New York native Pemberton owes Petty for start
August 09, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
As NASCAR's Vice President of Competition and Racing Development, Robin Pemberton is the sport's point man for research and development and is responsible for integrating the latest technology. He is the face of the sport's competition department, which is tasked with maintaining fair-play and spirited racing. And he is occasionally the enforcer, doling out penalties to those drivers and team members who push the rules too far.
In a career that has now spanned 35 years, Pemberton learned the ropes working for some of the most legendary drivers and teams in NASCAR history from Richard Petty and Bobby Allison to Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Rusty Wallace.
But what most people don't realize is that the 57-year old Pemberton's start in the sport is as every bit as remarkable as his ascension.
It all began when Pemberton was a 12-year-old busboy at his parents' restaurant outside Saratoga Springs, New York and made fast friends with a famous diner who was in town to race big-time stock cars at the local short track.
It's something Pemberton remembers fondly as he spends time this weekend back in his native Upstate New York for Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International.
"I don't think a lot of people know how much racing actually takes place in all of New York, and those stock cars of that day -- the Sprint Cup series of the '60s and '70s -- were really alien to us because everything else around there was modified dirt cars,'' Pemberton recalled of the early 1970s when NASCAR's big leagues made two trips in 1970 and 1971 to the half-mile Albany Saratoga Speedway -- a few miles from Pemberton's hometown, Malta, New York. Both races were won by The King.
"Richard Petty used to stay at the motel across the street from our family's restaurant, and he'd have his car at the speed shop by the gas station up the road.
"A bunch of us kids would ride up on our bicycles and watch them working on their cars, and I remember Richard was just sitting there in a director's chair outside and we just rolled up there and started talking to him.
"He let us climb up on the doors and peek in the car, and I was like, 'Man, there are no door handles on it.' I remember him saying, 'Well, guess I got too close to the wall and knocked the door handles off.' We didn't know any better.
"We spent hours, I mean hours, with him and he just never quit talking, and I still have a postcard he signed to me when he had the Plymouth Superbird,'' Pemberton recalled.
"Richard remembers, too, and we talk about it all the time."
Pemberton still chuckles, reflecting on the humble and unorthodox beginnings to his career in racing. His life's course -- and perhaps those of his younger brothers Randy (a NASCAR broadcaster), Ryan (a crew chief at JR Motorsports) and Roman (spotter for Cup driver Brian Vickers) -- would have been far different if not for Pemberton's curiosity, a strong sense of adventure and a deep-rooted love of cars and what makes them fast.
Otherwise he would most likely have taken over the family business, running his parents' home-style restaurant, "Dunsters" -- a popular, seasonal establishment just off New York's Interstate 87, about halfway between Montreal, Canada and New York City.
"When I was 16 or so, I was doing all the hiring, the firing, ordering the food, cooking,'' Pemberton said. "I worked seven days a week even as I went through high school."
After graduating from high school, Pemberton even attended a special restaurant management college in preparation to take over the business one day.
However, Pemberton's heart was already tugging in a different direction and his fateful encounters with Petty proved to provide all the opportunity he needed.
"I was always a fan from a young age because my grandmother and mother took us to races and I saw that's pretty cool, you can actually make a living working on race cars,'' Pemberton said. "And from that point on, even though I worked in the restaurant business and went to school to learn to be a restaurateur, I always wanted to work on cars and work on race cars."
Having befriended Petty and his crew, Pemberton got a no-second thoughts opportunity at age 22 to join the race team as a "fabricator" working on the car's sheet metal.
Pemberton remembers breaking the news to his dad that he was leaving the family business. "That didn't go over well,'' Pemberton recalled with a slight laugh.
One of his childhood friends from Upstate New York, Steve Hmiel, joined him at the Pettys, and they immersed themselves in the racing life, essentially doing everything and anything to make themselves valuable, from carrying toolboxes to working on the cars.
"I think in those days, you had to have a lot of heart and want to learn. It wasn't always what your resume was to get in the door,'' Pemberton said. "You had to have a desire to learn and to work on the cars, and the Pettys would teach you how to do things their way. The saying was: 'There's a right way, a wrong way and a Petty way to do things.'
"It's true. It's not just doing it right, but doing it perfect, the best you could.
"The King was all about detail and he told us early on, 'You're not going to win every race so therefore you need to look your best and conduct yourself the best you can, and the cars need to look good. You need to look good in defeat as well.'
"How you conducted yourself was very important to Richard.''
It was part of the Petty education Pemberton earned working for the family-owned team during a particularly historic run that included Petty's seventh championship in 1979. Among the highlights and good times, Pemberton recalls driving a van with a young Kyle Petty and crew members from the shop in Level Cross, North Carolina across the country to races in places such as Riverside, California. In those days before super-transporters and jets, there was plenty of bonding time driving to each race.
After a valuable and memorable time (1979-1984) working with the Pettys, who gave him his first opportunity at being a crew chief, Pemberton was ready to venture out again and took a job working with Bobby Allison briefly before getting a telephone call in 1987 from a gentleman who wanted to start a NASCAR team.
Pemberton laughed telling the story. In a state of career flux, he was mowing the lawn one day -- "whether it needed it or not," he explains -- when his wife told him there was someone on the phone for him. Three times an irritated and stubborn Pemberton asked her to simply take a message, but the caller was insistent.
"He says his name is Jack Roush,'' Pemberton remembers his wife saying. Pemberton immediately went inside to take the call and ended up joining his buddy Hmiel again as they started Roush's Sprint Cup team with driver Mark Martin.
After five years with Roush, Pemberton got a call from his old friend Kyle Petty, who was going to be driving for owner Felix Sabates and needed a crew chief. Pemberton took the job and in 1992-93 guided Petty to three premier series victories, four poles -- including the 1993 Daytona 500 pole position -- and back-to-back fifth place finishes in the championship standings.
In 1995, Pemberton moved to Roger Penske's Cup team, working with Wallace. The combination resulted in 15 wins, 18 poles and Wallace ranked in the top-10 of the championship standing all seven of their seasons together -- the longest tenure for Pemberton and a driver.
Yet even the NASCAR Hall of Famer Wallace didn't know about Pemberton's early background and chance start in the sport from busboy to NASCAR executive.
"I had no idea,'' Wallace said incredulously. "That's pretty unbelievable."
Wallace is, however, a strong believer that NASCAR tabbed the right man for the job of leading the competition department when it hired Pemberton from Ford Motor Company in 2004.
"Robin has so much car knowledge,'' Wallace said, "so I thought he's the perfect guy to do it. He understands the limits you need to push, the rules. He just understood all of NASCAR. He has fit into that role really good. He's a straight shooter. The teams and drivers really like him.
"Timing is everything, but he's been there, done that and knows what's doing.''
And Pemberton would agree wholeheartedly that timing has been on his side.
"When I left New York for North Carolina, I had $62 in my pocket. …and I have just a little more than $62 in my pocket now, not much,'' Pemberton joked.
Then, he added after a long reflective pause, "Other than Richard Petty who has the best snapshot of racing, I really have enjoyed the 35 years I've had in the Cup garage. I've seen some pretty cool things happen. To be here with Pearson and Petty, and Earnhardt, here for the Tim Richmond days, and see an upstart owner Rick Hendrick come in and Jeff Gordon coming along. ... it's been good times."