Thursday, October 13, 2016

10/10/04: Kirk Shelmerdine’s political “bumper sticker” lands him in hot water

SOURCE: Mattswad Photobucket
On October 10, 2004, Kirk Shelmerdine picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup career in the Banquet 400 presented by ConAgra Foods at the Kansas Speedway when his #72 “Vote For Bush” Ford fell out with clutch issues after 3 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Shelmerdine’s 20th series start, was his second of the season and first since the June race at Michigan, 15 rounds prior.

The Philadelphia-born Shelmerdine is most often known for his role as Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief, a position he held from 1982 through 1992, during which time Earnhardt earned four of his seven series titles.  What isn’t discussed as much is Shelmerdine’s own racing aspirations, which he pursued after leaving Richard Childress Racing.  The genesis may have been with Childress himself, who fielded a Cup car for Shelmerdine during the Budweiser NASCAR 400, the final Cup event at the Texas World Speedway in College Station.  Childress, who was still racing at the time, finished 14th in his #3 while Shelmerdine pulled off track in the identical #8 after 2 laps.  The “start-and-park” role Shelmerdine filled that day would also come to define the latter part of his career.

Shelmerdine began 1993 in the ARCA Racing Series, where he roared from the 37th spot in the ARCA 200 at Daytona to finish a strong 3rd behind Jeff Purvis and Loy Allen, Jr.  He would end the year with three Top Tens in four starts, along with his first pole that fall at Atlanta.  In 1994, owner-driver Jimmy Means invited Shelmerdine to race in Winston Cup, and he took Means’ #52 to a 26th-place run at Talladega and a 22nd in the Winston Open exhibition race at Charlotte.  He also made four Busch Series starts that year, highlighted by a 17th at Daytona, and in 1995 matched that 17th in his Truck Series debut at Bristol.

In 1998, Shelmerdine finally earned his first ARCA Series triumph at Atlanta, taking the checkers with Kenneth Appling, who fielded his first ride in the series.  It was the first time Shelmerdine won a race since his tenure in the ill-fated NASCAR Sportsman Series, where he claimed victories in his final two years as a crew chief.  He followed this up with a second win at Charlotte on October 6, 1999, and a third followed in 2003, when that year’s Charlotte event was shortened by rain after 66 laps.  That time, Shelmerdine drove for another veteran owner-driver, James Hylton.

In 2002, Shelmerdine returned to Cup and Busch competition for the first time in nearly a decade, missing the cut for the Daytona 500 with owner Stan Hover, then coming home 31st in Busch for Jay Robinson, the current owner of Premium Motorsports.  In the summer of 2002, he made his first start as a Cup Series owner-driver, debuting his #27 Ford sponsored by Naturally Fresh Foods, who previously backed 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki.  After withdrawing from the Coca-Cola 600 entry list and missing the cut at Chicagoland, Shelmerdine broke through with back-to-back starts at Loudon and Pocono.  Both times, he failed to finish, pulling out after 10 and 81 laps with mechanical issues.  Shelmerdine tried and failed to get Junie Donlavey into the 2003 Daytona 500, then set his sights on 2004.

The spring of 2004 was a strange time for NASCAR.  The excitement of a new title sponsor in Nextel and a new championship format in “The Chase” was tempered by an economic recession and the loss of several full-time Cup teams.  Shelmerdine’s #72 was one of just 45 entries who attempted the Daytona 500.  Shelmerdine missed the cut by finishing last in Gatorade 125 Race 2 while Andy Hillenburg was sent home after Race 1.  He was among the cadre of so-called “field fillers” at Rockingham, keeping the field at a full 43 by starting 41st, but pulled off the track after 19 laps, leaving him 42nd.  He would make the next five races before his second DNQ at Martinsville, but each time he pulled off the track in the early laps.

That May, Shelmerdine attempted a full-race run in his return to the Winston Open.  His #27 car carried sponsorship from, a site devoted to “field filler” news, with “Vote For Kirk” on the hood to get fans to vote Shelmerdine into the main event.  He avoided involvement in the grinding 11-car wreck at the green flag, but ended up crashing himself after 25 laps.

Aside from the clear “start-and-park” strategy, one of the reasons for Shelmerdine’s struggles was the rules package in place for his team.  Ford had introduced a new aero package for the 2004 season.  To provide an incentive for teams to use it, those who didn’t had to have their rear spoilers shaved down, making their old cars too hard to handle.  This singled-out “field fillers” like Shelmerdine, who acquired old cars from other teams.  Thus, throughout his career, Shelmerdine’s race weekends were marred with hard qualifying crashes, most notably at Pocono in 2002, Bristol in 2004, Richmond in 2005, and Charlotte in 2006.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, the fall of 2004 saw Shelmerdine embroiled in, of all things, a political controversy.

During the first Nextel Cup Chase, the Ford Shelmerdine drove used to belong to Greg Biffle at Roush Racing.  This car appeared to have the right 2004 sheet metal, and in fact still had the red-white-and-blue patriotic scheme from Biffle’s new sponsor, the U.S. National Guard.  Without a sponsor and with the 2004 Presidential Election coming up that November, Shelmerdine arrived at Loudon for Race 1 of The Chase with “Bush / Cheney ‘04” on his rear quarter-panels.  President George W. Bush was scheduled to attend the Loudon race, his second of the year following the Daytona 500, but a series of deadly hurricanes in Florida forced him to cancel.  Regardless, the decals stayed on.

“I’m very much against the liberal ways when it comes to politics,” said Shelmerdine.  “This was the best way to make our little statement.”  According to at least one article by the Washington Post, this proved a curious statement to make: Shelmerdine hadn’t even registered to vote.

Advertisements for political candidates in NASCAR were nothing new.  In 1960, owner-driver Roy Tyner carried a bumper sticker for the John F. Kennedy / Lyndon B. Johnson ticket with the slogan “Democrats Are For You.”  In 1987, part-time Cup racer Charlie Baker had “Carring in ‘88 Lt. Gov.” on the quarter panels of his #93 Chevrolet. In 1992, during a "start-and-park" effort for Means Racing at Darlington, Johnny McFadden's #53 Pontiac had a hood logo that read "Richard Bridges U.S. Senate." Even Richard Petty, who celebrated his 200th victory carrying a “Reagan / Bush ‘84” banner next to President Ronald Reagan, also applied a small “Bush / Quayle ‘92” decal in front of the rear tires of his iconic #43 for his final Daytona race in July of 1992.

However, Shelmerdine’s paint scheme landed him in hot water - not with NASCAR, but with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).  The complaint filed with the FEC alleged that Shelmerdine had violated federal election law by not reporting a donation to a federal candidate valued at over $250.  A debate ensued over whether or not the advertising was truly worth this much.  On the one hand, NASCAR was riding a peak of popularity with Nextel as new title sponsor and the first Chase underway, making the real estate on any car that much more valuable.  On the other, Shelmerdine used the decals because he didn’t have a sponsor, and his team was so underfunded that it wouldn’t be on the track for very long, never mind in victory lane.  In the end, the FEC didn’t sanction Shelmerdine, but instead sent him a letter of admonishment warning him not to do it again.  The scheme ran through the fall race at Atlanta, the final event before the election, and were removed.

The Post supported the FEC’s decision, though at the same time belittled the value of NASCAR’s sponsorship.  “There has to be a better use of FEC resources than investigating bumper stickers.”

More than a decade later, those “bumper stickers” have evolved into several full-on paint schemes (likely with the proper paperwork completed by the team).  In 2014, Mike Curb, Richard Petty’s car owner in 1984 who also worked on the Reagan campaign, devoted Josh Wise’s paint scheme for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona to the campaign of Charlie Crist, who was running to be governor of Florida.  NASCAR forced Curb to remove the decals from Wise’s Ford.  However, the so-called “NASCAR Dads” demographic has given us paint schemes for other candidates including Rick Perry (#71 of driver Bobby Labonte), Rick Santorum (#26 Tony Raines), and now Donald Trump (#08 Korbin Forrister).  A second Donald Trump scheme, with Truck Series driver Austin Wayne Self, is slated for Talladega in two weeks.

The 2004 race at Kansas marked the fourth appearance of the “Vote for Bush” car and the only time it finished last.  He ran slowest in the weekend’s first two practice sessions, sat out “Happy Hour,” and ran 165.853mph in qualifying, more than two seconds off the lap of pole and race winner Joe Nemechek.  The lap still secured Shelmerdine the 42nd spot on the grid based on Owner Points, putting him ahead of four DNQs: 41-year-old Mike Garvey, who was looking to make his Cup debut, Mike Wallace in Gary Keller’s #35 Chevrolet, Carl Long for Raynard McGlynn, and fellow owner-driver Morgan Shepherd in his #89 Racing With Jesus / Red Line Oil Dodge.

Starting last at Kansas was Stanton Barrett, who one year later would give Front Row Motorsports its first Cup Series start.  That day at Kansas, Barrett drove for another start-up team, the #94 AmercInn / Racer’s Edge Ford belonging to Dave Watson.  Sterling Marlin took last from Barrett on the first lap, his #40 Coors Light Dodge having snapped a driveshaft that fell on the track.  Shelmerdine pulled off the track under the resulting yellow, and retook 43rd from Marlin when #40 returned from the garage.

42nd went to Larry Gunselman, who drove for still another “start-up” NASCAR team owned by William Edwards.  Gunselman’s turn in the #98 Mach One Inc. Ford ended with suspension issues after 26 laps.  Behind 41st-place Barrett was 40th-place Hermie Sadler, who ran his own #02 SCORE Motorsports Ford for 38 circuits before rear end troubles.  Todd Bodine rounded out the Bottom Five for car owner Don Arnold in the #50 Arnold Development Companies Dodge.

In all, Shelmerdine’s team ran a career-most 21 of 36 races in 2004.  The only time his #72 finished under power that year was at Watkins Glen, where “road ringer” Tom Hubert finished one lap down in 29th.  In five of those remaining 20 DNFs, #72 was flagged off the track for failing to maintain minimum speed.  But between Hubert, Shelmerdine, and modified racer Ted Christopher, who made a one-off at Loudon, Kirk Shelmerdine Racing managed to attempt the entire 2004 schedule, finishing the year with 14 DNQs.  The team, running the #27 once more, attempted another 16 races in 2005, but made just one each with Hubert, Christopher, and Shelmerdine, never running more than 33 laps before retiring.

2006 proved to be the highlight of Kirk Shelmerdine Racing.  While Chevrolet introduced a new body style for its Monte Carlo that year, Shelmerdine entered the race in an unsponsored black Chevrolet with the 2005 nose.  As in his four previous attempts to make “The Great American Race,” the odds were very much against him.  57 other drivers arrived to challenge for one of the 43 spots, and when Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil, Hermie Sadler, and Terry Labonte locked themselves in, Shelmerdine would have to race his way into the field.  The one thing he had going for him was his ranking on the speed charts.  His lap of 185.361mph ranked him 3rd among those not locked-in, meaning he still had a chance of making the show depending on where the other outsiders finished.  In Duel Race 1, Bill Elliott raced in, locking Gordon into the show.  And when Gordon himself raced in during Duel Race 2, Shelmerdine - 21st of 29 in Race 2 - secured the 42nd starting spot for his first Daytona 500.

Shelmerdine’s ride became the feel-good story of SpeedWeeks 2006.  He’d already acquired sponsorship from Apex Electric for the Duels, and his former boss Richard Childress paid his tire bills in exchange for logos for Childress Wineries on #27.  When the heavily-overcast race was done, Shelmerdine rolled home in 20th spot - not only a career-best Cup finish, but his first on the lead lap.  The run netted him a $272,008 share of the purse, enough to attempt a limited schedule.  He made the next two plate races at Talladega and Daytona, but an early crash in the former ultimately led him to park the latter.  He would not make another Cup race.

The last hurrah for Kirk Shelmerdine Racing came in 2010.  After finding reasonable speed in his all-black #27 Toyota, Shelmerdine stepped aside for Duel Race 1 and installed Todd Bodine to race his way in.  On the final lap, driver and team were once again on the cusp of making it.  The battle for the “Final Transfer Spot” fell to Bodine and Max Papis in Germain Racing’s #13 GEICO Toyota.  Coming off Turn 4, Papis slipped ahead, bringing John Andretti’s #34 with him.  Bodine, who had come from the rear of the 27-car field after the driver change, had just barely missed the cut.  After a handful more starts, including one more with Tom Hubert at Sonoma, Shelmerdine’s team closed, and the contents were auctioned off that September.

*The #72 would not finish last in another Cup Series race until October 14, 2006, when Mike Skinner’s #72 Dutch Quality Stone Chevrolet was involved in a Lap 2 crash during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.  Shelmerdine’s run remains the number’s only Cup last-place run at Kansas.

43) #72-Kirk Shelmerdine / 3 laps / clutch
42) #98-Larry Gunselman / 26 laps / suspension
41) #94-Stanton Barrett / 30 laps / vibration
40) #02-Hermie Sadler / 38 laps / rear end
39) #50-Todd Bodine / 66 laps / steering


Lou said...

Very good post. And a good look at a great person and his career. Thank you for a look back

Matthew L. Lewis said...

Always love discovering your posts! However you have it a bit wrong concerning the Curb sponsorship. The Phil Par$on$ team (which CURB co-owning in a partnership with Parksons) siezed the $$$ that anyone was gullible enough to throw at them and slapped the various letters onto the car very happy with their securing the "money to improve the team." (Yeah right, the typical s&p team PR b.s.) However, once Mike Curb (a staunch Republican) arrived at the track (he always appeared at Daytona) and saw a Democratic candidate on his car, the s*** hit the fan and it was HE, not NASCAR, who made the team remove the decals. He did the right thing and returned the money to the group who paid for it and put one of his Curb Records artists name on the car for the race itself.

Don't know if this would really count in your list, but don't forget he also put the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration (an organization he also helped to head) on Austin Dillon's Cup debut when he returned to the Cup series as an owner in 2011.