Originally created 10/13/04

Corporate America snubs ‘rough’ drivers



Nobody has ever questionedJimmy Hensley's ability todrive a race car. He's one ofonly 15 drivers in NASCAR BuschSeries history with at least 63 top-fivefinishes, including nine victories. Hewas a popular figure in the garage areabecause he raced hard, but he nevercrossed the line into recklessness.

He was so respected, AlanKulwicki left instructions to hireHensley to drive his car if anythinghappened to him. And when Kulwickidied in an airplane crash in 1993,Hensley got the ride, albeit briefly.

Unquestioned talent and sterlingreputation make for good testimonialsfor Sunday School, but it's a tough sellfor Corporate America. That's whyHensley now works for a fire sprinklercompany.

Hensley's slow Southern drawl isone reason why he's known as the"Virginia Gentleman," but it doesn'tplay well on Madison Avenue. He'slike many drivers who couldn't makeit in NASCAR because they couldn'tsell themselves to sponsors.

"I'm just an old country boy wholikes to race cars," Hensley said. "Iguess I wasn't polished enough, butsometimes that's not a bad thing. Ididn't fight every race. I didn't drink.

I didn't cause a lot of trouble. Maybethat was my fault."

Hensley quickly rose to prominencewhen Kulwicki died. Car ownerFelix Sabates handled the formerchampion's estate, and he quicklyhonored Kulwicki's wishes by hiringHensley. The team sponsor, Hooters,wasn't happy with the decision. Theywanted Loy Allen to replace Kulwickibecause he was younger and single.

When Sabates wouldn't go againstKulwicki's wishes, Hooters pulled out.

Morgan Shepherd knows all aboutsponsors calling the shots. He lost hisjob with Wood Brothers Racing in1995 when Citgo decided it wanted ayounger, flashier driver behind thewheel. Shepherd was out; a more-personableMichael Waltrip was in.

"All these young drivers came onboard and I got caught without aride," said Shepherd, who at 62 stillraces without significant sponsorship."Now it is very hard to get a job in racingif you're over 18, 19, 20. The Kyleand Kurt Buschs have come along,and they've done a good job drivingand a good job speaking.

"I've always been a $1.25-an-hourkind of guy. I wasn't brought into thissport with a lot of money."

And he's not going to leave with alot, either.

A failed sponsorship deal in 1998with an insurance company costShepherd everything. He not onlylost any hope of driving for anotherteam, he lost his cars and his raceshop. He lived with his son-in-lawbecause he was broke.

He now drives his own car withoutsponsorship - his hood has the logo"Racing with Jesus" - with hopes ofsomeday convincing a sponsor tocome aboard.

"We don't have money to race, butwe've got enough to make theshows," he said. "I have to do somethingfor a living. I recognized this isthe greatest mission field that hasn'tbeen touched. I have Jesus on myhood because I serve the Lord."

Hensley used to think the samething.

"Maybe I should have beaten thebushes like I could have," Hensleysaid of working with sponsors. "If Icould do it all over again, maybe I'ddo it differently. I did it my way and Ifeel good about that."

Tommy Ellis, winner of 22 BuschSeries races, had a reputation forbeing a rough driver with a fiery temperament.

He now runs a chain of carwashes in Richmond, Va.

Steve Kinser, the all-time winningestdriver in World of Outlawshistory, was fired from his ride withKenny Bernstein when Quaker Statedecided he wasn't polished enough asa speaker to represent them.

"Guys like Tommy could drive thewheels off a car, but he didn't play thepolitics," Hensley said. "And sometimes,that's not all bad."