CONCORD, NC (January 27, 2002) -- Competing in the Daytona 500 is a dream come true for any racecar driver. As a late model driver tearing up the short tracks of Wisconsin, current day Winston Cup Series crew chief Robbie Reiser, shared that sentiment. After many years of endurance, Reiser's dream of racing at Daytona finally became a reality, but not in the way he expected it to. His story illustrates the seemingly insurmountable risks and sacrifices it takes to make it to the big time in the racing industry.
As the son of Wisconsin late model champion, John Reiser, Robbie was exposed to racing throughout his entire life. He started competing while still in high school, racking up three track championships and one area championship over two and a half years before switching to late models. Reiser then grabbed 14 different track, area, regional and state championships from 1990-1993.
In an attempt to move up in the ranks, Robbie purchased a NASCAR Busch Series car from the late Dale Earnhardt to run the inaugural race at the Milwaukee Mile in July of 1993. The race was a success, so Reiser decided to take a risk. He packed his bags and headed south to go racing.
While operating a team out of North Carolina, Reiser ran a limited Busch Series schedule in 1994, and the entire season in 1995 with only three racecars. Financial difficulty and lack of sponsorship caused Robbie to make one of many sacrifices, as he was forced to put his driving career aside and went to work for another team.
"That was a tough choice," Reiser recalled. "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."
A year later, Reiser was approached by a company who wanted to sponsor driver Tim Bender for the 1997 Busch Series season. Things were going well when unexpectedly Bender was injured in Bristol and was unable to complete the year. The unselfish Reiser did not attempt to resurrect his driving career, but rather he called on former competitor from Wisconsin, Matt Kenseth, to do the job.
"Matt and I were pretty big competitors back in Wisconsin. When I was winning track championships, Matt was always in the top five. We didn't exactly get along too well because we were major rivals back in those days," described Reiser with a smile. "As a team owner, I knew Matt had what it took to be competitive and win races. He was our guy."
Together, the pair proved successful as Kenseth took the reigns of Reiser's ride. The team posted two top five's and finished 15th in the point standings. The sponsor, however, was contingent on Bender as the driver, and at the end of the year Reiser again found himself scrambling for dollars to continue the pursuit of his dream.
"We had a greater level of confidence at that point," Reiser stated. "I knew we had a winning combination. So, I decided to go for it."
Prior to the start of the 1998 season, Reiser went to the bank and borrowed a large amount of money to help make his racing dream once again a reality.
"It was a scary feeling for a while there," recalled Reiser. "Trying to keep the team afloat, I was substantially in debt. It was very hard going home at night to my family not knowing what the next day would bring. I'm very thankful they were supportive."
Reiser, Kenseth and their unsponsored team unloaded at Daytona and qualified an impressive seventh. The tide started to turn for the better when only two days before the race, a company approached Reiser with interest in sponsoring the car for the event. Unbelievably, there was one more hurdle to face. The sponsorship was contingent on one condition - the car had to be painted black. Reiser went to the NASCAR officials with the highly unusual request and pleaded with them to allow the team to take the car outside of the track for painting.
The NASCAR officials deliberated and decided to let Reiser take car outside of the track for four hours. With two officials in tow, the team loaded the car onto a flatbed, took it to a local body shop, painted it black, and were back to the track by noon. By 2:30 p.m. that day they rolled into the inspection line ready to take the green flag the following day.
Kenseth took the checkered flag in the sixth place making the team enough money to go to the next event at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. To thank the company for sponsoring the team at Daytona, Reiser decided to decal the car with their logos. The race proved to be a thriller as amazingly, Matt Kenseth came from a 27th place starting position and passed Tony Stewart on the last lap to win. The company was impressed enough to sign on as the primary sponsor for the season.
Reiser's earlier confidence in the team was accurate, and at the end of the season, he had the stats to back it up. The team collected three victories in 1998, and a second place in the overall point standings.
Since that time, Kenseth and Reiser found success in the Busch Series and moved up into the Winston Cup Series with some help from sponsor DEWALT Power Tools, and Roush Racing. They finished 10th in their first Daytona 500, remarkably won the Coca-Cola 600 in May of 2000 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and captured the 2000 Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. Hard work, dedication, and patience paid off for the duo from Wisconsin as they have become a powerhouse in NASCAR's elite series.
Sometimes the price of accomplishing dreams is high, but through perseverance, Robbie Reiser's pursuit of a career in auto racing has paid dividends. As one of the most talented crew chiefs in NASCAR, Reiser has not lost sight of himself or where he came from.