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Car Care: Manion makes most of past Whelen experience

August 03, 2011, Ron Lemasters Jr., Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Ask Kevin Manion how the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series helped him get to the top of the elite Sprint Cup Series and then stand back.

According to the man known as "Bono," it's at least one of the reasons he now wears Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 championship rings to work at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

"The main lesson is, if you want something bad enough, you have to go after it. Picking up everything you own and moving to North Carolina on just a hunch is pretty tough to do, but it ended up paying off."

--KEVIN MANION

Let's not forget passion and sweat, equity and dreams, either.

Manion came out of the rich racing history in the Northeast, where the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour has ruled for the better part of 50 years. Guys like Greg Zipadelli, Randy LaJoie, the Fuller brothers, the Bodines and Tommy Baldwin came from there as well.

In Manion's case, it was the weekly racing at Riverside Park Speedway in Springfield, Mass., where he cut his teeth in the sport. But, he says, getting from the NASCAR Weekly Series to the Big Show really doesn't boil down to where you're from, it's more about how and why.

"You're either from the Northeast or the Midwest or you happened to grow up here in the South," Manion said from the EGR shops in Concord, N.C. "Your dad or your uncle or somebody you knew was involved in it. There's great racing all over the world. I was at a dirt track when we were in Kansas, and I really enjoy watching good racing, whether it's back home or dirt track or a NASCAR series. There are a lot of us and a lot of drivers that came out of the Whelen Modified Tour. I think it doesn't matter where you come from, it's the dream or the passion you have for what you want to do and how you follow it that's important."

For Manion's part, he grew up in the sport, attending school with Robbie Fuller, son of Modified Tour driver Bob Fuller, in Boyleston, Mass.

"I just know the race shop was close to my house and I was able to pedal my bike over there and help out, sweep the floor, clean the car and the basic things you do when you're 10-11-12 years old," Manion said. "That's where I got my start."

In addition to working there, he also worked at a service station in town. Manion and a group of the older mechanics bought a late model and prepped it during the winter.

"You could run it at Riverside Park [Springfield, Mass.], Thompson [Conn.] and Stafford Springs [Conn.], all of which were an hour and change from the house," Manion recalled. "We settled in racing every Saturday night at Riverside through the summer, and went to quite a few races at Thompson. We ended up buying a Pro Stock, and from there our relationship with Bobby Fuller was growing. He was driving on the Whelen Modified Tour at the time."

That led to a job with Sheba Racing on the Modified Tour, part-time, along with another guy NASCAR fans are familiar with: Tommy Baldwin.

Little did he know his career -- and his life -- was at a crossroads.

"I was a licensed plumber by trade out of school, and I worked that job for four years," Manion said. "But then my paying job was getting in the way of my racing, and I was really having a good time with the racing. So I ended up taking a job as the only full-time employee at Sheba Racing, which meant that you did everything, drove the truck, you set the car up, you were the crew chief and you changed tires. Jeff Fuller was the driver, and then Steve Park."

The team won everything in sight during that time, and both Fuller and Park graduated to the top NASCAR series in the South. Soon, Manion and Baldwin would do the same.

"At the end of the 1995 season, we decided we would go to Charlotte during the October race and I won't say vacation, but kind of pedal around and check out what it was like," Manion said. "We got our break at the first race at Homestead, in November 1995, Greg Sacks asked Tommy if he could come down and help out and get the car ready. Tommy told me about it, he needed some help, and that's the way the move South happened.

"Tommy and I loaded up everything on my pickup truck, took it on the ferry across to Long Island, unloaded that stuff into Tommy's dad's trailer, left my truck at his shop and the rest is history."

Since then, Manion has become one of the top crew chiefs in the sport. Last year, he and driver Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte, a massive feat in today's world of near-parity racing.

He hasn't forgotten where he came from, those days in the NASCAR Weekly Series, either.

"I think it's about remembering your roots and remembering how hard it was when I first moved here to get your foot in the door with a race team, not being inside the loop, so to speak," he reflected. "I think being up there taught me, the only employee at Sheba, that you had to do everything, you had to work really hard. The main lesson is, if you want something bad enough, you have to go after it. Picking up everything you own and moving to North Carolina on just a hunch is pretty tough to do, but it ended up paying off."

Today, in charge of the No. 1 Chevrolet that McMurray drives, Manion takes that journey into account when he's hiring crew members. At the end of the day, the new kids are doing the same thing he and Baldwin did.

"I don't think it's changed [getting a start in the Weekly Series]," Manion said. "It's a little tougher to get a job down here, with the economy the way it is, but the Cup teams like fresh people, younger, energetic people. I like people with passion, people with dreams, and passion is what gets us through the day ... at least me, for sure."

He's looking for the kind of kid he was back in 1995, fresh out of the NASCAR Weekly Series, but says that's getting tougher to do.

"I like to give people a chance, and it's a little tougher to do nowadays, but a fresh face around the shop is really inviting. It all depends on the guy hiring and a lot of it has to do with timing. Now, there are NASCAR schools you can go to and try to get placed in a job, but that early-day, every-day backyard racer is pretty hard to find and pretty hard to beat."