Out of frustration, Ron Hornaday Jr. swiped the desk chair out of his way and stood toe-to-toe with the person responsible for his abrupt change of emotions.
Hornaday genuinely thought he belonged in Victory Lane – even parked his truck there after the race. Instead, he found himself in the NASCAR hauler with then-series director Wayne Auton, demanding an explanation.
Officials black-flagged Hornaday during the green-white-checkered finish at Watkins Glen International. In the eyes of those manning the review tower, Hornaday had jumped the last restart. His No. 16 Chevrolet did have an immediate – therefore questionable – lead over the No. 44 Ford of Boris Said, who was supposed to take the green flag alongside Hornaday.
“No,” Hornaday said. “Because after the race, even Boris came over said, ‘Ron, what’d they do? Black-flag you?’ I said yeah. He’s like, ‘Well, my truck wouldn’t go. The jet fell out of the carburetor, so it was stumbling real bad.’ That’s why he didn’t take off.”
“It reminded drivers and fans of what they came up with: old-school, bare-knuckle, short-track, beating-fenders, trading-paint racing.
While Hornaday tried to defend his disputed win, the chair he previously tossed aside kept hitting him in the legs. Turns out the trailer was parked on a hill. The distraction only further irritated Hornaday.
“It just looked bad because I had a full car-length lead when I turned coming to the green,” he said.
Auton smirked as the chair bumped Hornaday for a fourth time. That was the final straw. Hornaday picked it up and threw it onto the nearby couch.
“I’m not going to win this argument,” Hornaday said. “Am I?”
Hornaday turned around and exited the hauler. The door slam that followed further emphasized his feelings toward the final decision. Hornaday’s recorded finish in 1998 was fourth rather than first. Joe Ruttman was awarded the road-course win.
The door cracked back open.
“Hey,” said Hornaday, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer. “You are going to stop by for a beer tonight, right?”
The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, which returns to racing Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), remains a close tie to NASCAR’s grassroots level. To this day, the truck-based circuit satisfies multiple agendas. It meets the needs of those wanting to try something new, build a legacy, climb the ranks or remember their place – all while fostering an environment that encourages both competition and camaraderie.
“To gain respect, you’ve got to earn it,” said Auton, who was the series director for 18 years before taking over the Xfinity Series. “You did everything you could to let people know you cared about them, but also, you had to have the business side of you that’s for competition time. The Truck Series took it to a new level.”
TRY SOMETHING NEW
In 1992, NASCAR West Coast executive Ken Clapp flew down to Los Angeles to meet with four California off-road racers. Their names were Dick Landfield, Jimmy Smith, Jim Venable and Frank “Scoop” Vessels. They shared a history of racing trucks in the desert, and now they wanted NASCAR to run trucks on asphalt.
This courtesy lunch turned into a five-hour discussion, and a seven-hour meeting with NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. soon followed.
“Bill really grilled them about specifics for the series,” said Tom Jensen, NASCAR Hall of Fame’s curatorial affairs manager. “At the end, Ken said he knew they were in good shape when after about five or six hours they sent out for food instead of went out for food. He said it must have been because they had Bill’s attention.”
So much so that France decided truck racing deserved its own national series rather than settling as a support series like originally planned. Sure, it would provide a proving ground for those who wanted to break into NASCAR. But the trucks alone also deserved full attention. At the time, that type of utility vehicle was popular not only among Americans but rally race fans.
The first of four exhibition races in 1994 took place at the .5-mile track of Mesa Marin Raceway in California. It featured five entries and lasted 20 laps. P.J. Jones won in Vessels’ No. 1 Ford.
“People went crazy,” Jensen said. “They got thousands and thousands of fans. They had to put in extra grandstands – and at other tracks they raced on.”
Word got around.
When the Truck Series was formally introduced in 1995, many Cup Series owners wanted in. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt all fielded at least one entry in the season opener at Phoenix Raceway in Arizona. Mike Skinner took the checkered flag in Childress’ No. 3 Chevrolet.
“It reminded drivers and fans of what they came up with: old-school, bare-knuckle, short-track, beating-fenders, trading-paint racing,” Jensen said. “It became really an overnight sensation.”
So, after a few more races with continued success, France hired Auton as the series’ first official director.
“He told me, ‘This is yours. You do as you see fit. We have to make this thing grow,’ ” Auton said. “At the end of the first season in ’95, as Mr. France said, what it took 25 years for the then-Winston Cup Series to do, the Truck Series had done in one year as far as popularity amongst the fans.”
You had to make a name for yourself basically.
It helped that during its first season the Truck Series visited short tracks the other two national series could not — such as Portland Speedway (Oregon), Evergreen Speedway (Washington), Tuscon Speedway (Arizona), I-70 Speedway (Missouri) and Flemington Speedway (New Jersey) — because of race procedures. The Truck Series did not conduct live pit stops until 1998, which means it did not require pit roads. Instead, it had halftime breaks when crews could service the trucks.
Apart from road courses, the Truck Series didn’t touch any track longer than a mile in 1995.
“Back in the day, we used to put guns in our back window – only kidding, but that was the big joke,” Hornaday said. “It’s a pickup truck. ‘What are they going to do? Why are they doing that? That’s kind of stupid.’ And then we started racing. It was the best racing out there because we were racing all the short tracks.”
BUILD A LEGACY
NASCAR’s sponsor-driven name for the first rung of its national-series ladder has evolved over the years. The SuperTruck Series turned into the Craftsman Truck Series, which later became the Camping World Truck Series before the Gander Outdoors Truck Series finally took over. The title has only slightly been altered to reflect the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series it is now.
But some names have stood the test of time: Hornaday, Skinner and Jack Sprague.
“They were the bread and butter,” Auton said. “When you talk about the Truck Series, those are the first three names that come up. It doesn’t matter who you ask. They were the guys who set the ground floor for the Truck Series to be as successful as it has been now for 25 years.”
To gain respect, you had to earn it.
Hornaday boasts a series-high four championships, Sprague then claims three himself, and Skinner will forever hold the inaugural title. Altogether, they’re good for 107 Truck Series victories in 888 starts from 1995-2014. That’s with dipping into the other series, too.
Skinner spent the most time in the Cup Series, finishing with 286 starts compared to Hornaday’s 46 and Sprague’s 24. Skinner completed three seasons there (1997-2000 and 2002) before returning to the Truck Series full time from 2004-10. He never raced a full season in the Xfinity Series but had a win during his 52 starts.
Hornaday had the longest run with the Xfinity Series, notching four wins in three complete seasons (2000 and 2003-04) amid 184 starts. He was back full time in the Truck Series from 2005-13.
Sprague had one victory in 108 Xfinity Series starts, completing just a single season (2002). He raced full time in the Truck Series again from 2004-08.
“You think you’re the best, then you get out there, you have a mediocre team and all of a sudden, you’re looking worse than you are,” Hornaday said. “If you’re a big fish in a small pond, why would you want to go to a big pond and be the small fish?”
Also, the Truck Series season is less demanding. Before the COVID-19 outbreak impacted NASCAR’s 2020 schedules, the Truck Series was set for 23 events. The Xfinity Series listed 33, while the Cup Series had 36.
Chris Showalter, a truck chief for Kyle Busch Motorsports, has worked every truck race since the series’ inception; knee surgery couldn’t sideline him at Kansas Speedway in 2004, nor could a kidney stone at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2012. That’s 600 events total, as of right now. The Cup Series, meanwhile, has had 883 races in the same timespan.
In 2001, Showalter doubled as a backup tire changer for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series, requiring him to travel for both the Truck and Cup Series.
“I’ll be more than happy to stay truck racing,” Showalter said. “I found my happy spot. I’m home on Saturdays and Sundays because we race during the week. And now the streak has evolved. Wouldn’t want to end that.”
Races are shorter, too.
Take the events that happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in February, the last time all three national series raced at the same track. The Truck Series turned 134 laps (1:39:30), the Xfinity Series ran 200 laps (2:19:44), and the Cup Series went 267 laps (2:58:11). Half the laps, half the time.
“When the green flag drops, you got to go,” Hornaday said. “It’s time to do it. … You had to make a name for yourself basically. You had to run hard.”
CLIMB THE RANKS
Greg Biffle was a star NASCAR student. He began his career at 28 years old with the Truck Series, earned the 1998 Rookie of the Year Award and won the championship in 2000. He then moved up to the Xfinity Series in 2001, captured yet another rookie honor and claimed the title in 2002.
When the 2003 season rolled around, Biffle landed a full-time ride with Roush Fenway Racing in the Cup Series, where he’d spend the next 14 years winning 19 races. His days among the elite ended at age 46.
“Nobody would hire anybody without experience,” Biffle said. “That was unheard of, right? For a 20-year-old to drive a Cup car, just didn’t happen. You weren’t going to hand the keys to some guy that hadn’t proven himself.”
Again, that was part of the reason why NASCAR adopted the Truck Series into its national picture.
The Truck Series can help future Cup Series drivers even more so now than before. As competition aspects developed, such as live pit stops, the Truck Series started slowly but surely adding places the other series were known to visit.
For example, the Cup Series has been going to Atlanta Motor Speedway since 1960. The Truck Series started in 2004.
“That’s the main thing the Truck Series does for you: It affords you that opportunity to gain experience,” Biffle said. “Where’s the restart at Atlanta? How do I spin the tires? Do I want the top lane or the bottom lane? What’s the preferable lane to be in?”
Of the 30 drivers who competed in all 36 Cup Series races last year, 11 of them had a full Truck Series season on their resume. Nine of those ran at least one full season in both the Truck Series and the Xfinity Series before advancing to the Cup Series.
Four of this year’s six Cup Series newcomers spent a full season in each rank, too.
“It’s great to see the fruits of your labor move on,” said Showalter, who worked with current Cup Series drivers Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones and Christopher Bell when they drove trucks for KBM. “I’m so happy I was able to be a part of their career moving up and how we take pride here in KBM. We’ve done very well training these kids growing up and helping them capture the talent that they have and letting them move on. It’s awesome to see them racing on Sundays.”
Why would you want to go to a big pond and be the small fish?
Jones and Bell both won championships in their final Truck Series seasons – 2015 and 2017, respectively. Wallace did not, but he did finish third and win four races in 2014 – still noteworthy since both marks were better than the previous year.
Any type of success is important, especially in the early stages of one’s career.
“That builds the confidence of the driver,” Biffle said. “It gives you that swagger that you need to be able to feel like you can compete.”
REMEMBER THEIR PLACE
Just because somebody is full time in one series doesn’t mean he or she can’t dabble in the others. Those now on the outside looking in actually encourage it. The challenge keeps competitors honest with themselves.
The worst thing a young driver in the Truck Series can ever become is complacent.
“If you’re on top and you think you’re winning races, then you get a Terry Labonte or you get a Kyle Busch to come out and beat you, that means you have to do your job better,” Hornaday said. “That means you’re not the best. You have to figure out what he’s doing.”
Watch and learn.
I’ll be more than happy to stay truck racing.
“It gives you an opportunity to be racing technically at that next level but on your playing field,” Biffle said.
NASCAR limits how often Cup Series drivers frequent the lower tiers. If they have more than three years of experience and currently earn points at the highest level, they’re allowed five starts in each the Xfinity Series and Trucks Series. Regular-season finales and playoff events are off limits to Cup Series regulars.
People within the sport jokingly call it the “Kyle Busch Rule.” The two-time Cup Series champion is known to moonlight – and dominate.
Busch holds a remarkable 210 wins across the NASCAR board. The total number breaks into 56 Cup Series wins (ninth all time), 97 Xfinity Series wins (most all time) and 57 Truck Series wins (most all time). He’s one of 31 drivers – 14 of whom are active – to be victorious in each division.
“It’s fun,” Biffle said. “I will tell you, going and running Truck races and Xfinity races when you’re a Cup driver, that is what people dream of. … It doesn’t matter if you win or not. I mean, you want to win. But to go out there, compete and not have the pressure of the world hanging on your back makes it so nice.”
He would know. Just last year, Biffle won a Truck Series event at Texas Motor Speedway, for Busch of all people. It had been 15 years since Biffle last drove a truck competitively.
Entry lists for truck races are typically diverse.
“It’s the young men and women who are really eager to quickly make a name for themselves racing against the veterans who have been in the sport for a while,” Jensen said. “It produces some tremendous racing.”
Twenty-six seasons worth.
In a nutshell, that is the Truck Series. It was created to provide a platform for anyone who wanted to go racing, regardless of their long-term personal agendas.
“We welcomed all comers,” Auton said. “Because guys had so much fun. They’d just come and play, so to speak. The full-time truck guys – like the Hornadays, Skinners and Spragues – they said, ‘Come on. We don’t care who you are. You might think you’re something over there, but here you’re nothing. We’ll teach you how to race.’ ”