Reisering To The Occasion

Robbie Reiser realizes he’ll probably never live out his boyhood dream of winning the Daytona 500.

In the mid 1990s, he was forced to put his driving aspirations behind him, and that pretty much killed any chance he had for ever winning one of the most prestigious events in all of racing in that capacity.

But that doesn’t mean Reiser will never end up in victory lane at Daytona in the “Super Bowl of Auto Racing.” His dream to do just that is alive and well, thank you, as the crew chief of Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 DeWalt Tools Ford in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Reiser and Kenseth will enter their third season together in Winston Cup in 2002, meaning it will be their third February trip to Daytona and their third attempt at winning the “Grandaddy of Them All,” the Daytona 500.

The son of Wisconsin late model champion John Reiser, Robbie had the racing blood flowing from his veins early on. He raced while still in high school and won three track championships over a span of two and a half years before he switched to driving late models himself.

From 1990 to 1993, he won 14 different track, area, regional and state titles, establishing himself as one of the hottest young drivers in the Midwest. His first attempt at the big-time came at The Milwaukee Mile with a car purchased from Dale Earnhardt, and Reiser knew exactly what he had to do next.

In order to make it big in stock car racing, he knew North Carolina was the place for him, so he packed up and moved south. He ran a limited schedule in 1994 and a full season with only three cars in 1995 before financial hardship forced him to put his driving career aside.

“That was a tough choice,” Reiser said. “I went to North Carolina to drive a racecar and own a team. Racing is an expensive sport. I bought everything I needed to start up a team and drive. It worked for a while, but needless to say, I was substantially in debt.

“I knew when it came down to basics and providing for my family, I couldn’t do it without a sponsor, so I had to let go. Sometimes the hardest decision for a racecar driver is to surrender the wheel.”

In 1997, things began to turn around for Reiser. With Tim Bender behind the wheel of his car, Reiser was able to obtain full-time sponsorship for a full season, and because of his love and knowledge of cars, Reiser took on the role of owner/crew chief.
Bender, however, was injured in a wreck at Bristol, and that left Reiser without a driver. Instead of putting himself back in the car, he turned to Kenseth, an old rival on the short tracks of Wisconsin, to pilot his Chevy.

“Matt and I were pretty big competitors back in Wisconsin,” Reiser said. “When I was winning track championships, Matt was always in the Top 5. We didn’t exactly get along too well because we were major rivals back in those days. As a team owner, I knew Matt had what it took to be competitive and win races. He was our guy.”

Kenseth didn’t let Reiser down, making 21 starts that season with two top-five and seven top-10 finishes. Together with Bender, the team finished 15th in the Busch Series owner points standings.

Reiser said he knew at that point he had a winning combination with Kenseth, so, in order to keep his team afloat, he was forced to go the bank and borrow a large sum of money to finance his operation.

“We had a greater level of confidence at that point,” Reiser said. “So, I decided to go for it.”

The team went to Daytona with an un-sponsored car in 1998, but decided to come on board for one race, and Kenseth and the team rewarded the sponsor by finishing a respectable sixth. decided to stay on board for the next race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, and all Kenseth did was out-duel Tony Stewart in the final turn and take the checkered flag.

That prompted to become the primary sponsor of the car for the full season. That year, Kenseth wound up second in the points to Dale Earnhardt Jr. with three victories.

DeWalt moved over to sponsor the No. 17 Chevy in 1999, and the company was rewarded with four victories and a third-place finish in the points. With DeWalt and Jack Roush behind them, Kenseth and Reiser made the natural progression to the Winston Cup Series as a rookie team in 2000.

Meanwhile, Reiser was able to continue to keep his Busch team – with Kenseth as the primary driver in companion events with the Winston Cup Series – and was only too happy to take on “just” a crew chief’s role in Winston Cup.

Kenseth finished 14th in the Winston Cup points standings in his initial season and earned his only Winston Cup victory, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Last season, Kenseth finished 13th in the Winston Cup standings.

The previous two Daytona 500s have been somewhat of a disappointment for the DeWalt team, although Kenseth did manage a 10th-place run during his rookie campaign in 2000. Kenseth finished 21st in the season opener a year ago.

That has made Kenseth, and Reiser, much more determined coming into this year’s event.

“I always look forward to the first race of the season, but I especially love beginning the season at Daytona,” Kenseth said. “It’s become such a historic race and the excitement surrounding it seems to pump everyone up for the year to come.

“We went to Daytona (for testing) with a lot of things in mind to try. We eliminated some things based on conversations we had with the Roush teams that tested last week. Some of the things we were going to try ended up making their cars slower so we trimmed those from our list which allowed us more time to focus on other changes.”

Changes that could put Reiser in victory lane in the Daytona 500, something he’s dreamed about for a long, long time.

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