Benning lives NASCAR life by never lifting
August 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
LONG POND, Pa. -- Norm Benning didn’t have much time to enjoy the moment. He may have received the biggest cheers of his career by fighting his way into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway, but the experience took a toll on his vehicle. The day after returning home from the Ohio dirt track, the veteran racer made a 25-hour round trip to Albany, N.Y., to pick up another truck to race at Pocono Raceway.
“Drove up, loaded it up, drove back,” Benning said. “No sleep.”
That’s nothing unusual for Benning, who has just two full-time employees working at his shop outside of Pittsburgh, drives without any cooling equipment, and estimates that he does 75 percent of the work on his truck himself. It’s not an easy way to make a living, owning a Truck Series team that doesn’t have much sponsorship. But Benning, a 61-year-old native of Level Green, Pa., couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“If I didn’t love driving these things, I wouldn’t do it. It’s that simple,” he said at Pocono. “I just love driving these (trucks). … People ask me all the time, and I don’t bother to tell people how far in debt I get sometimes. But nobody’s forcing me to do this. I love NASCAR. I grew up in NASCAR, since I was 6 years old. I remember sitting in Turn 4 at Daytona. It’s just been part of my genetics.”
A longtime ARCA racer, Benning has been a fixture at NASCAR’s national level since the late 1990s, but he’s never enjoyed a moment quite like the one he had July 24 in a last-chance qualifying race at Eldora. Once at the white flag, and again off Turn 4 before the checkered, Clay Greenfield tried slide-job passes to edge Benning for the fifth and final spot into the main event. Both times Benning held on, wedging his red No. 57 truck against the wall and sliding sideways across the finish line to the delight of both the garage area and the sellout crowd.
What Benning told a television interviewer afterward -- “I never lifted” -- has become his credo. What happened in the garage area, as crewmen from several different teams rallied to help prepare Benning’s banged-up truck for the main event, has become the stuff of Eldora legend.
“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in NASCAR racing,” said track owner Tony Stewart. “And then no more than that truck stopped, and there were five teams that pushed it to Kenny Schrader’s trailer, and five teams that started working on it, and Norm is sitting there like a deer in the headlights. He has no clue what’s going on.
“To see how excited he was to make the race, and to see the spirit of the teams …. As big as all this is, to see five different teams pitching in at a dirt track and fixing one guy’s car to get ready for the feature, that’s why we all do what we do. That’s just proof that no matter how big it gets, the drivers, the teams, the root, the passion that started all this is still in everybody that’s here. … That made my whole event, was watching that.”
Norm Benning (No. 57) races eventual Eldora race winner Austin Dillon (No. 39).
Days later, the memories of that night in Rossburg, Ohio, were still fresh. “I thought after they ran the Brickyard, this would all die down,” Benning said. “It’s stronger now than ever.” At Pocono, it was easy to spot Benning -- he was the driver in the Truck Series garage wearing an Eldora cap, and shaking an outstretched hand almost everywhere he went. He said he’s selling die-cast trucks, printing up T-shirts with “I Never Lifted” on the front, and held an autograph signing at Pocono, at which everyone in line knew his name.
“That’s what I live for,” Benning said, “those moments in time when I’m competitive.”
Getting there, though, isn’t always easy. Once the spotlight from Eldora had faded, Benning was left with a truck in no shape to compete at Pocono. The right-front frame rail was bent. So was the rear-end housing. “Everything on the body was bent but the roof,” Benning said. So he struck a deal with dirt specialist J.R. Heffner, who agreed to sell Benning the sister truck to the one he drove at Eldora. Less than 24 hours after that race, Benning was on his way to Albany to pick up the new vehicle. He got home, slept four hours, and started transferring items like the seat, fuel cell, engine and transmission from old truck to new.
Over the next few days, he caught a few hours of sleep whenever he could. Although Benning has five crewmen at the track, they live in Florida or New Jersey and meet him at the race site. In the shop, it’s just him and two others. Benning said he finished preparing the truck at 1 a.m. Thursday, and then drove all night to get to Pocono.
“I haven’t paid for the truck yet,” he said, “but we’re here.”
Yet the difficulties didn’t end there. Because the truck’s ignition wires were on backward, Benning didn’t get to make one lap in practice. He had hoped to make some minor adjustments after qualifying, but that got rained out. “At this point, I don’t know if it will go left,” he said before the race. The plan was to soldier through at Pocono -- which he did, finishing 28th and pocketing $6,985 for the effort -- and focus on the next race Aug. 17 at Michigan International Speedway, where Benning hoped to be more competitive.
Such struggles are nothing new. “I’m just used to it at this point,” he said. “It’s just like, I don’t have any cooling equipment in my trucks. Never did. I’ll lose six to eight pounds. It doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it. All these guys could never put up with 140 degrees. But it doesn’t bother me, I’ve been doing it so long.”
All of which helped make his moment at Eldora so electric. There was something about the grit and determination Benning showed in denying Greenfield over the final laps of that last-chance qualifier that encapsulated his career. He knew the shot was coming -- he just had to make sure he took it in the door, and not the left-front fender. So he drove up tight against the wall, bracing for the slide job. “I knew as long as I stayed on the mat, I was going to beat him to the start-finish line,” Benning recalled. “And that’s what I did.”
At first, Benning didn’t realize what was happening -- it was a fifth-place finish in a last-chance race, after all. But then he began to hear the cheers of the crowd even through his helmet. The veteran racer has twice recorded a best result of 15th in the Truck Series, most recently last season at Talladega Superspeedway. But his career highlight might have been finishing on the lead lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Sprint Showdown before the 2010 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, after which even Roger Penske shook his hand. Of course, that was until he pulled into the garage area at Eldora, and crewmen from several teams began flocking to his truck.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” Benning said. “I got out of the truck and said, ‘Guys, I need some help,’ and it was like flies. I can’t thank those people enough. I’ve tried on the radio shows I’ve done. I’m trying to go through the garage and help every one of them, let them know how much I appreciated it. But none of it’s really sunk in at this point. I just can’t wait until the next dirt race.”
Norm Benning: “I love NASCAR. I grew up in NASCAR, since I was 6 years old. I remember sitting in Turn 4 at Daytona. It’s just been part of my genetics.”
Benning said the first person at his truck that night was Stewart. “He stuck his head in there and said, ‘Norm, you just made this show a success. I don’t know how to thank you,’” he said. Schrader told him to enjoy the accolades, but that his truck needed some work. Kenny Wallace praised him for withstanding everything Greenfield threw at him. Far beyond Eldora, drivers across NASCAR’s national division reacted on social media, lending weight to a fan response that for a time had Benning’s name among the leading trends on Twitter.
Days later, reality had returned as Benning sat in the rainy Pocono garage with a new truck that he hadn’t paid for and was struggling to bring up to speed. But reminders of his moment of Eldora glory still lingered, in the form of the cap he wore bearing the dirt track’s logo, die-casts of his truck with muddy donut marks painted on the left side, and memories of how, for one night, even the sport’s greatest drivers looked up to Norm Benning.
“When people talk like that, it’s great. That makes it all worth it,” he said. “Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, I can’t remember all those guys who tweeted and said incredible things about me. I live for those moments. I don’t know when I’ll have another one. Maybe if we get some sponsorship, we can do it again.”