Picking up speed

Eddie MacDonald, a winner in racing's minor leagues, has his sights on the big time

By David Cogger - Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2008
NEWBURY - Far from the world of customized motor homes and private jets that are commonplace in the upper echelons on NASCAR racing, Eddie MacDonald is climbing the ladder of the sport, working nights and weekends on a shoestring budget from a nondescript garage behind his family's sand and gravel business.

MacDonald's modified Ford Fusion rests on a jack in the cramped garage. The white racecar, number 71, is plastered with stickers from sponsors. A collection of mechanics mill about talking shop and lighting the occasional cigarette with a blowtorch. The space is jammed with homemade aluminum templates, slick tires, and oversized toolboxes.

The lifelong Rowley resident and his all-volunteer crew are in the midst of the painstaking work of tweaking the 600-horsepower racecar for the next race. NASCAR has three levels: the Craftsman Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, and the top-tier Sprint Cup, known formerly as the Winston Cup Series. NASCAR also owns and oversees local racing series, like the Camping World [Series], which is the equivalent of Double-A ball in the racing world.

At 28, MacDonald is a NASCAR veteran. He will drive the Ford at NASCAR's Camping World East race next Saturday at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn.

MacDonald aspires to drive on the Sprint Cup circuit, where household names like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Bush drive the same kind of car, but for big purses and million-dollar sponsorship deals.

But MacDonald's NASCAR journey flies in the face of how many drivers advance in modern-day racing.

Unlike the current crop of young drivers, who are often short on experience and long on cash, racing for prosperous, sponsored developmental programs, MacDonald is experienced, often cash-strapped, and lacking a big-name sponsor.

MacDonald's hardscrabble road has included lots of mom-and-pop tracks and odd jobs.

At just 7, MacDonald started racing go carts at his family's track, Lee Motor Speedway, in southern New Hampshire. By the time he was 15, he had graduated to a stock car, employing a ragtag bunch of guys from his high school hockey team as a pit crew.

"We had to get someone to drive the car to the track, because we weren't old enough to drive," MacDonald said. "I loved it, my crew chief was only 14 years old."

But despite years of experience and the support of friends, family and strangers, MacDonald's drive toward the Sprint Cup has been marred by pitfalls.

In 2006, a local businessman who had an ownership interest in MacDonald's racecar was arrested. MacDonald lost the bulk of his financial backing and was blackballed by NASCAR - a major setback for the young driver, who says that he knew nothing of the car owner's legal troubles.

The situation forced MacDonald and his crew chief, Rollie LaChance, to take over ownership of the car. The two were so short on cash they could not afford to pay entry fees and entered only a handful of events.

MacDonald has also pieced together last-minute deals, scrambling for money to pay for things like tires (at $190 per). Engines cost $27,000 and have to be rebuilt after five races at a cost of approximately $10,000. The protective seat and harness system alone is $2,000. And rigs used to measure and adjust tire camber and front-end geometry can run into the millions.

MacDonald built his own rig for a fraction of what sponsored teams pay.

The sponsor stickers represent a collection of "contingency sponsors," or those who pay money to the driver if he meets certain conditions, like Coors Light which pays MacDonald $1,500 if he earns the pole position in qualifying races.

"Whether you are sponsored or not, you can still race," MacDonald said. "The benefit of sponsors is that they get all of the little things that you need and provide full-time help."

Fortunately, MacDonald and LaChance won the first race they entered in 2007.

And Robert Grimm, the owner of a large construction company in Pennsylvania, took notice. Grimm not only purchased the car, he asked MacDonald if he would stay on as its driver.

Grimm paid entry fees and expenses for a few races last year, and is paying for all 13 races this year. In addition, he supplies a car hauler with a complete mobile shop setup, and pays transportation costs for MacDonald's crew.

"We connected with Eddie and Rollie right away," Grimm said. "He's an awesome driver. When the time comes to get up on the wheel, he just gets it done. He's just an all-around nice guy."

"We wouldn't have been able to run the whole series this year without him," MacDonald said of Grimm.

With solid ownership, MacDonald is poised to make a move.

In June, he took first place at the Heluva Good! 125 in Loudon, N.H. For MacDonald and his family, who seldom miss a race, winning in front of the hometown crowd was special.

His older sister, Jennifer Mariani, an IT professional, is protective of Eddie's interests and actively involved in seeking sponsors. Her husband volunteers on the pit crew.

During a recent race in Oxford, Maine, she monitored MacDonald's progress via her Blackberry. Eddie was racing in a truck series race and was still leading through lap 65 of a 250-lap race.

Kevin Harvick, a Sprint Cup driver, was on his rear bumper. MacDonald's girlfriend text messaged race updates to Jennifer: "Harvick doesn't have enough to keep up with Eddie."

Harvick won the race and MacDonald finished eighth. The purse for first place was $25,000.

"His recent win at Loudon is a huge deal," Mariani said. "It is the Daytona 500 of the East Series," which includes venues in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York.

"Eddie has this unique ability with people," she added. "He's pretty laid back, which has helped him to get what he needs. His win in Loudon was a 'popular win.' "

Clearly, MacDonald has a supportive group behind him.

"My ultimate goal is to make Sprint Series," MacDonald said. "To run up front and get noticed that way. A lot of people who don't go to races or don't have someone to follow don't really like racing. But once they have a driver to follow all the way through, their attitude about racing changes. It's not as much fun if you don't follow someone. It's not just a bunch of cars going around a track."

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