"I Still Believe in Santa Claus" ~ Jimmy Spencer
As promised last week on Twitter, here is a closer look at the guy we call “Mr. Excitement.” This article was first offered on the pages of Insider Racing News on August 30, 2003. If anything within appears outdated, that’s why. I did adjust Jimmy’s age forward, but all else is intact as written, 14 years ago.
I bid you welcome, gentle readers, to another in our series of tales from the middle of the pack, as it were. It’s long been my thought that without 43 drivers on the track, there would be no race, so I ask you not to overlook the important role they play in our weekend pastime, those drivers that seldom if ever visit Victory Lane. Unfortunately, not all of the drivers are members of multi-car, multi-dollar teams, but if they are racing at the Cup level, they got there through their racing talent. Each one of them has friends, family and fans, and every driver on the track is worthy of our respect.
Today, your scribe has chosen to share a bit about a racer for whom we've had a few requests… the man they call, “Mr. Excitement", Jimmy Spencer.
Last I knew, Jimmy Spencer resided in Huntersville, N.C., with his wife Pat, but that’s quite a distance from where he started in life. Jimmy was born on February 15, 1957 in the tiny town of Nanticoke Pennsylvania. If you’re counting, that means he’s 60 years old today. He grew up in Berwick Pennsylvania, which at that time was a long way from NASCAR country. It’s become common knowledge that his father Ed [Spencer Sr.] owned and ran a junkyard, a fact that from time to time has inspired joking comments about the meanness of a junkyard dog. I’m sure that Jimmy has heard them all and that all they succeed in eliciting is that boyish grin that makes a grown man resemble an impish ten-year old.
That Boyish Grin
He came by his love of racing and his talent for it quite honestly, since Ed, better known in racing circles as "Fast Eddie" was a racer in his own right, having been twice the Late Model Champion at Port Royal Speedway, with 34 wins at that Pennsylvania track. In actuality, all three of the Spencer boys tried their hand at racing, Jimmy’s brothers being Ed Jr. and Paul. I remember seeing young Paul race a couple of times and he was pretty good, but he surely wasn’t Jimmy.
It was almost a given that Jimmy’s racing career would begin at Port Royal, and in 1976 he went racing there for the first time in the Late Model division. By April, he’d won his first race and was named track Rookie of the Year for that year. After a couple more years of racing at Port Royal, Jimmy moved up to the Modified ranks in 1979 and went racing at Shangri-La Speedway in Owego, N.Y. with some of the very best in the business. (Owego was only about 100 miles from where I lived back then, so I was quite familiar with Jimmy, early on) Once again he garnered Rookie of the Year honors, and as time progressed, it seemed that he’d found his niche in racing. In 1983, he was Shangri-La Track Champion, which included winning the “Race of Champions” on the now defunct ¾-mile track at Pocono. (It was located inside the big 2.5-mile triangle) In backing up that prestigious win, he also captured the Stafford Spring Sizzler the following year.
It was in 1986 that he and car owner Frank Cicci decided to make a run for the NASCAR Modified title, and it was probably no accident that they came to that decision after the death at Martinsville Speedway in October of 1985 of Richie Evans. Richie was one of the best racers ever to sit behind a steering wheel, and held nine Championship titles in the Modified division, with eight of them running consecutively from 1978 through 1985. (Richie was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the class of 2012; the only non-stock car personage to be so honored to date)
Jimmy not only took the Modified crown in 1986 but also repeated the feat in 1987, earning him the nickname of “Mr. Excitement”, one that is still with him today. With those titles in hand, he and Cicci made the decision to move up together to the NASCAR Busch series for the 1988 season and managed to finish seventh in the points. Jimmy won his first race in the Busch series at Hickory Motor Speedway (I really miss that track, don't you?) the following spring and after two more victories, signed with Buddy Baker to drive his Winston Cup entry, the Crisco sponsored Baker/Schiff #88, along with Cicci’s Busch car. (In the Busch car, over two years, he piled up 3 wins, 9 top-five and 24 top-ten finishes in 52 starts.) At the time, the ride with Buddy seemed like one of those marriages made in heaven since Jimmy’s driving style was very reminiscent of that of the “Gentle Giant” Baker.
Their first effort was on June 4, 1989 at Dover and Jimmy finished 34th. In all, the pair would run 17 times that year, scoring three top-10 finishes and eight in the top 20. Although both felt that with a little time they would have a winning team, the Crisco sponsorship went away, and with it went Baker/Schiff Racing. Sadly, that kind of luck or timing would be repeated several more times throughout Jimmy’s career.
In 1990, he drove the #57 Heinz Ketchup sponsored car for Rod Osterlund (The owner of Dale Earnhardt’s first Winston Cup car), who had been making another foray into the Winston Cup ranks. In 26 races that year, Jimmy only managed to glean two top-10 finishes in what was admittedly an underfunded ride and at the end of the year, not only was the sponsorship gone, but Osterlund as well.
In 1991, Jimmy raced his first season for his great friend in racing, Travis Carter, driving the #98 Chevy sponsored by Banquet Foods. In 29 starts that year, Travis and Jimmy scored one top-5 finish, six top-10s and 12 in the top 20. At the end of the year, Banquet Foods removed their sponsorship from Winston Cup racing, leaving Jimmy without a regular ride for 1992.
Travis had a description of Jimmy back then, that was passed on to the fans by Buddy Baker, and I’ve never forgotten it. Pardon me if this quote is not verbatim, but it’s as close as I can come. Carter said, “Jimmy is the kind of guy who, if I told him there was a guy at the gate looking for him and he had a gun, Jimmy would say ‘I guess I’d better go get a gun and find out what he wants.’”
He spent the 1992 season as a sub, driving one race for Moroso Racing after the unfortunate death of Robbie Moroso, and splitting the remaining 11 races between Bobby Allison’s #12 Raybestos Ford and Travis Carter’s #98 Ford, supposedly with new sponsorship from Moly Black Gold. (An oil additive, I believe) In truth, that sponsor reneged on a contract and never put up a cent for the time their name was on the car. I believe there was a lawsuit instituted, but I have no idea if any funds were ever recovered.
In 1993, Bobby Allison found a full time sponsor for his #12 car in Meineke Brakes, and hired Jimmy for the full season. Although they scored no wins, that combination garnered 5 top-5s, 10 top-10s and 21 top-20s out of the thirty-race season. Things were looking up for Jimmy, and that caught the eye of the legendary Junior Johnson, who hired Jimmy for the 1994 season to drive his #27, McDonalds-sponsored Ford.
Under Johnson’s tutelage, Jimmy learned to be a calmer and more focused driver, rather than just putting pedal to the metal and using up the car before the race was over. He captured his first Bud Pole award at North Wilkesboro Speedway (Another track that I sorely miss) in April. On July 4 of that year, he scored his first Winston Cup Victory in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, snatching the win from Ernie Irvan, who was at the top of his form then. Three weeks later, Jimmy scored his second (and last, to date) victory in the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
It looked like Jimmy had finally caught a break, but alas, fate had other plans. His teammate, Bill Elliott, left Johnson at the end of the year to start his own team and took with him the McDonalds sponsorship. Left without a sponsor for the #27, Johnson shut down the team and Jimmy was once more odd man out.
It wasn’t all bleak however. Enter best friend Travis Carter, with a new team, a new car, #23 and a brand new sponsor from none other than R.J. Reynolds, the parent company of Winston. With their Camel brand on the hood and Jimmy Spencer at the wheel, the racing world said “Hello” to the very controversial “Smokin’ Joe’s” Ford, painted a truly ugly purple and yellow, with a cartoon caricature of a camel as its logo.
Although they never won a race together, Jimmy and Travis remained together for seven years, through the 2001 season. In 1998, political pressures to lose the cartoon camel caused R.J. Reynolds to change the sponsorship on the car to “Winston No Bull”, and to withdraw their sponsorship altogether for the year 2000, in compliance with the new rules placed on tobacco advertising. That brought in a new sponsor, K-Mart and a new teammate, Todd Bodine.
While all that was happening, Jimmy remained active in the NASCAR Busch series as well, forming his own team in 1996, with Zippo lighters on the hood as sponsor. Later he would team up with James Finch in that series.
The 2001 season was not stellar for the #26. Although he sat on two Bud poles that year and qualified in the top-25 twenty-six times, he managed only three top-5 finishes and eight top-10s, while failing to finish seven times. He did however, manage to clear the $2 million mark for the first time in his career that year. Some of that of course, came from scoring three wins and ten top-10s in Finch’s Busch entry.
In 2002, Jimmy signed to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, as a teammate to Sterling Marlin, and took the wheel of the Target sponsored #41 Dodge. That season got off to a very rocky start when the car failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, and it never got much better. In fact, it ended with only two top-5s and 6 top-10s, with another DNQ at Watkins Glen in August. Despite having a contract for the following year, Ganassi informed Spencer that his services were no longer needed and replaced him in the Target car with rookie Casey Mears. Adding insult to injury, Ganassi swung a deal with James Finch to let his other young rookie, Jamie McMurray, drive Finch’s Busch car in the races where Jimmy had been the driver.
2003 found Jimmy driving the #7 Sirius sponsored Dodge for Jimmy Smith, owner of Ultra Motorsports. That team united Jimmy with an old friend as his crew chief, Tommy Baldwin Jr. Jimmy and Tommy’s father, Tom Sr., were fierce rivals back in the modified ranks, but these two spoke the same language and seem to think the same way.
Mongo is the name of the star-eyed dog
When questioned about his new team owner, who was then somewhat an unknown in the Cup ranks, Jimmy said, “Jimmy Smith has been doing this a long time -- a lot longer than people realize. He's been very successful with the trucks. He was an off-road racer. Jimmy does what it takes. He's a great guy. I've known him and his dad, D.J., for a long time. A lot of people don't know that D.J. and Jimmy were associated with Junior Johnson years ago and just loved racing.”
The end result of 2003 was more of the same for Jimmy, scoring only one top-5 and 4 top-10s on the season. Then it was déjà vu, all over again, as sponsor, Sirius Satellite Radio dropped its sponsorship at the end of the year, and with that, pretty much ended Jimmy's racing career. He did drive 26 races in 2004, for Morgan-McClure racing out of Abington Virginia, a once proud team and multiple Daytona 500 winners with driver Sterling Marlin, but alas, that team had fallen on hard times, lacked any sponsorship whatsoever for many of those races, and what there was didn't pay the bills. In what one could only call a very bad year, there were no top-5s, no top-10s… nothing. Jimmy did catch a few fill-in rides the next couple of years, and though he's never officially retired, his racing days are over… unless they put back the doors that open to provide ingress and egress to the racecars.
Quite often, we hear the expression, “There are drivers and there are racers.” Jimmy Spencer is a racer; make no mistake about that. Additionally, Jimmy is no loser. In his 427 Cup starts, he finished in the top-20 211 times, with 2 wins, 28 top-5s and 80 top-10s. We saw what he did with Junior Johnson and the McDonald's sponsorship. Imagine what his numbers might have read, had he ever found a sponsor that stayed with him… and those are just his Cup stats. If we add in those from Busch, Trucks, ARCA and several Modified divisions, you have the picture of a complete "Racer!"
On top of that, Jimmy has become quite accomplished behind a microphone or in front of a TV camera. He hosted a pseudo-NASCAR talk show, “What’s the Deal?” on SPEED. He acted as co-host, with John Roberts and Kenny Wallace on the SPEED pre-race and post-race shows, NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane as well as doing a commentary and Q&A segment on SPEED's NASCAR Race Hub. (SPEED… come home; all is forgiven and we miss you!)
You can bet that Mr. Excitement takes his racing seriously, and his aggressive style has perpetuated the myth the he’s “Meaner than a junkyard dog”, but in reality, he’s not any more aggressive than many of the “young guns” circling the ovals today. What he does have going for him, which many of them haven’t grown into yet, is a tender side that was seldom seen on the racetrack.
Besides spending as much time as possible with Pat and in earlier years, with their two children, Jimmy Jr. and Katrina, Jimmy is not afraid to spend time on his knees, for a couple of reasons. First, he is a God-fearing and religious man, as are a good number of racecar drivers. In Jimmy’s own words, “If you don't think there's a God, just wake up in the morning and watch the sun come up, or watch a flower bloom over the period of a couple days. It's incredible. There's a lot higher power than we can account for.”
That statement leads us to the other reason that you’ll find Jimmy on his knees. It may be just a bit surprising, but no more so than finding out that Rosie Greer did needlepoint to relax. Jimmy Spencer, all two hundred and some pounds of him, is an avid gardener, and I’m not referring to tomatoes and peppers. Jimmy grows flowers… roses in particular.
When asked some time ago, in an interview with Dave Rodman (nascar.com) what his favorite in the garden would be, he answered, “Roses are, because if you've got a really nice rose they are really awesome, but they are hard. You've got to really be on top of them all the time. I love flowers -- any kind of flowers. They all have different personalities. Gerbera daisies are very pretty flowers and so are geraniums, daisies, roses, petunias. Every kind of flower out there is awesome. I think you also need to mix a lot of structure in there -- hollies and things like that. Everybody needs to do gardening, in my opinion, because it is really relaxing and you realize there is a God when you watch that stuff bloom. That stuff don't bloom by itself -- there is a good Lord above, between the birds and the bees pollinating stuff, it's awesome.”
In the same interview, Jimmy was asked what his favorite event of the year was, and he obviously interpreted the question to mean “Holiday.” His answer was, “I have a lot of them. I think Easter's a pretty neat day, but I look forward to Christmas Day -- I do. I know the good Lord sent Jesus down and He was born, but it won't be long now that Christmas won't mean the same to me with my kids being gone. To watch my kids' faces growing up -- the memories and the pictures and watching them with pride with the things you had gotten them. Believing in Santa Claus -- I still believe in Santa Claus. That day, when you see a child see Santa and the excitement he has coming down the steps on Christmas morning. Then, the older they get they realize that Christmas is for Jesus. It's life, and then they get old. But you can never turn back time -- you've just got the memories.”
Those words, gentle readers, are not the words of a “junk yard dog,” but the words of a gentle and loving father who just happens to have been one hell of a racer. I hope that I’ve shared some things with you about Jimmy that you weren’t aware of before today. For my part, I’d love nothing better than to see Mr. Excitement back in Victory Lane, beaming that boyish smile at the cameras. Sic ‘em Mongo!
And time now for our Classic Country Closeout. For Country Music lovers, this 1970 edition of the Johnny Cash Christmas Show is very special as it features the first time that baby John Carter Cash is seen by the viewing audience. Please enjoy!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!