Ask Clint Bowyer about the impact his hometown of Emporia, Kansas has had on his racing career and you’ll get a rare moment of silence from the 38-year-old Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver.
Then he’ll look you in the eye and respond with a short and powerful answer.
“People are what make you,” said Bowyer who, returns to race in Kansas Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City. “As you grow up in a community, it’s the people within that community who you learn from and everything else.”
The lessons taught by the 25,000 citizens of Emporia haven’t faded.
“When I first started car racing, it was in a ’78 Camaro, it was junkyard parts so you had to go to Junkyard John and, if you blew something up or needed a brake caliper or an A-frame or just anything – a spindle – you had to go to see Junkyard John," said Bowyer.
"My dad owned his own towing service in Emporia, so they always did business together and stuff. Impounded cars always went to the junkyard, and he always let me go over and rummage through the stuff and work on my stuff.”
If it wasn’t Junkyard John, then it was Muffler Don, who welded the roll cage with muffler tubing for Bowyer’s pony stock he rolled over about 12 times. Those two, along with a host of others, were responsible for helping Bowyer go from the Kansas dirt tracks to race in places like Daytona, Darlington and Indianapolis and build a NASCAR career that includes a 2008 Xfinity Series title, and eight Cup Series victories among his 429 starts in the sport’s highest division.
“Life’s all about timing, it’s all about chances that you get in life, and opportunities, and then you’ve got to be able to, I guess, have enough experience to prepare yourself for that opportunity and be able to capitalize on that opportunity,” Bowyer said.
“It seems like my career within a five- or six-year span went very fast, but we always kept moving. We never stayed in one class or anything, always kept moving up and forward progression, and that always enabled me to get in the next ride, the next opportunity, and capitalize on it really well.”
Bowyer hasn’t turned his back on Kansas, especially Emporia. He returns often to deer hunt, visit friends or just be part of the community. In March 2013, he bought the Clint Bowyer Autoplex car dealership on U.S. Highway 50, where he once worked as a lot attendant, dent specialist and detailer.
Across the street sits the Clint Bowyer Community Building, constructed in 2012 thanks to a $1.5 million donation from his foundation. Inside are 25 new computers at the public library. There is a scoreboard at the aquatic center, a video camera at the auditorium, shoes for the Big Brothers-Big Sisters program, backpacks for kids, Christmas trees for needy families. And, in nearby towns, playground equipment and the reconstruction of a tornado-ravaged community center – all of it and more paid for by Bowyer’s foundation, or out of the driver’s own pocket.
Emporia appreciates its native son, having renamed the street on which the family towing business resides as “Hon. Clint Bowyer Boulevard.”
The days of Junkyard John and Muffler Don are long gone and replaced by Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), Ford Performance and Roush-Yates Racing who have combined to field Bowyer’s No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Fusion this season. But the desire that began in Emporia will be the same Sunday in Kansas City.
Bowyer’s list of racing accomplishments includes a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Kansas in 2011, but it’s a Cup Series trophy from the track that he hopes will take center stage in his trophy case. Over the years, Bowyer has enjoyed some success at Kansas Speedway, posting two top-five finishes and six top-10s with 48 laps led in 18 starts, including a ninth-place finish in May.
“Kansas is obviously at the top of the list, right up there with a Daytona 500, of places I’d really like to get a victory,” he said. “I won’t complain no matter where we win our next race, but winning at Kansas would be extra special for a lot of people in the Bowyer family.”
Bowyer enters the weekend after an accident left him with a 35th-place finish Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The incident ruined a race that saw Bowyer finish sixth in Stage 1 and third in Stage 2.
While he’s racing for 17th in the driver point standings after falling just short of making NASCAR’s 16-driver playoffs, Bowyer’s first year replacing three-time champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 has been a success. The Mike Bugarewicz-led team has posted three second- and two third-place finishes.
The No. 14 team’s average finish of 15.3 is the 12th best of the full-time teams in 2017.
After Talladega’s disappointment, Bowyer could use some good luck, and there’s no better place than Kansas.
Just ask him.