INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, July 24, 2003 -- Hey, Ben Curtis, you've got some stiff competition for Cinderella sports star of the summer. Meet David Reutimann, an obscure short-track -- that's equivalent to public links in golf lingo -- race driver...
INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, July 24, 2003 -- Hey, Ben Curtis, you've got some stiff competition for Cinderella sports star of the summer.
Meet David Reutimann, an obscure short-track -- that's equivalent to public links in golf lingo -- race driver who suddenly found himself testing a NASCAR Winston Cup Series car last week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at about the same time the little-known Curtis was teeing off for his incredible leap into the golfing record books by winning the British Open in his first attempt at one of golf's "majors."
Now if Reutimann can come back and win the Brickyard 400 -- one of racing's true "majors" -- on Aug. 3, he'll be up there on the same "who-would-have-thunk it" pedestal with Curtis. After all, Curtis proved the unthinkable can be done.
Certainly Reutimann has the same type of come-from-nowhere credentials: Working under his NASCAR Kodak Southeast Tour car one minute. Driving at Indy the next. Age 32, a regional stock car driver with little hope of ever making the big time. Age 33, driving in six NASCAR Busch Series races, testing at Indianapolis, driving in three Winston Cup races, including the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Brothers Grimm couldn't write his fairy tale, either.
"It's been crazy, really," Reutimann said July 16 during Winston Cup testing for the Brickyard 400. "Short-track drivers don't even dare dream of going to Indy sometime. And here we are. Saying it's a neat deal would be an understatement.
"It's like a dream. I keep walking around trying to figure out what I'm doing here."
Doing quite well, actually. On July 16, he turned a lap of 177.449, 10th fastest of the day.
Reutimann's upward swing in his career started innocently enough in midseason last year when he bought a Busch Series car from fellow Winston Cup driver Joe Nemechek and raced at Richmond International Raceway. Nemechek's Busch crew chief, Brian Patty, and Reutimann grew up together in the same Florida town and were close friends. Without any testing or practice, Reutimann finished 16th as the last car on the lead lap.
That, he thought, would be the start and end of his Busch career.
However, Hills Brothers Coffee, which had started a program called "Coffee Break of a Lifetime," had an eye on him. The program offers an aspiring grassroots driver an opportunity to drive in several Busch Series races with the prospect of getting a full-time ride.
One day earlier this year, Reutimann was underneath his Southeast Tour car preparing it for the coming season when he received a telephone call. He laid down his wrenches, wiped the grease off his hands and said, "Hello." Two days later he was on a private jet flying to meet Hills Brothers' executives. As one of five finalists, he had been selected for the "Coffee Break of a Lifetime."
"That was huge in itself," said Reutimann, who lives in Zephyrhills, Fla.
Reutimann made his season debut at Texas and finished 24th after being involved in accident. He rebounded with a fifth-place finish at Nashville and an 11th at California Speedway, slipped to 37th with engine problems at Kentucky, came back with a fifth at Milwaukee and then another engine failure July 12 at Chicago sidelined him in 32nd.
"You still wonder whether anybody is watching what you're doing," he said. "The next thing you know, you get a call from Morgan-McClure Motorsports with the (No.) 4 Winston Cup car. I don't have to tell you -- I about fell off the stool on that call.
"It's so unbelievable. It's about like hitting the Lotto or something like that. It just doesn't happen that way. I've been blessed. I guess the Good Lord is looking out for me."
When Reutimann exited his car at Chicago, a Morgan-McClure mechanic was waiting for him and told him team owner Larry McClure wanted to talk to him. McClure asked him about his interest in testing at Indy. Reutimann and his wife, Lisa, flew home to Florida on the morning of July 13.
Inside the Tampa airport, Reutimann turned on his cell phone and found a message telling him come to Indy for Brickyard testing. He walked over and purchased another ticket.
Reutimann, whose father, Buzzie, has won more than 1,000 races and is a member of the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame, watched the Indianapolis 500 on TV every year and did the same when the Brickyard 400 came along. He knew about the history of the track, the famous drivers, and said that at times he thought it would be cool to just take one lap around it at speed.
"And then to actually be here and to walk out on the front straightaway and look down at that sucker, it's probably every bit as long as every short track I've ever been on put together," he said.
Reutimann climbed in the Pace Car with Nemechek and rode around a couple of laps. Nemechek tried to show Reutimann the proper line to drive, and he tried to pretend to be listening, but he was in such awe that couldn't pay full attention.
"I didn't have to sneak in," he said. "I didn't have to climb under a fence. I was here because I was supposed to be here. It's just huge. It took until I got back to the motel that night for it to sink in, really sink in, what a really big deal this really is to be sitting in the garage area."
Reutimann not only had never seen the track in person before the Brickyard test, but he also never had sat in a Winston Cup car. He struggled in his early test laps and said he couldn't provide a lot of good feedback because of his inexperience. But he slowly climbed the speed chart.
And then another good thing happened July 15. He was signed to drive the Morgan-McClure Pontiac at New Hampshire and Pocono before returning to attempt to qualify for the Brickyard 400. Reutimann failed to qualify at New Hampshire and will drive in an ARCA race instead at Pocono but will return to the team's No. 04 Winston Cup car for the Brickyard 400.
"Even talking about it (the Brickyard) gives me chills," he said. "To be able to sit in the car and hear the command to fire the engines at a place like this, and to be able to come down the straightaway the first time with the crowd in the grandstands, that's gotta be ..."
He was so excited at the thought he fumbled for words to describe the experience.
"I couldn't even see a way to do it," Reutimann resumed. "I really, really hope things go where we can run good enough and do well enough that we can get it in the show, I could just get in the show and have a good race."
Reutimann said he didn't even need an airplane to fly back to Florida when he departed the track July 16.
"I could probably float all the way home," he said.
Tickets: Reserved-seat Race Day tickets for the Brickyard 400 remain available. Tickets and parking can be purchased on the World Wide Web via www.imstix.com or by calling the IMS Ticket Office at (800) 822-INDY or (317) 492-6700.