Originally created 02/23/03

Crew chief focuses on race



ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - There are two things obvious about Robert "Bootie" Barker.

First, disabilities have left him in a wheelchair, and second, it's a subject he won't talk about.

As the crew chief for the pole-sitting car in today's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway (12:30 p.m., FOX-Ch. 54), Barker was pushed into a limelight he doesn't fully appreciate - or want. He is barely comfortable talking about his Jasper Engines Ford and driver Dave Blaney. Any attention spent on his wheelchair is diverted with the same standard response.

"You know what my answer is going to be too, don't you? No comment," he said after thunderstorms washed out the final practice session for the race. "That's it. No comment. I'm going to stick to it."

Barker will not talk about the circumstances that put him in the wheelchair, nor will he talk of the obstacles about being a crew chief with such a disability. He also doesn't want to be considered a role model and was reluctant to even talk about winning the pole position because he was afraid people would put too much emphasis on his disability instead of his work.

"I didn't want to do anything different than a normal crew chief would as far as exposure or anything," he said. You've got your peers to consider and I didn't want to seem pretentious or whatever, but they felt it would be good for Jasper with it being our first pole and all that stuff, so I did."

When it comes to his race team, Barker has more to say. He left Bill Davis Racing's NASCAR Busch Series team after helping Scott Wimmer win three of the final five races in 2002. His impact with Jasper was immediate, since Blaney's speed of 154.683 mph during time trials gave the team its first pole since the 1994 season.

"You want to start out good, but I'm really more concerned about the race," Barker said of his quick start with his new employer. "I'm more excited about having that because you've got to do it every week. This is just the start.

"We weren't focused on getting the pole here. We were mostly in race trim (Friday during practice), so, I guess, in that respect is why I was most surprised. But I knew we were pretty good. I told (Blaney) we had a shot at it, so it wasn't totally unrealistic I guess."

Blaney, a former World of Outlaws sprint car national champion, has struggled to make his mark on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He is winless in 112 career starts and today's race is the first time he has started on the front row on the senior circuit. Barker brought a new way of thinking to the race team and has Blaney thinking several wins are possible this season.

"We have different kinds of cars, different people building them," Blaney said. "We just have a whole bunch of new things. We're just trying to improve our team a little bit everywhere. On paper I was real excited because I felt we did that. But you never know until you come out and race."

Blaney said of the new cars built for the 2003 season, the one he will drive today was supposed to be the weakest. His best cars were saved for next week's race at Las Vegas and the following week at Atlanta.

"I brought some things, but I don't want you to think that it's something revolutionary," Barker said. "We just switched to a standard car. We changed the way we hung the bodies. We changed the brakes and control arms. We changed the whole package, but it's nothing trick."

Barker's decision to spend most of Friday's practice session working on the race setup might prove valuable today. Rain postponed Winston Cup practice and the Rockingham 200 for the NASCAR Busch Series Saturday. Barker and Blaney at least have an idea what to expect at the 1.017-mile raceway.

After all, the North Carolina Speedway lends itself to surprise finishes. Johnny Benson, Mark Martin and Ward Burton all won their first Winston Cup Series race at the track known for its two-wide racing and excessive tire wear.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.