To Clint Bowyer, no place like home in Emporia
May 09, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
EMPORIA, Kan. -- It's the car dealership that immediately catches your attention, as car dealerships are inclined to do. Driving into town on U.S. Highway 50, it's only a few blocks before you're fixated on all those flags and banners blown stiff by the wind, or the sunlight glinting off rows of polished glass and steel. If there's any single testament to the roots Clint Bowyer continues to cultivate in his hometown, it's the Clint Bowyer Autoplex, where the one-time lot attendant and bodywork man is now the boss.
And yet, Bowyer's influence here runs so much deeper than that. Across the street sits the visually arresting Clint Bowyer Community Building, constructed in 2012 thanks to a $1.5 million donation from his foundation. There are the 25 new computers at the public library. There's the scoreboard at the aquatic center, the video camera at the auditorium, the shoes for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the backpacks for kids, the Christmas trees for needy families, the playground equipment in one nearby town, the reconstruction of a tornado-ravaged community center in another -- all of it and more paid for by Bowyer's foundation, or out of the driver's own pocket.
Entering the city limits, there's a sign proclaiming this to be the birthplace of William Allen White, a newspaperman and ally of Teddy Roosevelt in the Progressive political movement of the 1900s. But these days, there's no doubting the identity of Emporia's favorite son.
"It would be easy for him to leave," said Ray Toso, a former five-term mayor of Emporia who now serves as chairman of Bowyer's foundation, called the 79 Fund. "But he also realizes he had a dream, and he was able to achieve that dream. Maybe this is where that dream began, and that's why he wants to help others with the things he can do."
Bowyer will make his 300th start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, the facility a few hours' drive northeast that the Michael Waltrip Racing driver considers his home track. But he's much more of a presence in his hometown, where within the span of a few blocks his name appears on the dealership, on the community building, and on a street that was renamed in his honor in 2009. For a town its size -- a population of 24,916 as of the 2010 census -- Emporia packs quite an athletic punch. Natives include former basketball coach Dean Smith, former NFL quarterback Jim Everett, and pro golfer J.L. Lewis. But these days Bowyer stands out not just because he's in the prime of his career, but because he makes a point of reinvesting in where he came from.
"That's been a little bit of a pleasant surprise in the last eight years, probably, that's he chosen to try to make an impact here at home," said his father, Chris Bowyer, who continues to operate his towing business on Graham Street -- which now doubles as Hon. Clint Bowyer Boulevard -- in the same facility Clint and his two brothers once raced out of. Chris Bowyer's office is a testament to his profession, with car keys lined up on hooks, maps and lists of phone numbers tacked to the walls. But tucked back in a corner of the building is the last dirt car Clint ever raced, still in the same condition as it was when it came off the track, surrounded by motorcycle trophies and mementos like a $5,000 winner's check from his dirt racing days.
And out in a far corner of the back lot sits the remains of Bowyer's first race car, a rusting gray Chevette which looks like it barely ever ran, much less ran fast. And yet, Clint took the thing to a nearby dirt track and immediately began running the consistent laps that would become his trademark. Chris Bowyer could probably scrap it for a few hundred bucks. But he can't. "What do you do, try to preserve the thing? No, you've just got to keep it," he said. "You can't keep all of them, but hell, you've got to keep the first one."
It would be understandable if those old race cars were all that remained of Clint Bowyer in Emporia, if he had hit it big and then left his hometown in the rearview as so many athletes before him have done. That was almost the expectation, which is why people here remain so pleasantly surprised that Bowyer continues to be such a presence in town. He returns home to hunt deer in the nearby Flint Hills, where he has a cabin. He returns home for his annual fundraiser golf tournament. He returns home during Kansas race weekends, as he did Wednesday when he spoke at his old high school. He returns home on just about every west coast trip, given that the private jets used by so many NASCAR drivers have to stop somewhere halfway in order to refuel.
James Derrick, parts and service director of the dealership, estimates that Bowyer comes back about once a month. "He hasn’t forgotten where he came from," said Derrick, who helped Bowyer get his start in racing, and was later his boss at the dealership before the driver bought it. "I think he feels fortunate to have what he has, and he knows people here are what helped him get there. That's my personal opinion."
Chris Bowyer has seen it all unfold firsthand. Although Clint lives primarily in North Carolina, where his two brothers now also reside and his parents have a condo, the pull of Emporia remains strong. "It's just where he's comfortable," his dad said. Clint still has many childhood friends in the area, still has plenty of family around, still maintains a respect for Emporia's agricultural roots. He wanted the community building at the fairgrounds, because that's where so many of his friends competed in 4H events when he was off racing. It was his idea to have the bar in the facility decorated with brands from area cattle ranchers -- and over 200 showed up, some with brands that still had flecks of bovine hair and skin stuck to them.
When Bowyer was in town one night earlier this week, he spent time helping some friends load cattle -- just days after signing a new multiyear contract extension with MWR. "People just don't see that side of Clint," Derrick said. "And that’s just the way he is."
Particularly in Emporia. The dealership, which he bought last year and now has a No. 15 show car sitting prominently in the showroom, was a way for Bowyer to put down some permanent roots. When he's there, he's out front greeting customers and shaking hands. When he discovered one of his Twitter followers was looking for a new car, he called her and convinced her to make the three-hour drive from Hays to buy it from him. "I really do enjoy being at this store just to shake hands and see people come in," Bowyer said. "This is the best opportunity for me to be visible within the community."
Which is clearly important to him, as evidenced by the work of the 79 Fund -- so named because of his birth year, which in turn became his first car number. With so many other drivers focusing their charitable efforts in the Charlotte area, his dad said, Clint wanted to turn his attention back toward home. And when Bowyer first started the foundation, he had a clear vision for its direction and purpose -- he wanted board members representing the city, county, school district and chamber of commerce, people with diverse contacts who would know of different areas of need within the community.
All this from a guy who in public is more famous for his happy-go-lucky attitude and short attention span. "He can be surprising," Toso said. "You think that he's kind of carefree. But don't let him fool you -- he's really a sharp individual. He really knows what he's doing."
That level of detail can also be seen in the striking design of the community building, which Bowyer's fund gave to the fairgrounds after it was completed. It's the same at the dealership, where the former repair man likes everything polished up and smoothed out. "He takes so much pride in his work," Derrick said. "He's so attentive about his vehicles and everything. When he comes back here, he wants to make sure everything is perfect when somebody buys a car. That's how much pride he has in what he deals with. He wants everything perfect."
He's still just Clint, in Emporia as much as anywhere. But these days, "he just thinks bigger now," his father Chris said. "That's the biggest change I've seen in him." When there was talk about a concert to open the new community building, locals had one thing in mind. Bowyer had another -- his buddy, country music superstar Blake Shelton. "He brings the entertainer of the year to Emporia, Kansas," his dad said, almost disbelievingly.
Indeed, there are many surprising facets of Bowyer scattered about Emporia -- from that old Chevette rusting in the weeds, to the pinpoint exactness displayed by a driver so many see as flighty, to the sheer dollar figures spread around town by his foundation, or in many cases, Bowyer himself. No wonder his dad thinks Clint will continue to be a fixture here, even now that he's married and has a son on the way. No wonder Derrick thinks Bowyer will one day return to Emporia for good. No wonder Toso thinks Bowyer's reinvestment in his hometown is closer to the beginning than the end.
"I know Clint isn't done yet in terms of what he wants to do in the community," Toso said. "It's just amazing."