Greg Hodnett; Contributor

Contributor

Greg Hodnett

In 1997 I had my most successful season racing with the World of Outlaws. The following year we had Vivarin sponsorship but we didn’t have as much success. A couple of weeks before the Nationals my car owner decided to make a change. The team let me go and hired Tim Shaffer.

So here I was coming off what was a pretty decent season in ‘97. Dave Blaney had just won the Knoxville Nationals and we’d run second. He left and went on to NASCAR. The people who owned Vivarin wanted to stay involved and luckily we were able to land that for Dave Helm and the team. I thought things were really going to go well and were heading in the right direction.

It was a bit of a disappointment I guess to be kicked off the Outlaws tour. Not because I was going to have to race in Pennsylvania. It was because I’d worked all of my life to become an Outlaw and now the opportunity was gone. It was tough mentally but I was very fortunate to get involved with a very good team.

Shaffer had been driving the Bob Stewart-owned Apple Car in Pennsylvania that was wrenched on by Lee Stauffer. Lee asked me if I’d be interested at driving their car at the Knoxville Nationals and I said yes. So essentially Tim Shaffer and I ended up just swapping rides.

We ran really well at Knoxville together that first weekend. We set quick time and I think we ran pretty good. The next week we made the Nationals A-main together. We weren’t great in the feature but we did make it.

Greg Hodnett driving the no.27 at Volusia Speedway in Florida | Photo: Jeffrey Turford
Greg Hodnett driving the no.27 at Volusia Speedway in Florida | Photo: Jeffrey Turford

South or East?

After the Nationals I was leaving and Lee said ‘Hey, if you wanna run, we’ll run.’ I was kind of at a crossroads and I’d gotten to the point in my travels where I was gonna have to go south to Memphis or head east to Pennsylvania. I had to make a decision, either I was gonna have to do something way different or take what I had lined up for next week if I wanted it. I don’t know why I just decided I’d head east right then and there.

I drove over and started running the Apple Car and I ended up staying for all of ‘98 and ‘99 before I went back on the road with Guy Forbrook in 2000. I came back to the Apple Car and ran through 2001 to 2004.

So we went back to Pennsylvania after the Nationals and made a few changes. By the end of the ‘98 season we won a lot of really big races like the Tuscarora 50, the Sharon Nationals and I think we were second to Mark (Kinser) at the National Open, but the last day got rained out so it ended up not being a complete World of Outlaws show. We were really competitive so at the end of the year it would have been dumb to try and do something else. I had a really competitive team that was to the point that when I did show up anywhere I felt like we could win. The team obviously raced a lot in Pennsylvania and I thought it could be a decent way to make a living.

It helped that I had a great car owner in Bob Stewart. Bob is a really good guy. He is a unique individual who had his hand in a lot of things within his own companies which was Stewart Companies, based in York, Pennsylvania. Again, he’s a very unique individual because he likes to be mentally challenged. He mentally challenged both Lee, myself and everyone involved in the team to try to come up with different ideas and things that would make us faster. He likes to call it a mechanical advantage. Bob pushed pretty hard to make sure that there was ingenuity in the race cars that I was driving at the time and to make sure that we were mechanically better than everyone else. As a result the driving aspect of racing for that team was easier.

Probably nobody knows this but he raced go-karts himself. He did his own engines. He would get stuff sent from California because California guys at the time he was running were the best in the country. He was doing stuff back here that no one even knew about. Bob was very diligent on research, very thorough on trying to find the newest, latest, greatest technology.

Bob’s influence was felt in our motor program as well. Lee and Ed (Lee’s father) were doing things with motors that a lot of sprint car guys hadn’t even tried yet. Those two were ahead of the curve in the motor department for quite a while. Ed and Lee did the team’s motors until Ed was diagnosed with colon cancer and got sick. At that point the team decided to go with Charlie Garrett.

Bob’s kind of funny in that he’s not as much concerned with results as he is in implementing technology. I know that sounds really weird, but he stresses that he wants to try new things to try to be better, to try to innovate and with that the wins will come. That was his philosophy.

Greg Hodnett made the move to PA in 1998 to race for Bob Stewart | photo: Jeffrey Turford
Greg Hodnett made the move to PA in 1998 to race for Bob Stewart | photo: Jeffrey Turford

Lethal combo

I think Lee and I worked together well for a lot of reasons. We are basically the same age so we can communicate and talk music, chicks or whatever and we were just familiar with each other.

We both grew up the same way, we had a “Tough love” upbringing. One of the similarities that we had was that our dad’s were tough guys. Ed was tough on Lee. There are different ways of parenting and I’m not sure of what’s best or what’s worst. I know from our standpoint and the way we were both raised, was that we were pushed to do the best that you could do and if you didn’t you weren’t patted on the back and told ‘Hey, good job.’ There wasn’t a lot of gray area for us growing up, everything was black and white and if you did something you had to do it right, you had to work hard at it and you had to figure it out. Our parents really didn’t accept excuses.

When you are raised in that environment you have got to do what you need to do. I’m proud that my father raised me that way and I think Lee is too. I think that similarity allowed Lee and I too communicate as people and had enough respect for each other because of the way we were raised. Yeah, there’s been some yelling and stuff like that back and forth sometimes but that’s kind of how we grew up.

I realized Lee and I were going to have success when we first got together and started talking about things. We spent a lot of time just talking about what I feel and what I thought I’d like to feel. Lee talked about things they had done, I talked about what I had done, things that worked and things that didn’t work.

Lee has a really good eye for the car. After a while we didn’t even have to talk to be honest with you. I didn’t have to say anything. On a red flag I could look at him with a certain look and he’d go ‘Okay, I’ve got it, I see what’s going on.’ It was just a good combination at the time. Lee was coming out from his father’s wing and I was kind of stepping out of my comfort zone. I think it was a time where we both had to mature because again, we were the same age and going through a lot of the same situations. It just worked out. We also had a lot of fun doing it. We could hang out, we listened to the same music and checked out the same girls.

A great example of us working together was in the Jim and Sandy Kline No. 22 car at an Outlaws show at Williams Grove. We started like fourth or fifth and we fell back to about ninth or 10th. Just before I think it was Kerry Madsen and Tyler Walker ended up crashing I had found a little strip of clean track.

When we got to the red Lee was like ‘Man, we’re terrible.’ I said ‘Look, I think the track is changing and I’ve found something off the bottom of turn two and I think if we can be just a little bit better to where you can get me there and I can stay there I think we can get them off of two.’ Lee made some changes and we were phenomenal.

The cushion was way out. At Williams Grove if the cushion gets way far out like that, if there’s anything off turn two you’re going to eventually get going.

Things looked so bleak though that my owner’s Jim and Sandy had pretty much given up on us and during the red and they started walking out. They were walking to the bridge to go home because they had to get up really early in the morning for work. So they were actually at the bridge, waiting to cross the track and sure enough we started moving up through the field and they had to run back across the track when we actually won.

It’s just little things that make a difference. Sometimes it’s me changing things or it’s Lee changing something under a red. The biggest thing is me explaining why I’m doing the things that I’m doing because of what the car is doing. If we can change the car then we can do it the way I’m supposed to be doing it.

We came to a very early understanding that if I’m not where I’m supposed to be or I’m not doing what I should be doing that there is a reason for it. So if we can identify the reason then I’ll do what I need to do. Lee had enough faith in me to say ‘Okay, I get it and I understand where you’re coming from.’ Once we got on that page we became very competitive together.

The Owners

I’ve been fortunate in my career to drive for the best car owner’s in Pennsylvania. They are all very unique individuals who all just loved sprint car racing.

Mike Heffner grew up with his dad and they used to go to Silver Springs which is closed now, actually. He just fell in love with sprint car racing back then and was fortunate enough in business to put himself in a position to own one.

Our tracks are tough to get around and the competition is very, very strong.

Jim and Sandy Kline were the same in that they became involved with racing because of Silver Springs. Fortunately for them and for me, Jim started a business that became very successful and they could afford and had the ability to field a race car.

John Trone’s dad had race cars back in the fifties. They ran them out of his dad’s auto shop and they called it the Trone Special back when they named race cars. He’s just been in love with racing and he’s just a super big fan.

Al Hamilton raced himself and he was a good racer. He drove, raced and won. His brother worked on the car for him.

The underlying, common denominator of all of them was that they just loved sprint car racing.

Hodnett blasts through turn 4 at Volusia | Photo: Jeffrey Turford
Hodnett blasts through turn 4 at Volusia | Photo: Jeffrey Turford

Facing The Posse

When you are an Outlaw, racing in Pennsylvania is just so tough. Our tracks are tough to get around and the competition is very, very strong. If you weren’t going good or you weren’t comfortable then it made having to come to PA a real challenge and it was something you did not look forward to.

If someone had told me I’d end up racing full-time in PA and made a great living here I never would have believed them. It’s funny because when I was in third grade they had an aptitude test on what you might want to do in life and I was steered towards mechanical engineering. I planned my entire scholastic career and my life to achieve that goal. I took the proper classes, got great grades in an effort to eventually earn and subsequently graduate cum laude with a Mechanical Engineering degree.

It all seemed like a great plan until I started racing at the age of 16 at which point my new life plan became competing on a full time basis with The World of Outlaws. I approached racing the same way I did my education, I was all in. It’s kind of funny but by the time I got to be in high school they had a deal in their yearbook where they asked what’s your quote? Mine was ‘If you can’t race it or take it to bed, it’s not worth having.’

For me I always wanted to race sprint cars, I always wanted to be on the World of Outlaws tour and I was just hoping to race the WoO tour forever. It just didn’t work out that way. If someone would have asked me even when I was 28 if I would be Pennsylvania Posse I would have never even given it a second thought. I’d have asked if you were smoking something?

When I ran the Outlaws deal that first year we were on such a shoestring. It was just me and Mike Cool. It was just two of us up until I think like July. We were running motors 24 nights and just trying to make laps basically. We were just trying to survive when we got to Pennsylvania.

After a couple of more years with the TW Team I think we ran okay in PA. I can’t really remember what we did there. We won Hagerstown when I was with Forbrook but really there was no big highlights in PA because I just wasn’t very competitive.

Greg Hodnett was runner-up at The 1997 Knoxville Nationals | photo: Jeffrey Turford
Greg Hodnett was runner-up at The 1997 Knoxville Nationals | photo: Jeffrey Turford

Looking at the Finances

At the end of the ‘98 season I got to looking at things financially. I found that in terms of being in a central location versus on the road that the numbers worked in my favor to stay in PA. I know that sounds crazy.

If you’re not having Donny Schatz-type years, financially things can be pretty tough from a driver’s standpoint. You have to take care of all of the expenses of going up and down the road when you’re self-employed, you’ve gotta do things like pay your own pit passes. There’s a lot of things involved with being a driver that are costly.

If you go win a race people think, ‘Oh, you just won a $10,000 race,’ but you don’t keep the full $10,000. You have to factor in getting there and all of that kind of stuff. It just seemed to make more sense financially to stay in PA because I was with a team that we could run very well with and as long as we were running well and everything was financially feasible I figured it was a really good option for me.

Claimed by the Posse

I don’t know when I became “Posse.” The fans kind of adopted us when we started winning against the Outlaws guys, I guess. It took a couple of years, I’d say about two or three years of being a regular there. Obviously when the Outlaws come to town it’s “Us versus them” and I guess I was “Us.”

I think the fans have more of an “Us versus them” attitude. At least for me anyway, it’s me versus everybody. I have a ton of respect for the guys who travel the country because I know how hard it is. I know how you get beat up going up and down the road. I know how hard it is when you’re struggling and you’ve gotta come into Pennsylvania and if you’re not comfortable you almost hate even being there.

I understand exactly how difficult it is to come here and I have the utmost respect for all of those guys for doing it. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to beat them as bad as anyone else though. I respect what those guys do and I admire how they can be fast in any situation.

Obviously when the Outlaws come to town it’s “Us versus them” and I guess I was “Us.”

It’s a different world racing in Pennsylvania. I don’t understand exactly why but when you’re on the tour everybody kind of hangs out, stays at the same hotels and get to the track early together because they’ve been kicked out of those hotels at 11. You hang out with your competitors a lot more and it’s a lot more of a social environment in that respect because you have more time to be that way.

In Pennsylvania, they open just two hours before the race starts and it usually takes half an hour just to get through the gates. Hot laps are about half an hour before the race so you have literally about an hour to unload your car, make your final preparations and get everything set. It’s just a different environment and there’s a lot less social interaction, at least for me there is. I just spend that time thinking about what’s going to happen. It’s a different mindset.

We were in Yuma to start the year and we were having the same situation. We were just all kind of out there hanging out. We had a lot of time and it was just very relaxed because I’m used to Pennsylvania where it’s tough to socialize. Especially when the Outlaws are in town and then the intensity becomes very high.  You can cut the tension with a knife. Pennsylvania is just not a really relaxed atmosphere.

We also don’t run a lot of big money shows but the guys we race with race hard anyway. It doesn’t matter if it pays $1,000, $10,000 or $100,000 they’re gonna race hard. When you add the Outlaws and 20 more guys who are going to race the exact same way it’s just a much more intense atmosphere.

Hodnett has raced for several famed, PA-based car owners including Bob Stewart, Al Hamilton, Mike Hepfner and Jim and Sandy Kline | photo: Jeffrey Turford
Hodnett has raced for several famed, PA-based car owners including Bob Stewart, Al Hamilton, Mike Heffner and Jim and Sandy Kline | photo: Jeffrey Turford

One to Remember

One big money race we do run that I’m very proud to have won is the Williams Grove National Open. I don’t think anybody really thinks that Donny Schatz is beatable at Williams Grove because he’s just that good. I’ll be honest with you, he’s just that good. I did think we could win it though because we’d beaten the Outlaws at two races they’d had here earlier in the year.

One night was really slick, the next race we won was after it had rained the night before and the track was really heavy so I was confident as we were coming in on an undefeated streak. Our motors were running good, we were rolling around pretty good so we had a lot of confidence that we could do okay. I knew that we needed breaks and that we needed things to happen for us.

When we got there we were a little tight in qualifying so we changed the right rear bar and freed up a bit. We kept a little more stagger than we normally do because it had rained the night before.

We just tried to run our race. It was funny because I was talking to my wife just the other day about this race because www.dirtvision.com now has archived races and she was asking what happened in the race because she’s not like us racers in that she doesn’t remember every exact detail of what happened.

What happened was I was just cruising and saving my tires. I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t burn up the tires. Don’t burn up the tires.’ Donny was behind me and running the dog piss out of it. I was kinda trying to make sure nothing happened to my stuff.

There was actually one time where Donny probably could have used me up pretty good coming off of two. He had a huge run down off turn four and we went down into turn one and he gave me just enough to scoot by on the outside.

From that point on I was like, ‘Okay, stop screwing around, let’s go.’ I started running harder obviously trying to make sure he never got up to me again. There was a lot of crashes and a lot of opportunities for Donny to get me. I think there was even a green-white-checkered at the end.

I remember thinking. ‘Oh my gosh can this race just get over please?’ It felt like it took forever. In the end we just had a really good car. I could run the bottom if I had to and I had a car that I could rip around the top. The big thing was that we were able to move around and had a car good enough to keep Donny at bay.

Hodnett scored his first career WoO feature win at Battleground Speedway in Highlands, Texas | Photo: Jeffrey Turford
Hodnett scored his first career WoO feature win at Battleground Speedway in Highlands, Texas | Photo: Jeffrey Turford

What’s Next?

To be honest, I don’t really know where I see my career going from here. When we race the only race that is important to me is the next one. I’m not guaranteed one after that. It kinda doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. I don’t really ever have a plan for my career. I know that sounds crazy but it’s no different then when I first asked the question, ‘Do I want to head south or do I want to head east?’

Looking back I really don’t know why I decided one way or the other. I could have gone south and gone to work for some friends of mine and had a normal life. I didn’t, I don’t know why I didn’t, but I just decided to head east and I think racing is kind of the same thing.

If the opportunity is still here to race and race competitively, I’ll keep racing as long as my health holds out. The health thing is what scares me the most. My dad passed away with cancer and I don’t know that we’re working in the best environment in the world with all of our cleaners and all of the dirt and the dust that we breathe every day but who knows what’s going to happen? I don’t know that we have unlimited options but if we have them and I think we can be somewhat competitive I’d love to race for as long as I can.

At this point it would be really tough for me to go back on the Outlaws tour. It would have to be an absolutely perfect situation for me. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do that, I really would, especially if I had the dollars and the right team to do it with. I think it would be pretty cool because even in Yuma I’ll be honest with you, I had a really good time just seeing a lot of people. I hadn’t been out west in 15 years. I didn’t realize it was that long and I saw people I hadn’t seen in forever. It isn’t a make or break reason to go do the Outlaws deal but it would be kind of cool to do it one more time.

The reality is though that I have kids and I have grand kids. They have wrestling and they have gymnastics and I kind of have about as normal of a life as a racer can have. I get to make a pretty decent living without a whole lot of expenses and it’s really hard to justify doing anything different. But, never say never because circumstances change every day.

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