When Brad Daugherty became the first Black team principal to win the Daytona 500, it probably was the first time many people in the motorsports arena had heard of him.
However, the 7-foot Daugherty who was a five-time NBA all-star with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was no stranger to racing.
Daugherty readily admits that his childhood dream was to win the Daytona 500 as a driver.
When NBA team owner Michael Jordan was contemplating becoming a NASCAR team owner Brad Daugherty warned his former University of North Carolina teammate that he was stepping into a professional sport unlike anything he had ever experienced.
“I told Michael before he got into it that this was a different animal,” Daugherty said. “There’s no collective bargaining process. There’s no revenue sharing to any significant degree. You have the capacity, obviously, to do what you need to do, but come into this with your eyes wide open, because I have several friends who’ve come into this and are very, very wealthy people. They spent a tremendous fortune to do nothing but just win a couple of trophies and now they’re gone.
“I said, you know, I’m a racer. I’m a little different. I’m laying on the floor trying to figure out how to get our shock mounts a little bit higher. I’m that guy. You’re not. You don’t know a tie rod end from a ball joint. But this sport will take every dollar you put at it, and just suck it into a black hole. You can get used.”
Daugherty said his friend listened and with 23XI Racing he put himself on a path where he’s “gonna be able to control his own destiny pretty soon.”
It was different for Daugherty. When he became the first Black team principal to win the Daytona 500 it probably was the first time many people in the motorsports arena had heard of him. However, the 7-foot Daugherty who was a five-time NBA all-star with the Cleveland Cavaliers was no stranger to racing. The Black Mountain, N.C., native had been around it his entire life growing up in the Southern Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, N.C.
“My dad was a racer, my uncles were … prolific drag racers,” Daugherty said. “I’m the kid that grew up that had the apple tree, we had the chain, and the hoist and an engine hanging out in our backyard. It’s just the way I grew up.”
The era in which Daugherty grew up in Western North Carolina a person’s interest focused on two pastimes—cars and playing ball—and Daugherty was involved in both. He met Richard Petty at around age 10 during a trip to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
“I’m standing at the fence and there’s a restroom,” Daugherty recalled. “When he came out of the bathroom, I was like, ‘Hey, Mr. Petty.’ He stopped. He saw me standing there and he beelined over to me. I never will forget it. He walked up to the fence, and he had his uniform on.
“It’s so funny how certain things in your life you just remember the detail so vividly. I’m standing there, he walked up and his pant leg was tucked down in his boot.”
That conversation was the beginning of a relationship that endures today. Daugherty visited with Petty, who he describes as one of his heroes, the morning of the Daytona 500 and the No. 43 was the jersey number he always wanted when he played basketball. He wore the No. 43 in high school, but when he arrived at UNC, Curtis Hunter from Southern Pines, N.C., wanted the number because he had worn it in high school.
Coach Dean Smith settled it with a coin toss. Daugherty lost, so Hunter got No. 43 and Daugherty went with No. 42 since that was Kyle Petty’s car number at that time. When he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he agreed to go with them on one condition – his jersey number would be No. 43.
Even though Daugherty’s basketball prowess at Owen High School earned him a scholarship to coach Dean Smith’s Tar Heels and then a professional career with the Cleveland NBA team, he never lost his love of racing.
For 35 years, Daugherty has been involved in various forms of racing. He and former NASCAR Cup driver Robert Pressley grew up together around the one-third-mile New Asheville Speedway that’s now a state historic site. Pressley drove Late Models and Daugherty worked on them, something he “loved.” They raced throughout the Southeast and won NASCAR’s Mid-Atlantic Region championship.
When Daugherty began playing in the NBA, he suggested to Pressley that they build a Busch Series (now Xfinity) car. Pressley agreed. They obtained a chassis from renowned car builder Banjo Matthews in Arden, N.C. Pressley, Daugherty and six of their buddies hung the body on the chassis.
“It looked terrible!” Daugherty recalled. “It was an Oldsmobile and it looked awful!”
They obtained a powerplant from engine builder Mike Fryer, an Enka, N.C., whose customers included Busch Series champion Larry Pearson. Fryer told Daugherty if the team won some races, they could pay for the engine the following year.
“We go to do the entry forms and he’s (Pressley) like, ‘Man, you know, racing is not the most diverse place brand,’” Daugherty recalled. “He said, ‘So I think you know everybody loves you, but I’m gonna go ahead and put my name down as the owner. I don’t want any issues or problems with NASCAR. You know … there’s no black owners. Are you cool with that?’”
Daugherty told Pressley he was fine with him listing himself as the owner, that all he wanted was to “go racing.”
In 1989, the team won a 200-lap Busch Series race at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, N.C., and today, the records show Daugherty as the owner unlike the original entry blank.
“Basically, I’m the first rookie owner with a rookie driver to ever win in the Busch Series,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty also co-owned a Truck Series team with Jim Herrick in the mid-1990s before joining forces in NASCAR’s Cup Series with Tad and Jodi Geschickter. However, he wasn’t simply an owner. He raced Late Models for two or three years at Tri-County Motor Speedway and Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina and Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina.
Daugherty even squeezed his large frame into a Legends car.
“That was one of the dumbest things I ever did,” Daugherty said with a laugh. “I was like Fred Flintstone in the damn thing. I was carrying the car around. I did that for about a year and then my knees told me I had to stop doing it, because when you hit something, it was just not good.”
Daugherty also competed in the National Auto Sport Association for about five years in the Thunder Roadster Series. However, it wasn’t until a serious accident at Bristol, Tenn., during a Super Late Model race that Daughterty decided he should stop driving race cars.
“Randy LaJoie built me a seat,” Daugherty explained. “This is the biggest dadgum seat you’ve ever seen in your life. It looks ridiculous!
“I had my seat at his shop and I had taken the shoulder pad out of it. I was trying to make it a little bigger because I’m just so big. I forgot to put it back in. I blew a right-front tire at Bristol, and I hit the wall coming out of (turn) two. I basically broke my shoulder and I never told anybody because I didn’t want to hear about it.”
Even though Daugherty hasn’t driven a race car since that event, he readily admits that his childhood dream was to win the Daytona 500 as a driver. When he and his friends raced bicycles, go-karts, four-wheelers and mini bikes, he always said he was Richard Petty. He would tell his friends who they were such as Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, etc.
Daugherty didn’t get to enjoy victory lane at Daytona International Speedway because the eye surgery he had undergone 10 days prior to the event left his eyes light sensitive and he left the track for his Orlando, Fla., home long before the race’s conclusion. Even though he knew the victory’s importance to the single car JTG Daugherty Racing team perhaps he didn’t fully realize the magnitude of it until he walked through the Ormond airport on Tuesday.
“I’d gotten through security and I’m walking … towards the gate after I got off the little train and I got a standing ovation,” Daugherty said. “People stood up and started cheering.
“I go through there all the time and even though I’m as big as a moose, I’ve got my headphones and my sunglasses and I’m trying to hide just so I can get through the dadgum airport. It shocked me! First of all, it told me that I don’t hide very well, but second of all, it just spoke to how many people watch and how many people appreciate the accomplishment.
“I’ve put so much blood, sweat, and tears into this sport of NASCAR racing that it (winning the Daytona 500) was almost overwhelming. This might be the pinnacle of my sports career.”
That’s a big difference for Daugherty who nearly four decades ago was told it would be better if he wasn’t listed as a car owner in NASCAR.