New Deal Puts “Neighbor” Ken Schrader Back Into Cup Competition
Just when we might think we’ve seen and heard the last of Ken Schrader, he pops up again.
You would think that a race driver who is approaching 56 years of age would have hung up his helmet long ago, but as we know, there have been, and are, several who keep right on truckin’.
Schrader has been racing since he was a kid in Fenton, Mo. But he’s been largely out of sight for quite a while. His full-time NASCAR career came to an end in 2005 and he’s made sporadic starts since.
He entered only eight Cup races over the last two years.
Now comes word he’s going to enter more than that in just one season.
Schrader will compete in nine Cup races in 2012 for FAS Lane Racing and long-time – make that very long-time – sponsor Federated Auto Parts.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw Schrader race without Federated’s logo somewhere on his car.
Federated will serve as an associate sponsor for FAS Lane for the remainder of the season and Schrader will be the company’s spokesman.
Oh, and Federated will also play host to the annual “Get Dirty With Kenny” promotion at Schrader’s own dirt track.
It’s been renamed Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 in Pevely, Mo. – of course.
I met Schrader during his 1985 rookie season. He drove Fords for Junie Donlavey, the hall of fame team owner who made a habit out of nurturing young drivers.
Schrader was one of a steady stream of Midwestern drivers coming into NASCAR at the time. Others included Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and, one year later, the late Alan Kulwicki.
Schrader came with plenty of racing experience, since he had competed in anything with wheels for years before he was 29, his age when he joined Donlavey.
Nearly everyone thought Schrader would quickly climb the ladder and he did. In 1988 he joined Hendrick Motorsports as part of a three-car operation that included Geoff Bodine and Darrell Waltrip.
By his time Schrader had become much more than an acquaintance. He was my neighbor. He and his wife Ann – a civic-minded dynamo – had purchased a house just up the street from mine.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Schrader raced in NASCAR and was something of a celebrity. But he sure didn’t act like one.
He was the typical good neighbor who often invited folks to stop by every now and then. Many did, including my kids, who seemed to spend more time at the Schrader’s than they did at home.
One day, Schrader invited me to his home to see the new beer tap unit he had received from his sponsor, Budweiser.
We downed a couple brews while we chatted. As I got up to leave Schrader said, “No, no. Stay a few more minutes.”
He took my glass and refilled it. I finished it and started to leave again. He asked me to hang around a little longer and he poured another beer.
I could see what he was trying to do.
“Look, Kenny,” I said, “I know what you are up to. And I can promise you this. You are going to lose.”
The next day I ran into one of Hendrick’s marketing people. He told me he had seen Schrader and he seemed out of sorts.
“So I asked him what was wrong with him,” the person said. “He told me, ‘Ah, I tried to get Waid drunk last night and I’m paying for it.’ ”
As you might expect Schrader’s first season with Hendrick was a good one. He won one race, finished among the top five four times and 17 times among the top 10, easily the best record of his young career.
His initial victory came at Talladega in July. Everyone in the neighborhood was happy for him. Kids were especially pleased and displayed their pleasure by festooning his house and yard with toilet paper.
Some adults could have been involved in this, by the way, but none confessed.
Perhaps the best example of Schrader’s care and friendliness as a neighbor came in September of 1989. Hurricane Hugo blasted into the Carolinas and rammed into the Charlotte area – which is not accustomed to such violent weather.
The day after the storm, there was no power in our neighborhood and the grounds were littered with fallen trees and splintered limbs and branches.
Cleanup began and soon afterward, here came Schrader, driving a beat-up Ford pickup. He offered to haul away all the debris and did so.
It took him all day. When he finished we sat down on my front porch. He looked concerned.
We both knew qualifying was scheduled for Martinsville that day. I never attempted to go. I was convinced the hurricane would surely cancel all activities at the half-mile track.
Of course, Schrader didn’t go either. But he began to have doubts.
Schrader asked, “Do you think I should have gone to Martinsville?”
“Kenny, given the weather I don’t think you could have gotten there,” I said. “This hurricane moved north and had to hit that area. I doubt anything went on.”
But to be sure I got a transistor radio. As soon as I turned it on, a voice said, “Winston Cup qualifying was completed today at Martinsville Speedway …”
Schrader bolted to his feet, threw his arms upward and let loose with a mighty scream. He ran back to his house and left for Martinsville immediately.
He made the race easily in second-round qualifying, which no longer exists, and finished 10th.
I felt bad because I had played a role in Schrader’s absence at Martinsville.
He told me not to worry a bit about it. He said that if he couldn’t be at a race track, he would just as soon be with his neighbors.
Seems as much as he knows about driving a race car, Ken Schrader knows even more about being a good friend and neighbor.