Spencer Tells It Like It Is

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – As you watch interviews after today's Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway – you’ll easily notice one thing… to some, image really is everything.

At a time when sponsors and big money are thrown into the faces of NASCAR fans at an alarming rate, wouldn’t it great to see some emotion this weekend?

What we need at Talladega this weekend - at at other tracks - is a winning driver with some life left in him, one not watered down or speaking with the controlled clichés that are meant to keep the sponsors and the organizing body happy.

What we need is for Jimmy Spencer to win some races.

You see, Spencer is not your average Winston Cup driver. And to many, that’s not such a bad thing. “That’s good,” Kyle Petty says of the driver commonly referred to as “Mr. Excitement.”

“Jimmy is good for our sport, I don’t care what anybody else says. He says whatever he feels at the time, and he doesn’t back down from it or regret it. But at the same time, he’s a good driver that can back up anything that he says or does.”

If there is one certainty in NASCAR these days, it’s that the drivers wearing overalls and chewing on a wad of tobacco are no longer welcome. The image-conscious organizing body is even taking steps to eliminate some its most glorious memories. You just don’t see them mentioning the whiskey-hauling men who created the sport much anymore, do you?

Today, competitors are hired as much for their looks and corporate image as they are for their driving abilities… and that’s where Spencer draws the line. He’s not going to tell the media the same old story after a wreck, ‘Well, it was just hard racing,’ and leave it at that.

Chances are, you’ll hear Spencer say, “That no-driving son of a bitch just wrecked me.”

While that may ruffle the feathers and egos of a few, “That’s just too bad,” Spencer says. “If you don’t want the real answer, then don’t ask me the question.

"You always know where you are with me, I was brought up that way,” Spencer says. “I speak what’s on my mind, and some people get very upset over it. A lot of people try to sugarcoat stuff to make people believe that’s really what happened or to avoid the real problem. But I don’t, because people need to know the truth. This is not corrupt politics.

"It’s like now with the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George Bush, if you can’t cut through that bull, then you’re crazy.

“If I have a problem with something, I’m going to say it the way it is. If you have an argument with me, I’ll listen to your argument. I’m going to tell you my side of the story and I’ll listen to your side of the story. To me, that’s the way this sport was built, so I’m never going to change. Everybody has their opinion and voice, that’s why we live in America.”

And because of that, he has kept officials with NASCAR on their toes throughout the years.

“They don’t call him Mr. Excitement for nothing,” says NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Mike Helton. “Jimmy brings a lot of energy to the deal. He is high strung and has a lot of fun doing what he’s doing, and he involves a lot of people in his fun. He’s pretty incredible, a nice guy to have around at the end of the day.

“We (NASCAR) have a lot of ups and downs with him, but all in all he’s a positive guy that the fans can pull for and have a lot of fun with… Hopefully we’ll continue to have drivers that make what we do in here a little more than just racing. It’s fun and it’s high-strung.

“This is a sport, so there’s a lot of emotions that go along with it. Some people handle it differently. Jimmy handles them in his own way, and it’s an interesting deal every time he does.”

In addition to his quick wit, Spencer is well known among fellow drivers for his drafting prowess at Talladega and Daytona. In fact, those are the tracks where Spencer earned his two Winston Cup wins (both coming in 1994).

In today's Winston 500 at the mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama track, Spencer was trying to parlay a 22nd-place qualifying effort into his first tour win in six years. A problem with shocks forced him to the garage early, though. Nuts.

“I love Talladega,” explains Spencer, who finished fifth here earlier this year. “The first time I came to Talladega was in a van with Buddy Baker, and all the way down from Charlotte he was talking about this race track. He liked this track, so that helped a lot coming here for the first time with somebody who had that mindset.

“When you get to the track, you like the place already. And Talladega is a driver’s track where you have to use a lot of common sense and get yourself in good positions. Sometimes you position yourself to win, and other times you don’t.”

And when the race is over, like always, you see Spencer climb from his No. 26 Ford and answer every question that is thrown his way. And really, it wouldn’t be the same any other way.

“My momma always said that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything,” Spencer says. “One lie just leads to another, so I don’t lie. I speak the way it is.

"Sometimes I’ve said some things that I was sorry I said. But at the time, it was what was on my mind.”

There is widespread agreement in the Winston Cup garage area that all the drivers would like to speak freely like Spencer does. But the problem is, they are scared to draw the displeasure of their sponsors, or basically a monetary loss on down the road for such free speech.

“When a reporter comes in the hauler doing a story, I try to oblige everybody,” Spencer says. “If it’s a bad story, it still needs to be addressed. If it’s a good story, you should still do it. When a reporter comes in here, I try to give them my true opinion. Some people get upset over it, and some people respect it.”

According to Petty, NASCAR needs a few more drivers like Jimmy Spencer.

“You don’t need a lot of clones that say the same thing and say the same thing every time there’s a radio or television interview,” Petty says. “Jimmy ain’t going to give you the same answer.”

So has it reached the point of overload with corporate image outweighing that of a simple straight answer, or the cookie-cutter image as described by many?

“Some people try to make too much of their corporate image,” Petty says. “But I think there is enough of a difference in a Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Spencer or Rusty Wallace so the drivers don’t have to act all alike. It’s good to be a little bit different.”

Now in his second full season of Winston Cup racing, Elliott Sadler says he admires the way Spencer handles himself in the garage area, even if it’s not the politically-correct way to do it.

“He’s definitely a guy who has never minded what he said, he’s going to say what’s on his mind,” Sadler says. “And he’s going to race you hard every single lap, and move you if he needs to move you.”

“Jimmy has always been good to me, I’ve never had any problems with him. It’s funny when somebody takes him out of a race and what he’s going to say. You know where he stands and he doesn’t hide anything. If he doesn’t like you, he will tell you so.”

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