprint Cup tour. But before that he was a dominant driver on Virginia short tracks, winning four track championships and countless late model features at facilities like Southside, South Boston and Old Dominion.

Now 51, Markham doesn't race regularly anymore. His appearance in Hamlin's annual charity event, which moved from Southside to the big speedway this season, is his one stint behind the wheel each year. But he still gets recognized, even if he was wearing the firesuit of Hamlin's Sprint Cup mechanic Rick Bray, the last name on the back blotted out by a strip of black tape.

"I'm enjoying myself," said Markham, who was born in Richmond and now calls Fredericksburg, Va., his home. "I haven't been on this race track since 1999. It was a Busch race, a Nationwide race now. It just feels different. I've gotten used to watching it from the spotter's stand, but it's a whole different perspective you have actually driving. Now, to come out here and drive again -- I've got new things to holler at Denny about."

Markham's second career as a spotter began shortly after Gibbs started his Nationwide program, when the former short-track ace was brought on board as a driving coach. His prized student was unearthed on a cold day at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway in late 2003, when Markham was Gibbs' point man at a test of some equipment the organization had purchased for the diversity program it ran with late NFL great Reggie White. The cars came from the stable of renowned Virginia late model owner Jim Dean, who sent along one of his drivers to shake them down.

Markham had heard about Hamlin, a late model star in the Old Dominion State who would win 25 times in one year, but until that point he had never seen him turn a lap in person. Hamlin, who had won at the same facility earlier in the year, turned times that rivaled the track record. Suddenly, the Gibbs team had found something else besides equipment for a diversity program. "I saw him drive that car and I called [team president] J.D. Gibbs and was like, 'We ought to look at this guy. He's got a lot of talent,'" Markham remembered. "And the rest was history."

Later that night Hamlin and J.D. Gibbs met for dinner, within a month Hamlin was signed, and the next summer he was racing a truck backed by the Gibbs organization - the first, small steps in a career that came within a few points of netting a championship last year on NASCAR's premier series. It was all fostered by vision on the part of a spotter and former driver whose vision, ironically, was once in question. Markham lost use of one eye as a child because of an episode unrelated to racing, a fact that did not prevent him from becoming a king of Virginia short tracks in the 1980s.

But to some owners in NASCAR's national levels, it might have been an issue, perhaps explaining why Markham never made the big breakthrough so many expected he would. Markham made 89 career starts on what's now the Nationwide tour, including the full seasons in that Lysol car in 1995 and' 96. But despite some promising showings, the Cup offers never came, and he made just four starts on the sport's premier level, the most recent in 1994.

Still, Markham has no regrets. "I'm real happy with the way things went for me," he said. "I only have one eye, so a lot of people were scared to give me a chance. I understand that. Having the success I've had in racing, I'm just tickled."

No one questions Markham's vision as a spotter, where he's established a reputation as one of the best in the business. He and Hamlin have been together ever since that first day at Hickory, and the driver of the No. 11 car has playfully referred to his spotter as his "one-eyed bandit." The bandit can still drive a little bit, too -- he qualified 26th for Hamlin's charity race on Thursday night, and evaded two big crashes to finish 13th out of the 36 drivers who competed. Does he miss his days behind the wheel?

"Sometimes I do," Markham conceded. "But most times, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. Next to driving, spotting is the closest thing you can do. So I'm happy with what I'm doing."

And this weekend at Richmond, the locals were certainly happy to see him. Markham shook more hands and posed for some photos before the start of Hamlin's charity event. But no one summed up the feelings so many race fans in central Virginia have for Markham more than the man waiting after qualifying with the autograph cards. "An honor to finally meet you," he said. Curtis Markham may be a spotter now, but around Richmond, the locals still know him better for something else.

The opinion expressed are solely those of the writer.