Mark Prater, a shock specialist and front tire changer for the No. 4 Kodak MAX Film Chevrolet team, says it's time for the Morgan-McClure Monte Carlo to shine under the lights on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Morgan-McClure ...
Mark Prater, a shock specialist and front tire changer for the No. 4 Kodak MAX Film Chevrolet team, says it's time for the Morgan-McClure Monte Carlo to shine under the lights on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Morgan-McClure Motorsports team, located just a few miles from the track in Abingdon, Va., would like nothing better than a little home cooking at the high-banked half-mile Saturday night. And Prater, who lives in Atkins, Va., says it's time to leave the track with Bristol bragging rights.
"I've been going to races at Bristol since I was 18 years old, and I'm 35 now," Prater said. "I've come so close to winning there in a Busch car, but I'd really like to win there in Winston Cup, just for bragging rights around everybody.
"It is my favorite track. People talk to me everywhere we go, and I'll say, 'you need to come down and see a race at Bristol.' There's no other track like it. It's really what racing is all about. It doesn't matter if you've got a fender or hood on the car. It's how the car's set up and how the driver is driving."
Bobby Hamilton will be making his fourth start behind the wheel of the Morgan-McClure Monte Carlo at Bristol. Hamilton qualified seventh and finished 18th earlier this season at Bristol. He finished 11th in last year's Goody's Headache Powder 500.
"Bobby is real good at Bristol," Prater said. "We've been struggling qualifying, but I think we should be pretty good. He's getting his momentum back, and we're getting our momentum back a little bit at a time. Hopefully we can pull something off for the locals."
Prater has been one of the "locals" all his life. He was born in Marion, Va., and his parents and sister still live nearby. He began racing with a friend at a half-mile high-banked dirt track near his home and that led to a stint working for Grand National driver L.D. Ottinger.
"I messed around with them three or four years while I was going to high school, and then I went to college and sort of went away from racing a little bit," Prater said. "I majored in computer programming. I don't remember any of it."
After college, Prater opened a Late Model shop with his friend Jay Smith. Smith owned the cars and motors and Prater owned the tow truck and shop.
"It was sort of an adventure for both of us," Prater said. "Then it got into a money situation, so we had to shut it down."
Both mechanics went their separate ways. Prater worked as a crew chief for Busch Grand National driver Butch Miller and finished sixth in the Busch Series points in 1992.
"Then I bugged Larry (Morgan-McClure Motorsports car owner McClure) for five years to get on here. When the front tire changer left, I went to work for them. My first race out with them, we won the Daytona 500 in 1994.
"I was a fabricator and I helped Tony Glover with the chassis back then. I started messing with shocks in '94, and I took over on the shocks in '95. I've been doing that since then. Nobody else wants to mess with the shocks. They were stock shocks when I started and they're specialized shocks now.
"We'll end up with a certain shock package at a track and then when we come back the next year we'll keep building on it. It's just like the spring packages and sway bar packages on the cars.
"I think anything that bolts on the car is important. Even the pit crew is as vital as the motor in the car. If you spend X amount of hours on a motor or R&D on your chassis, you should spend just as much time on your pit crew. That's one of the easiest places to pass, on pit road. It's also a good place to lose."
Prater changes front tires and helps read tire temperatures. He records data to feed back to the crew chief. The Morgan-McClure team continues to look for a crew chief. Gary DeHart serves as race day coordinator but spends most of his time preparing cars and building chassis.
The Morgan-McClure team has made tremendous progress on pit stops this season, and Prater says the crew is just a tick away from being one of the best on the circuit.
"We need to get another second off on pit stops," he said. "We've picked up a bunch by practicing hard. We practice weekly. Everybody is in-house now, so we can say, 'OK guys, we're going to pit practice in two hours.'
"It's like anything else. If you work out more, you'll get stronger. If you pit practice more, you'll get quicker. You make mistakes during pit practice and you learn from that. You learn how to overcome it when you're over the wall. Instead of making a mistake and having a 30-second pit stop, you turn it into an 18-second stop."
So what does Prater see down pit road for himself and the Morgan-McClure Motorsports team?
"A lot of people have talked to me about going back and trying to be a crew chief again," he said. "It's going to have to be the right opportunity and I'm going to have to have full control. That's the only way I'll ever do that again.
"If Larry goes to a second car deal, I'd like to have the opportunity to do it. We'll see how that comes out. I've been a crew chief in the Busch Series, and I thought for what we had, we did well. I think with Larry's money and the people and facilities, I would like to have the chance to do it at that level with everything you need and see if I'm capable of doing it."
McClure says Prater could be the man for the job.
"He's one of my best people," McClure said. "He can do anything. He changes tires as well as anyone I've seen, and he's come a long way with the shocks. He's a well-rounded person and has the desire to do things well. He's a workaholic, and that means a lot."
Although Prater might not agree with McClure on everything, he has developed plenty of respect for him.
"Larry is just like a dad," Prater said. "He spanks you whether you need it or not. He got where he is today for his backbone and gift of gab. He's worked real hard for it. Nothing was ever handed to him. He worked for everything he had.
"A lot of people look at him in the shop and on the road as being harsh or whatever, but it's just the way he is. It makes you a better person. It's like being in the military except you get to go home at night.
"Larry has a Nautilus gym at the shop. I work out either in the mornings or in the afternoons when we're at work. I mountain bike ride and also road bicycle ride. We try to average 20-30 miles a ride, either on the mountain bike or on the road. It's my stress relief."
A strong 500-mile run at Bristol under the lights on Saturday night would be worth plenty of those stress relief bicycle rides for Prater and all members of the Morgan-McClure Motorsports team.
Hamilton is currently 14th in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings. He's just 135 points behind 12th-place Jeremy Mayfield and 300 points behind 10th-place Mike Skinner with 12 races remaining in 1999.
A late-season surge in '98 propelled Hamilton to 10th in the final series standings in his first year behind the wheel of the No. 4 Kodak MAX Film Monte Carlo. Bristol would be the perfect place to begin another rally in the valley.
"It's our hometown track, and we've got a lot of hometown boys on the team who want to do well at Bristol," McClure said. "We're going to pull out all the stops. Our motors are good. Our cars are good, and we just need to get after it. We've all been working hard, and we're looking for a real good run at Bristol.
"I'm sure it'll be action-packed as usual, and we want to be part of that action."