CREWMAN MATTHEWS OWNS SPECIAL INDY RACING DREAM INDIANAPOLIS, May 11, 1999 -- Junious Matthews fell in love with auto racing when he watched the 1964 Daytona 500 on television and saw the look of sheer joy on winner Richard Petty's...
CREWMAN MATTHEWS OWNS SPECIAL INDY RACING DREAM
INDIANAPOLIS, May 11, 1999 -- Junious Matthews fell in love with auto racing when he watched the 1964 Daytona 500 on television and saw the look of sheer joy on winner Richard Petty's face. It didn't matter to him that there wasn't a single African-American in Victory Lane. Today, Matthews, 43, works on the Brant Motorsports crew that fields a car full-time in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, including the famed Indianapolis 500. He has reached the top in the sport that has consumed him since he was a small boy in Nebraska. But Matthews isn't satisfied with just getting to Indy and working full time on the Pep Boys Indy Racing League series. He has much higher aspirations. "I'd like to be a team owner," he said. Willy T. Ribbs has been the only black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, in 1991 and 1993. There has never been a black car owner. Matthews feels this lack of minority participation has nothing to do with racism. He says African-American boys and girls seldom start driving go-karts at age 4 or 5 and work their way up through the ranks as teen-agers. The experience isn't there, and hardly anyone can become a big-time racing driver starting in the sport at age 20 or so. So Matthews believes that becoming a car owner at the top level would be an inspiration to black youth. "I think that there's a great opportunity to show minority youth the career opportunities involved in motorsports," he said. "This is a mental sport. It's a sport where you learn and grow each and every day or basically you're out." Matthews said that minority-owned businesses are missing out on an outstanding opportunity for marketing their products through racing. He noted that African-Americans spend more than $400 billion per year, much of it for entertainment, and that the Pep Boys Indy Racing League would be the one place that could offer them a ground-floor opportunity in the sport. "I just think it's a relationship that both sides are missing out on," Matthews said. "If I could be the ambassador to bring those together, that would be the ultimate for me." Matthews has been a racing mechanic much of his life, but Brant Motorsports and chassis builder Riley & Scott have provided him the opportunity to learn the business end of the sport. Matthews has a marketing firm in Atlanta contacting major minority firms about sponsorship. He also is searching for sponsors. "This isn't a hobby, this isn't a sport," he said. "It's a marketing and advertising business. And I feel a proper program deserves some of these dollars." Basketball superstars like Michael Jordan sign $25-million contracts to make a few short-lived commercials for key businesses. Matthews says that that same $25 million would provide him the ability to field a two-car team for five or six years. And that, he adds, would generate more opportunities for marketing and advertising than a five-series commercial even with the great Jordan. Also, he doesn't believe in telling kids simply to say no to drugs, because it won't work unless something is offered to replace the opportunity or desire. And that opportunity could be in auto racing, he said. "My parents never were concerned how late I was at the race shop," he said, "because they knew where I was at, they knew what I was doing. The people around me were making sure we were either going to be productive, or we weren't there. And you would be productive to have the opportunity to be there." Matthews was born March 22, 1956 in Kansas City, Mo., but at a young age the family moved to Grand Island, Neb. After seeing Petty's winning grin, Matthews began hanging around the stock-car garages that were in the neighborhood. He said that if you hung around long enough eventually someone would put a broom in your hand, and you were on the inside. In 1973, when he was a junior in high school, he worked at a car dealership. One day an old Pontiac convertible Tempest taken in on trade was going to be junked. Matthews talked his employers into giving it to him. He, as the car owner, and chief mechanic and friend Jim Glenn, as the driver, headed off to Playland Speedway in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Unbelievably, they finished second in their first race. Matthews' racing career was launched. By 1976 he was working for Clayton Peterson Racing in Grand Island. Peterson not only raced cars, but built them, too. So late that year they built a Grand National car, sent it to Daytona and it finished third. None of the group had been involved with pavement racing before. Matthews married in 1975, and he needed a steady job to back up his racing activities. This eventually led to a transfer to Greeley, Colo., but it wasn't long before he was involved with racing there. Still, it wasn't full time. He was stressed out with his regular job at a Wal-Mart distribution warehouse. A doctor friend told him to take three months off and paid his way to the Copper World races in Phoenix and the Devil's Bowl races at Dallas. USAC racers told him that if he was serious about getting into the sport full-time he had to get to Indianapolis. So right from the infield of Phoenix International Raceway he called his boss at Greeley on the phone and asked whether there were any Wal-Mart warehouses in Indianapolis or Indiana. He chose Greencastle over Evansville because it was closer to Indy, and the warehouse manager there actually created a job for him. "My wife, Diane, followed right along," he said proudly. Matthews worked nights and lived in Indianapolis (his only previous time there was two days for his sister's wedding) so he could search for a racing job during the day. He rented a house from a man who loved racing and had no complaints about three dogs and two cats. He since has bought a house, but he and his former landlord still get together and talk racing. Soon, he began working part-time for Kenny Brown Performance and then was hired full time. He quit his warehouse job. But he also knew that with the way Brown's business fluctuated, he might be unemployed at any time. So he started a routine of calling Mark Scott of Riley & Scott every Thursday and asking whether there was any work. And every Thursday for many months, he received the same answer: No. Then the inevitable happened: He was laid off on a Wednesday. So Thursday morning once more he called Scott. And, amazingly, Scott said, yes, that they were starting up a sports car program and needed somebody to work on the transporter as a part-time employee. Matthews said he would be in Friday morning. Scott said he could wait until Monday. That was four years ago, and Matthews has been a full-timer most of the way. "Working with Riley & Scott is more like working for a family than it is a job," he said. Matthews was in on the ground floor of the sports car program the year the team won the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and made a terrific bid to complete the trifecta by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. "The first big race we ever won (at Daytona) I actually got to roll right into that same winner's circle that Richard Petty went into when I fell in love with racing," Matthews said. One day, he would love to roll into Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the beaming owner of the winning car.