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Inside NASCAR: The legacy of Boris Said

June 22, 2011, David Caraviello,

Road racer has certainly left mark on Cup Series, even if he hasn't won a race

The first phone call came during the opening half of the 1999 season, and it concerned Elliott Sadler. The Wood Brothers were heading to the track then known as Sears Point Raceway, to test with a driver who grew up racing late models and had never before competed on the road course. Looking for someone who could provide Sadler with a little instruction, team co-owner Eddie Wood called a bushy-haired NASCAR newcomer who had turned heads by winning the pole in his Busch Series debut at Watkins Glen the year before.

Boris Said's initial reaction to the call was a quizzical one. "I'm like, I'm not really a teacher. I don't really do that," Said remembered. "They said, 'Well, we were thinking about bringing two Cup cars and have you lead-follow.' In my inner monologue I'm like -- I get to drive a Cup car? I just said, yep, I'll do it, no problem."

"He didn't want any money. We sent him money anyway, and I think he sent the check back. He's just a class guy."


Said had never driven a Cup car to that point, and jumped at the opportunity to slide behind the wheel of a vehicle made for NASCAR's premier series. He met the Wood Brothers in Sonoma, Calif., and worked with Sadler for two days, drilling his younger counterpart on the finer points of braking and shifting and taking the correct line around the hilly, technical layout now known as Infineon Raceway, where the Sprint Cup tour competes on Sunday. Afterward, Wood asked Said how much they owed him. Said told him not to worry about it, and to think of it as a favor.

"He didn't want any money," Wood remembered. "We sent him money anyway, and I think he sent the check back. He's just a class guy."

And yet, something much bigger arose out of those two days in Northern California wine country. Sadler finished 18th that year in Sonoma, certainly respectable for a Cup rookie making his first road-course start, and word got around that he had had some help. In a follow-the-leader sport, what happened next was no surprise -- Said's phone started ringing. Dale Earnhardt Inc., MB2 Motorsports, Chip Ganassi's team, Roush Racing, Ray Evernham's outfit, and others called seeking to improve their road-racing programs in a sport that was becoming more competitive every day. Said worked with stars from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Carl Edwards to Kevin Harvick to Kasey Kahne, helping to make drivers schooled in oval racing more proficient on tracks that turned right as well as left.

A European journalist, Said said, once tallied all the NASCAR drivers Said had helped on road courses and came up with a grand total of 32. Said initially caught some grief from other road racers who wanted to know why Said was giving up all their secrets, but he did it because he harbored his own hopes of competing in NASCAR and knew the information would flow both ways. The work continues -- this season he's doing road-course development with Hendrick Motorsports, and he tested two weeks ago with Jeff Gordon at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in preparation for this weekend's event. He's still a little surprised that it all happened.

"I just personally think these guys are some of the best racers in the world, and I've raced all over the world," he said. "Even when we were testing [at Mid-Ohio]and Jeff Gordon would ask me a question, I'd think to myself -- here's a guy who's won a lot of races, and I feel awkward telling him anything, because I don't even feel worthy of it. The guy is just a machine. He's a god, he's a legend. It's funny. But those guys, they are so competitive. And they're smart enough to know that if they're not learning faster than the competition, then they're going to get beat. So they're always trying to learn. So it's been good to me as well as some of the people I've helped."

It has, as Said's improvement on oval tracks will attest. But Said hasn't attempted a NASCAR race thus far thus season, not even the Daytona 500, an aberration given his recent history. He won his first Nationwide Series event last year at Montreal in Robby Benton's car, and will go to Sonoma in a Hendrick-built vehicle fielded by James Finch. He'll likely be back in Benton's car at Montreal, and driving for Finch once again at Watkins Glen. But factors like the economy, the soft sponsorship market, and his age (48) seem to be catching up with him, and limiting his ability to find NASCAR rides more consistently. A hoped-for full-time Sprint Cup effort last year fell apart because promises weren't kept and funding didn't materialize.

This year Said has returned to his roots and is competing full-time on the Grand-Am circuit, enjoying strong runs in his Marsh Racing Corvette. His NASCAR dreams are still out there, but they've been forced to the back burner. The harsh reality exists that Said, among the preeminent American road racers of his time, may never experience his ultimate goal of winning a race at NASCAR's highest level. But through those he has helped mold into road racers, his presence has left a lasting impact on the Sprint Cup tour whether he ever reaches Victory Lane or not.

Whether it's helping a veteran get up to speed on a new layout or showing a newcomer the basics of shifting on road courses, Said, shown here with Carl Edwards at Watkins Glen in 2007, has done it all.

An open book

The Wednesday before the Sprint Cup race at Pocono, Jeff Gordon and Boris Said met at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a 13-turn venue in Lexington, Ohio, that features esses and a hairpin curve not dissimilar to those at Infineon Raceway. The two rode around the course together in a rental car before switching to their Sprint Cup machines, Gordon's No. 24 and the Hendrick-built No. 51 Said will wheel at Infineon. A four-time champion who's won a record nine premier-series events on road courses, Gordon used Said's knowledge and experience at the sports car venue to quickly get up to speed.

"The thing about Boris is, he's an open book," Gordon said. "He doesn't hold back about telling you what he thinks, what he feels, how he thinks you can do better, go faster. He was with us at the test ... because I'd never been to Mid-Ohio. And we always like having another car there to compare against, so you're not only learning, but you want to make sure you're accurately learning because of the pace. I looked forward to having somebody run a pace, and Boris certainly did that. He showed me around the track, because he has thousands of laps there."

"The thing about Boris is, he's an open book. He doesn't hold back about telling you what he thinks, what he feels, how he thinks you can do better, go faster. "


Whether it's helping a veteran get up to speed on a new layout or showing a newcomer the basics of shifting and braking on road courses, Said has done it all. Those first few lessons with Elliott Sadler and the Wood Brothers solidified his reputation, which only grew when Dale Earnhardt had Said drive his car during a test session at Watkins Glen. He tutored drivers in a two-seater, and watched them take off. One of his former students, Kasey Kahne, won the Sprint Cup event at Infineon two years ago. Another, Carl Edwards, went from hopeless on road courses -- "he absolutely sucked when he started," Said said -- to Nationwide victories at Montreal and Road America.

"He's such a good guy. His manner, he's very humble, and people just take to him," Eddie Wood said. "People like Boris. We like Boris. He's just the type of guy you can learn from. I look back, going through years of school, there was one English teacher I had ... and I can still to this day diagram a sentence. I can't do much else, but I can diagram a sentence. He was a good teacher. I guess it's just a credit to Boris that he's that kind of person that people have respect for and want to learn from."

The Wood Brothers called on Said again in 2005, when the Nationwide Series was preparing to go to Mexico City. Said was out of the country, Wood said, but still flew to Virginia International Raceway one day to teach Jon Wood, who would go on to finish 16th in Mexico. Kevin Harvick worked with Said and went on to win at Watkins Glen in 2006. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has also learned from Said, and was scheduled to compete alongside him in a 2004 sports car race before he suffered burns in a crash in practice.

"Well, he's definitely very helpful," Earnhardt said. "He's helped me with setup ideas, knowledge about road course set up, how to set a car up for road courses and obviously helped me with driving, helped a lot of drivers with driving. Him and Ron Fellows both, any time any of those guys come in and are fast, they elevate the standard of competition and elevate the level of speed and what you need to change to be good always gets tougher. They definitely made us all faster whether it be by tutoring us or by raising the stakes by showing up."

"It's pretty much like showing a duck water. They already know it. You tell them a few things, and they just pick it right up. "


Racing on an oval is made up of many smaller disciplines, and Said said competing on road courses is the same. There's no banking, so the corner speeds are slower, and there's a much greater emphasis on shifting gears and braking at the right times. The top drivers on the Sprint Cup tour are so talented, he said, that teaching them is easy. "These guys are great race car drivers," Said said. "If you just tell them, hey, this how you need to brake, or this is how you kind of need to downshift, and you can horse the car around in these corners but you can't in these corners, it's pretty much like showing a duck water. They already know it. You tell them a few things, and they just pick it right up."

It helps that teams have placed a renewed emphasis on road-course racing, a fact that created such a demand for Said's services. Years ago, only a handful of Cup drivers were really capable of winning road-course races, and many others just gutted though the weekend taking what they could get. There wasn't an incentive to get better. Now, with the series becoming so competitive and wins becoming so valuable under the Chase system, no team wants to simply give road-course victories away.

"One thing in common with all those guys, they like winning," Said said. "They'll do whatever it takes to win. In the old days, I think the attitude was like, oh, it's just two races a year, it doesn't mean a damn thing, let's just get through it, I don't like it, I don't care where I'm going to finish. They'd go in there with a bad attitude, and that was it. Now it means so much, and every point means so much, they just start taking it more seriously, and testing for it, and trying to figure it out. They all have special road-race cars, and they go test, and they've figured it out, basically. They treat it just like it's the Daytona 500."

That much is evident in the results. Once primarily the domain of drivers like Gordon and Tony Stewart, road courses have seen a series of breakthrough victories in recent years by the likes of Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kahne and Jimmie Johnson. The days of the ringer, when teams might substitute their regular driver for a road-course specialist like Said or Fellows, have effectively come to an end. Said has done his job so well, he's helped create a generation of drivers who are almost as comfortable on road circuits as they are on ovals. There's only one problem there -- it all makes it that much tougher for a driver like Boris Said to find a ride.

Boris Said reaches out to his teammates after taking the checkers at Montreal last season and getting his first win in the Nationwide Series.

Slimmer and slimmer

The son of a former Formula One driver and Olympic bobsled pilot, Boris Said has enjoyed a racing career rich in variety and success. He's twice won the 24 Hours of Daytona, won the 12 Hours of Sebring, won the grueling 24 Hours of Nurburgring in Germany. The resident of Carlsbad, Calif., has competed in everything from the 24 Hours of LeMans to the Bathurst 1000 in Australia, along the way earning a reputation as one of the foremost road racers in the world.

And yet, there's something about NASCAR that has a hold on him.

"From the first time he ever drove one of these cars ... he's basically been in love with it ever since," said crew chief Frank Stoddard, who's paired with Said in many of the driver's NASCAR endeavors. "I think ultimately it's the fact that NASCAR in this country is the biggest stage. I think there are probably a lot of guys that are over there [in road racing] who would like to get into it just to get the chance on the biggest stage. Boris loves the oval racing. He'd love to have a full-time ride. He'd be great in the sport over here. It's just unfortunate that last year the sponsorship didn't come through the way the partners had hoped and it didn't work out."

"Boris loves the oval racing. He'd love to have a full-time ride."


Last year was the latest, and perhaps final, time Said attempted a full-time effort on the Sprint Cup tour. Contracts were signed and promises were made, but after a handful of races everything fell apart. As a result Said went back to his roots, competing full-time in a Grand-Am car that's good enough to contend for race wins, and picking up the occasional NASCAR event on a road course. He seems OK with that. He's also realistic, and understands that the full-time NASCAR hopes he once held may never be realized. "The chances of that are getting slimmer and slimmer. I don't think it's a reality now," he said.

"I always wished I could have gotten a full year. You look at a guy like David Ragan, and he's finally coming into his own, and it took him three years. I think it takes somebody at least two years before they ever have a chance at doing anything. The problem with me was first probably my age. People get nervous when you're over 20 now, and you see guys like Trevor Bayne who set the world on fire. ... But the biggest thing is just battling the corporate dollars. If the economy hadn't gone in the tank when it did, we would have gotten to do a full-time effort. I don't want to cry over it, because there are a lot of Americans who are in a lot of hurt right now, because the economy is so bad. I'm not going to cry over not getting to do a few more races."

That's vintage Said, always aware of the wider perspective. And yet, while most of his career Sprint Cup starts have come on road courses, he's also enjoyed some very competitive runs on ovals. The closest he's ever come to winning a race at NASCAR's highest level wasn't at Watkins Glen or Sonoma, but at Daytona in July of 2006. Said led with three laps remaining, but finished fourth after eventual winner Tony Stewart drafted by on the high side. Still, for a road racer trying to prove himself on oval tracks, it felt like a victory. He saw Stewart doing celebratory doughnuts on the frontstretch and wanted to join him. "There's nothing more I'd like to do than have that feeling again," Said said.

Is such a thing still possible? A Sprint Cup victory is about the only thing Said hasn't accomplished in his racing career, but even on road courses, winning in a one-time situation has proven exceedingly difficult -- nobody has done at NASCAR's top level since Mark Donohue won at Riverside International Raceway in 1973. Even so, Said broke through at Montreal last year, driving Robby Benton's car to his first Nationwide victory, and he'll be piloting a vehicle this weekend built by Hendrick Motorsports and fielded by James Finch, who won a Sprint Cup race with Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009. "I think I have a top-10 car and a top-10 driver," Said said, "and if you can be in contention at the end, you never know what will happen, especially at a road course."

"I don't want to cry over it, because there are a lot of Americans who are in a lot of hurt right now, because the economy is so bad. I'm not going to cry over not getting to do a few more races."


And then there's Said's reputation, which on road courses speaks for itself. Can he win at Infineon? "For sure," said Stoddard, who will have two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte in his vehicle this weekend. Eddie Wood agreed. "Absolutely. He's very capable of that," he said. "At a road race, everything's got to work, pit stops, and now with fuel being such an issue in the last few races, I'm sure fuel will play into it. I would say you're probably looking at a Marcos Ambrose and a Boris Said show out there."

Given the Hendrick connection, that doesn't seem entirely out of the question. Finch's vehicles are usually fast, as Landon Cassill's 12th-place result at Michigan last week will attest. The No. 51 Said will drive Sunday may well be his most capable car at Sonoma since 2003, when he won the pole and finished sixth driving the No. 01 in place of the injured Jerry Nadeau. But given how good the Cup regulars are on road courses these days, the odds are still long. Will it grate on him if the Cup victory never comes?

"No, because that is really tough," Said said. "It doesn't bother me. I've had some opportunities where I could have won a few years at Watkins Glen where I was the fastest car and for whatever reason got spun out or made a mistake and had something happen. I've had a few years at [Infineon] where I was in contention to win and something happened. But then you look at a guy like Michael Waltrip who went 400 or 500 races before he finally won a race, and I probably only have 25 Cup races. I'm not even sure how many I've done, but not many. It's just a very hard thing to do. The chances are very slim to win one for a part-time guy. But I'm not giving up. I'm going [to Sonoma] this year with the intention."

Said, who actually has 41 career Cup starts, rolls with the punches about as well as any driver out there. Although he hasn't attempted a NASCAR race yet this season, he's kept busy with the sports cars, and along with Hendrick recently opened a new BMW dealership in Murrieta, Calif. Said remodeled the building, and cut the ribbon on the facility two weeks ago. No, Said never got that full-time opportunity in NASCAR that he always wanted, and now probably never will. But if you think he goes home to Southern California and beats himself up over it, think again.

"There's not much that eats at Boris Said," Stoddard said. "Listen, he's living a better life than most these people who are here in this garage. Most of them, if they realized the life [Said] had, they'd be wishing they were in his shoes. Boris is a such a classy guy, a perfect gentleman, has a great family. He's opening up his BMW dealership out there in California. So he's very much at peace in life. Look, would he like to [compete full-time in NASCAR]? Sure. So would I, OK? ... But it isn't like he has any regrets or anything like that."

A job too well done

The ringers are still around on road courses, but these days they come in the form of full-time Sprint Cup drivers who have few problems turning right as well as left. Said has seen the transition, from the days when only a few Cup drivers were capable of winning on road courses and nobody else really cared, to now, when the pool of potential victors is almost as deep as it is anywhere else. These days, Jimmie Johnson gets into a Grand-Am car and is almost immediately on pace. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon get in Formula One machines and whip them around like naturals. Winners on road courses come from beyond the usual suspects.

Over the course of his career, Said thinks road racing in NASCAR has improved "a thousand percent." Some of that happened because of the natural evolution of drivers themselves, and the arrival of those like Johnson with racing backgrounds more varied than their predecessors. But some of that happened because Said helped it get there, because he so often traded instruction and advice for a few engines, a few car parts, a few rides here or there. Said may never reach Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup race, but even so his legacy is an indelible one. Ultimately, he helped make the regulars so much better, he made it that much more difficult for specialists like himself to win.


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"I think they all probably would have gotten there somehow, someday, somewhere. But he certainly probably moved it on a little bit quicker than he probably wished he had at some points," Stoddard said. "Because really going back to Dale [Earnhardt] Sr., Steve Park, there's a number of guys that he's taught and done some driving with over the years. Even this year, anybody can walk up to him an ask him to help him out. The transition has been quicker than it would have been. Maybe it would have been a slower progression, but it's been quicker because of somebody like him."

Said's fingerprints are all over NASCAR's national series, from his earlier work with the Earnhardts to more recent efforts with eventual road-course winners like Kahne, Edwards and Harvick. Unsurprisingly, his services as a road-course tutor haven't been as in demand recently, because so many drivers have gotten so good at it. He wouldn't mind working with Danica Patrick at some point, and he'll likely help his friend Travis Pastrana. "Other than that, I think everyone in the paddock, they're well set," Said said. He's almost done his job too well.

"Just about everyone who's a good road racer now, he's the guy responsible for it," Eddie Wood said.

"He has so much experience on so many different tracks and in so many different cars, and he's just a really good guy," Gordon added. "So I think his knowledge and his experience and his willingness to help has been helpful to a lot of people in this sport."

Even if, in some ways, it's come at his own expense. Boris Said got hooked on NASCAR because he wanted to challenge himself, because he wanted to see how he stacked up against drivers he said rank among the best in the world. He wanted to run full-time and win Cup races. The former will likely never happen; the latter remains a long shot. But NASCAR is a more balanced and more competitive circuit because of Said's involvement in it, something that will become as much a part of his legacy as his sense of humor or his trademark head of hair.

"I'm proud to say I've helped some people," Said said. "I would never have gotten to know Dale Earnhardt Jr. if I hadn't started that, or people like Carl Edwards. I've made a lot of friends doing it, and I don't have any regrets at all."