Originally created 11/17/00

Augusta racer seeks equality



HAMPTON, Ga. -- Preston Tutt held Friday's speed sheet with hands that have been hardened, scarred and stained by turning wrenches. His eyes scanned the list of ARCA Series drivers until he found his own name in 40th place.

He stood in the infield, protected from the rain that pushed back qualifying for the Georgia Boot 400 until this morning at 8:30, and fixed his attention on the towering 24-degree banking in Turns 1 and 2.

"The car's got more," he said. "There's plenty of speed waiting up there (in the banking) for me."

So much of Tutt's immediate reputation and future will rest on a single circuit around the 1.54-mile, D-shaped raceway. He will know before most people eat breakfast whether he's ready to join the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2001. A good run this morning is certain to bring a stamp of approval from NASCAR on his request to run the entire truck series next year.

NASCAR is careful not to allow young drivers the chance to drive on its superspeedways -- tracks of at least a mile in length -- without some sort of experience. That's why Tutt is trying to win a vote of confidence with an appearance in the ARCA Series.

So much will be riding on Tutt's qualifying lap. Not only does he want to please sponsors Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, and Abrams BBQ Sauce, but the Augusta driver is vying to become the only full-time black driver in any of NASCAR's three major series.

"That's something I don't talk about," Tutt said after valuable practice time was lost in an afternoon of rain. "It's not a big issue with the guys in the garage, so it's not a big issue with me. I'm a driver. I'm the guy in the (No.) 81 car, not the black guy. I want to be judged for my ability."

Tutt is not the first black driver to embark on a career in the truck series. Bobby Norfleet, also from Augusta, attempted to qualify in three races a year ago. He made the field once but later wasn't allowed to drive at Pike's Peak, Colo., because NASCAR said he hadn't shown enough experience to be allowed on a superspeedway.

Norfleet threatened to sue the stock car series for $100 million for discrimination.

The sanctioning body has talked to Tutt privately to gauge his true intentions. They, like others in the ARCA garage, apparently are convinced his only motive is to be a racer.

"He's another car to beat," said ARCA regular Andy Belmont. "He doesn't want to be treated any differently than anyone else out there. You have to respect that. He wants to be judged the same way the rest of us are judged -- on the racetrack."

Tutt has the equal opportunity he needs. Now, it's up to his Chevrolet Monte Carlo and his right foot to do the rest.

"The folks at NASCAR want to see us go through the motions," he said. "They want to see us out there running in practice, attempting to qualify for the race. I need to show them I can drive the car. I don't think I have to make the race to prove that. I just can't do anything that shows I can't drive the car."

There are 58 entries for Saturday's race. Tutt's practice speed of 179.912 mph was well short of Larry Foyt's session-leading speed of 190.052 mph.

The top 34 speeds in this morning's session will earn an automatic spot in the starting lineup. Another six will make the race on the basis of their position in the ARCA point standings.

Since this is Tutt's first appearance in ARCA, he's not eligible for a provisional exemption. To race on Saturday, he has to be one of the 34 fastest today.

"It's confidence, that's all," he said. "When we tested here two weeks ago, our fastest lap was 32.24 (seconds). Now, we're at 30.81. I figure if we cut one-tenth of a second off our time, that should move us up four more spots.

"The truth is, we didn't get a clean lap in practice. A turn of a wrench here, a tweak there, a little tape here, and we're in the show."

Tutt knows there's a fickle line between being fast enough to make the race and too fast for his own good. His confidence will have to be the final judge.

"I think we're better off being 35th fastest and not making the show than trying to be a one-lap hero and backing the car into the fence. That would prove we can drive after all."

Reach Don Coble.