Kenseth And Reiser A Dynamic Duo
May 30, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Each day we face challenges that not only effect our own lives, but have a ripple effect that carry over to other lives as well. Such was the case with Robbie Reiser.
Like many competitors in NASCAR, Reiser is a second-generation racer. His father, John, began racing throughout Wisconsin in 1957, six years before Robbie was born. As a child, Robbie watched his dad battle in open wheel modifieds and late models and eventually win the Milwaukee Area Championship in 1973.
The younger Reiser took an early interest in the mechanical aspects associated with racing and while still in high school, Robbie began his own driving career. From 1990 to 1993, Reiser collected a variety of 14 different titles throughout the Midwest including three straight titles at Slinger Speedway, a quarter-mile oval near Milwaukee.
When the Busch Series announced it was returning to the Milwaukee Mile in 1993, Reiser attempted his first race in the NASCAR feeder division in a car he purchased from Dale Earnhardt.
He quickly came to the decision that if he was going to make it in NASCAR, he would have to move South. Reiser ran a total of 25 races over the next two seasons, but suffered knee injury in a crash at Talladega (Ala.) that sidelined him for part of the 1995 season.
The following year Reiser ran one Busch race and dabbled in the truck series before hanging up his helmet and going to work on Hut Stricklin’s Busch Series team. Toward the end of 1995, Reiser was approached by Kraft Foods to field a team with Tim Bender for the 1997 season. As owner and crew chief, Reiser assumed a different role.
Bender ran eight races -- capturing the pole at Atlanta -- before he was injured during an accident at Bristol Motor Speedway and resigned. Reiser stepped in at Bristol and drove the car, but knew that long-term he needed to find a more viable solution. He was able to check his driver’s ego and realistically consider the situation -- what was the best possible solution for Reiser Enterprises?
"The only way you survive here is by performance," Reiser said. "It made sense to bring up our performance level so we could sell sponsorships and win races, so that’s what we did."
He remembered a kid he used to race against in Wisconsin. A young guy like Reiser, who had challenged the track champion at night, while attending high school during the day. Matt Kenseth was a driver he could build a future around.
"It was more of a business decision than what I really wanted to do," Reiser indicated. "I wanted to keep Reiser Enterprises going and I didn’t have anybody at the time who could drive the car. Matt knew how to conserve equipment and he was very level-headed. I never really considered anyone else. It made more sense to hire Matt, than it did to have me drive."
Reiser and Kenseth were anything but friends when they raced late models in Wisconsin. In fact they were fierce rivals on the short tracks. Nevertheless, the Badger State boys were able to settle their differences and concentrate on what mattered most -- racing.
"I didn’t care much for him and he felt the same about me," Kenseth said. "We were very competitive with one another and didn’t give the other much slack. When Tim got injured, Robbie called to see if I would be interested in taking over the driving duties. I didn’t take me long to make up my mind. I packed my bags and moved to North Carolina."
Kenseth took over the driving duties for the No. 17 Reiser Chevrolet at Nashville and finished 11th. Over the next 20 races he scored two third- place finishes and seven top 10’s.
"I knew I had made the right decision," Kenseth said. "Robbie understood me and I understood him. He knew my driving style and what I needed under the hood to be competitive. That first year we raced well, but more importantly, we became friends."
Clearly, 1998 was the team’s breakthrough year, finishing second in points and winning at Colorado Speedway from the pole as well as events at Rockingham and Dover.
"I guess the smart part was not hiring a recycled driver, but hiring someone new who I felt could win races someday and that was Matt Kenseth," Reiser said. "That was the turning point. I realized that working on the cars was my strong suit -- where I manage the team, organize everything and prepare the cars for Matt to drive and he has the talent to drive them. I think that combination makes sense."
Last year, Reiser Enterprises finished third in the Busch Series points standings after experiencing some late season difficulties, but the pair’s path to success was already paved by their choice to move to NASCAR’s Winston Cup series under the auspices of Roush Racing.
"I don’t come from a wealthy background," Reiser said. "So I wasn’t able to do this on my own. Winston Cup Racing is a very expensive deal to get into, so this was a great way to get to the top level of racing with a driver I felt could win at this level. Pooling that with the resources that Roush Racing has here -- we saw an incredible opportunity.
"When you see opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. We just have to keep working on improving our position."
There are many teams in Winston Cup racing who have never taken a checkered flag, but in what was the No.17 DeWalt team’s 17th career start, Kenseth became the first rookie ever to win NASCAR’s longest event, the Coca-Cola 600.
Reiser was able to put his own dreams aside temporarily and by taking two steps back and reevaluating his future, he found the faster track to victory lane at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.