After starring in football and basketball and becoming a budding race-car driver, Steve Grissom had a big decision to make when he graduated high school.
Grissom, a standout offensive lineman, defensive end and linebacker, could play college football at the University of Alabama for legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, or he could try to become a NASCAR driver.
When your father is Wayne Grissom, who owned a number of race cars and sponsored other drivers, it wasn’t a difficult choice: Steve took pit road over pigskins.
“And I’ve never once regretted it,” Grissom told NASCAR.com. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to race, from the first race I ever went to. I knew that was me and what I wanted to do.
“I started driving dirt cars when I was 15. There kind of never really was a question in my mind. I was going to pursue the racing avenue.”
RELATED: Steve Grissom career stats
A native of Gadsden, Alabama, Grissom began working on his father’s race cars while still in elementary school, moving from under the hood to behind the wheel in short order.
After cutting his chops first on Alabama-area short tracks and then in the Winston All-Pro Series, Grissom became a full-time driver in the NASCAR Busch Series in 1988 (now the Xfinity Series), eventually winning the championship in 1993.
“That year’s championship was definitely the highlight (of my career),” Grissom said. “We were also fortunate to win the (Xfinity) race at Daytona (1996, the final win of his Xfinity career), which was pretty special, as well as Rockingham (1990), Indianapolis Raceway Park (1990), Martinsville (1990), winning both races in the same year at Bristol (1995), South Boston (1991), Volusia County (1992) and a few others.”
After winning the championship in 1993, Grissom moved up full-time to the NASCAR Cup Series in 1994, finishing second to Jeff Burton in Rookie of the Year honors. While he’d go winless in 151 Cup starts, one of Grissom’s greatest achievements in NASCAR’s top series came in 1997, when he started on the outside pole in the Daytona 500.
Unfortunately, his day ended early when he was involved in a wreck 88 laps into the 200-lap event, finishing 40th in the 42-car field.
While Grissom competed in all three of NASCAR’s premier series, it was the Xfinity Series where he enjoyed the greatest amount of success.
He made 309 Xfinity Series starts in nearly 25 years, earning 11 wins, 42 top-five and 74 top-10 finishes. He’d also make 151 Cup Series starts and 24 Truck Series starts, but was winless in both.
Grissom’s Xfinity Series championship in 1993 was something he’ll always be proud of, forever being known as a series champion.
He beat Ricky Craven by 253 points, and had a number of other rivals, including Joe Nemechek, Ward and Jeff Burton, Robert Pressley, Todd Bodine, Hermie Sadler and Mike Wallace.
And in some ways Grissom, now 58, is still the same guy today that he was back then.
“I don’t really know so much that it changed me as you’re all caught up in the racing at the time and maybe don’t think as much about it or it didn’t register then,” Grissom said. “Now you look back on it, I’m not sure how many champions there’s been since then, but to be one of those (is special). I’m not sure it sunk in then. Still, to be one of those, it means something, it’s a sense of pride.
“Not all of the guys who raced in the series have been fortunate enough to even win a race (in their career).”
While next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Grissom’s championship, fans have not forgotten him. He still gets autograph requests in the mail, folks asking him to sign a trading card or hero card, and even fans who bump into him around town.
“It’s still pretty neat,” Grissom said of interacting with fans. “You do run into the people, old race fans that maybe don’t keep up with it as much as they used to, but you do run across people.
“They used to drive from your hometown to come watch you in (an Xfinity) race. It was something. They’d make a six-, eight-, 10-hour trip to watch you in (an Xfinity) race at a short track or something.
“The fans you bump into, be it at a restaurant or what have you, the old NASCAR fans, they still talk about North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, Martinsville, kind of the roots of NASCAR. And then there’s Charlotte and Daytona and stuff. Those are important, but NASCAR was kind of born on the short tracks and that’s what they all still want to talk about, (how it was) back in the day.”
After his roughly 30-year racing career ended, Grissom moved into the business world. He’s owned a number of different enterprises over the years — including a hot dog stand in suburban Charlotte for several years that was part of a partnership with another former NASCAR driver, Robert Presley — as well as laundromats and commercial real estate.
“I’m just me and I’ve got my businesses,” Grissom said. “They keep me pretty well tied up and kind of always on the go.”
Grissom still considers himself a race fan, but his business ventures keep him from devoting as much time to watching or attending races as he’d like. His last in-person race was the 2019 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway; the pandemic has kept him from attending any in the last two years.
“I miss it a good bit,” Grissom said of NASCAR and racing. “I always enjoyed obviously the driving part of it and stuff, but I don’t really keep up with it a ton now.
“You bump into guys and ask them what’s going on here or there, but really, keeping up with it, I’ve got my two twin daughters, Katie and Stephanie, who have been playing softball for a while (currently student-athletes at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.), so that keeps me busy.
“And my son Kyle, who works with me now, was racing here (primarily sportsman ranks) up until a few years ago. He was going to races since he was two weeks old, so he kind of grew up in it. He was 4 years old when he started in go-karts. He’s 32 now and he and I kind of stay busy with our businesses.”
Given that it’s been nearly 40 years since Grissom began racing in NASCAR, the sport has obviously gone through quite a bit of change. He remembers what it was like back then as if it were just yesterday.
“When I first came along to the Busch deal, there weren’t any tractor trailers, everybody had open trailers kind of a thing,” Grissom said. “That being said, guys might have one or two or three full-time people, have two or three cars from Daytona to Martinsville, Hickory to Charlotte or Darlington. You just didn’t have big operations.
“And during my time it kind of changed, to all of a sudden you started riding in a four-door dually to the race track, then started flying airplanes to the race track, that kind of stuff. From that standpoint, you used to work on the car, drive the truck, paint the car, put the motor in, pack wheel bearings, whatever needed to be done.
“Now, you have specialists to do everything. It’s just a lot different from when I first started to the way it is now. I’m sure Richard Petty has seen the difference (he added with a laugh), it definitely is a big deal.”
Steve’s father, Wayne, had the largest impact upon his son’s life in racing, from teaching him about mechanics to sponsoring his race car.
Wayne Grissom passed away last August at the age of 86, but his son will forever be grateful for the influence his father had upon him.
“I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do it if it hadn’t been for him,” Steve said of his father. “I think about that from time to time now and what he meant. He had everything to do with me having the opportunity to do and get and be what I was able to do. He was definitely very important.”
One of the best pieces of advice Wayne passed along to his son was to accept what you have.
“You can look back and there (might have been) an opportunity here or there that you might have changed this or that,” Steve said of his career. “But Daddy always said, ‘the eyes are put in front of your head so look forward, don’t look back.’ ”
The Steve Grissom file:
* Age: 58
* Hometown: Gadsden, Alabama
* Wife: Married 39 years to Susan
* Children: Son Kyle (32 years old) and twin daughters Katie and Stephanie (20 years old)
* NASCAR Cup career: 151 races, 0 wins, five top-five and 18 top-10 finishes. Best season finish: 21st (1997).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 309 races, 11 wins, 42 top-five and 74 top-10 finishes. Also four poles. Best season finish: Won 1993 championship.
* NASCAR Truck Series career: 24 races, 0 wins, six top-5, 11 top-10 finishes. Competed only in the 2000 season, finished 10th.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski specializes in writing Where Are They Now? stories for NASCAR.com. Among those he’s done to date include Johnny Benson, Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss, Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya.