Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jack Sellers (1944-2016)

SOURCE: Brock Beard
Last night, K&N Pro Series West driver Jack Sellers, a veteran of 32 seasons and 282 starts, passed away at age 72.  If you’ll excuse me for personalizing this piece, I’d like to share some memories of a man I’ve come to know these past couple years.

In 2014, while preparing to cover the NASCAR weekend at the Sonoma Raceway, I watched the 1990 Banquet Frozen Foods 300, the second-ever Winston Cup race on the California road course.  This was the era of “companion races,” where the two Winston Cup stops at Sonoma and Phoenix invited drivers from the Winston West Series - now the K&N Pro Series West - as a points-paying race.  Of the 44 starters in the race, 10 were West Series regulars, including the driver who started last.  His name was Jack Sellers.

That day at Sonoma, Sellers was driving a bright green Buick, a former Quaker State machine that Ricky Rudd piloted during his time with King Racing, a single-car team formed by drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein.  It was a rear-steer backup car Rudd had on hand for the inaugural race at Phoenix, the day when he lost an engine while leading, handing Alan Kulwicki his famous first win.  Sellers chose car #44 since that was his age when he bought it the previous year. Sponsorship came from Coca-Cola by way of a curious family connection.  Sellers’ grandfather, Nathan M. Sellers, was the first to sell the soda in Northern California in 1927.  His bottling plant, built that year in Sacramento, has remained in the family ever since.

Sellers made his first Cup start that day, but was by no means a rookie.  He’d been active in the Winston West Series for more than five seasons with a best finish of 7th on another road course, the Spokane Grand Prix Course, in 1987.  His Sonoma debut came after six Winston Cup DNQs, including the final three Cup events at Riverside International Raceway.

Sellers’ first Cup race didn’t go as planned.  On the first lap, he pulled #44 behind the wall, complaining of an oil leak that filled his car with smoke.  Repairs took longer when the car fell off the jack.  On Lap 4, as Ricky Rudd led the field in his new Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Sellers’ car lost an engine in the Esses, spun 180 degrees, and backed hard into the tire barriers.  Uninjured, Sellers managed to finish repairs on his car and come home under power.  He passed four cars by the checkered flag - including King Racing’s new driver Brett Bodine.

Sellers was an older driver on the circuit, but by no means unusual.  The 1990 Winston West championship - his second in a row - went to 54-year-old Bill Schmitt, who had run companion events in NASCAR since 1975.  And of course, there was the ageless 62-year-old Hershel McGriff, a fixture in NASCAR since 1950, who would compete in the West division until age 84.  Sellers also helped young drivers get their start.  In June of 1990, a 32-year-old Ron Hornaday, Jr. took his second West Series green flag in a Sellers-prepared Buick.

As it happened, my neighbor, a race fan himself, was one of Sellers’ volunteer crew members.  He remembered the driver as a “party animal” who enjoyed racing so much that he didn’t really worry where he finished.  Working at the Evergreen Speedway on July 12, 1992 stood out in his mind, and he shared his pictures from pit road.  In a race where Junior Johnson teammates Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin competed against the series regulars, he noticed Sellers was being lapped quite regularly.  He predicted he was losing 10 laps for each 100 run.  By the end of the 500-lap race, Sellers did end up 50 laps behind, but still earned a respectable 11th.  In time, Sellers would nickname himself "Back of the Pack Jack."

Little did I realize at the time that Sellers was still active in the K&N Pro Series West, preparing to make his 266th career start at the same Sonoma track.

The first time I met Jack Sellers, history had repeated itself.  On Lap 46 of the Carneros 200 at Sonoma, Sellers put a wheel off in Turn 9, lost control, and slammed nose-first into the barriers.  I left the media center and hurried over to the garage area just as the tow truck brought his red #15 MedActive Oral Care Chevrolet into the garage area.  Sellers, still inside, was helped out of his car by a single crewman.  He was okay, but the car was done.  With no one else around, it was easy to walk up to him for a quick word.  Having interviewed early retirements in the past, I wasn’t expecting much, but he was eager to talk.

“I fouled up,” he said.  “I was coming down the chicane going down into the last two turns coming through the Esses just as you make the sweeping left as you’re coming down the hill and I got too far to the left and got two wheels off and it bit me.  I did a 180 and went into the tires.  I’m all right.  We were having fun and I was really doing what I wanted to do and I was starting to move a little and I couldn’t ask for a better weekend, then I made it such a bad finish.”

We ended up having a nice conversation about his career, which had now reached its thirtieth year.  He told me about the old Ricky Rudd car and his runs in Cup, including the inaugural Brickyard 400.  He was 48 when he bought that Chevrolet Lumina, so car #48 it became.  He still had it at his shop as a show car and planned to run it in vintage events.

The last time I saw Sellers was this past June at Sonoma, this time on pit road during Friday’s practice session.  He was even busier at the track, keeping a close eye on the three cars he had in the field.  One of his young drivers was out putting his #15 through its paces.  He was 71 now, but just as sharp as ever.  He remembered our conversation from two years earlier.  “I was going by a guy and he put me in the dirt and just whoo!  Hit it hard!” he said.

Over some fresh fruit the team brought to the track, we talked about his cars and his team.  He said he didn’t like using his age as a number anymore, so decided to run anything with a 5 instead.  He also had a close eye on one of his competitors.  “Well, I’m fine,” he said, “but I keep getting taken out by the 84 car.  He took me out twice last race.”  We didn’t talk long.  He had his game face on, that competitive fire in his eyes, making sure his cars were dialed in.  I wished him good luck and went on my way.

In 282 career West Series starts - the most of any driver in series history - Sellers never won a race, nor finished in the Top 5.  He matched his career-best 7th from 1987 five other times, most recently at Evergreen in 2013.  His 32nd and final Top 10 came at Iowa in 2014, where he finished 10th.  That same year, he finished 9th in points - his first Top 10 in the standings since 1994 - a crowning achievement for one of the series’ most experienced veterans.

On behalf of LASTCAR.info, I would like to offer our condolences to the family and friends of Jack Sellers.  He exemplified the spirit and determination of NASCAR’s owner-drivers, a fixture in the garage who raced out of love for the sport.  Sonoma won’t be the same without him.

SOURCES:
1990 Banquet Frozen Foods 300 - First Caution, ESPN
Jack Sellers on Racing-Reference.info
Sacramento Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Inc.  
RacingWest Interview with Jack Sellers

1 comment:

Walter Elliott said...

Thank you for your heartfelt tribute for Jack Sellars. may his memory be for a blessing. I'll say a Mourner's Prayer for him and his family.