Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee ... or NASCAR Veteran Ken Schrader

·8 min read
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
  • Long beloved because he’ll race anything anywhere against anyone at any time, the youngish 66-year-old Schrader is helping Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham with this year’s Superstar Racing Experience.

  • Schrader reached Cup in 1984 with five races in an Elmo Langley-owned Ford.

  • In July 1988, Schrader won at Talladega after starting seventh and perfectly executing a last-lap, high-side pass.

It’s not as scientific as Gallup or Pew Research, but our unofficial Autoweek poll reports that just like Sara Lee pastries, nobody doesn’t like Ken Schrader.

How can you dislike someone whose passion for racing is matched only by his hospitality toward fans after every event? And, lordy-sakes alive … the man will flat put on a show for you!

Long beloved because he’ll race anything anywhere against anyone at any time, the youngish 66-year-old Schrader is helping Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham with this year’s Superstar Racing Experience. He’s part of the crew that developed and tested the cars with an eye toward perhaps eventually racing one himself.

Schrader’s real job is barnstorming the country with his Missouri-based Late Models and modifieds. Through the first half of this year, he’d raced 40 times at 23 tracks in 13 states from Arizona to Massachusetts. He says he’s “way behind” despite a May-June grind of 13 dirt- and paved-track races in 35 nights at eight tracks in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Among his challenges: a school bus race on a quarter-mile figure-8 track in Toledo, Ohio. He hopes to make at least 50 more “serious races” en route 100 in-car days, including “fan days” for long-time sponsor Federated Auto Parts.

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

“Ken has such a passion for the sport and not just (major series),” long-time pal Kyle Petty said back when they ran Cup together. “We’re talking local dirt tracks, open-wheel cars, asphalt short-track cars, and motorcycles. It doesn’t make any difference to him. I marvel that he has that much energy. I don’t know if anybody in the garage has that much energy. I’ve seen him do four or five races in a weekend.”

Track operator Bill Sawyer has spent most of his life around racing. He began in the early 1970s with his father, Paul, and brother, Wayne, as owners/operators of Richmond Raceway in Virginia. Since 2000, he’s owned and operated the showplace half-mile dirt Virginia Motor Speedway near Saluda. He and Schrader have known each other since 1984, when Schrader reached NASCAR after great success coming up the racing ladder.

“I’ve been around him forever and I don’t ever remember seeing him out of sorts or saying anything unkind about anyone,” Sawyer recently told Autoweek. “If he did, it was behind closed doors, in private. He’s got a great ‘people personality.’ I think people like him so much because he’s a straight-up racer’s racer who always puts on a show. He’s the kind of blue-collar racer that people want to see. He’s popular because he’s one of them.”

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Schrader debuted in the early 1970s in starter classes at weekly tracks in the Midwest. He raced on high school graduation weekend and has raced virtually every weather-appropriate weekend for the past 50 years. He advanced from starter cars to Sprints, Midgets, Silver Crown, and USAC stock cars. He was USAC’s 1980 stock car Rookie of the Year, its 1982 Silver Crown champion, and its 1983 Sprint Car champion. The logbooks he meticulously keeps show upwards of 375 victories on dozens of tracks from coast to coast. Eighteen of them came during his occasional starts with ARCA.

He has the perfect comeback for those who say he’s crazy, that he should be home enjoying the grandkids instead of looking for places to race a couple of times a week: “I’m not crazy,” he told Autoweek.“I’m just out there having fun. I’ll retire when it stops being fun. I’ll know when it’s time to go.”

Schrader reached Cup in 1984 with five races in an Elmo Langley-owned Ford. He ran 1985-1987 with modest success for legendary owner Junie Donlavey, an effort that attracted the eye of Rick Hendrick. After just five years in racing, the Charlotte businessman wanted to expand from two teams (Darrell Waltrip and Geoffrey Bodine) to three. Schrader stayed with Hendrick Motorsports from 1988-1996, getting all four of his Cup victories and 18 of his 23 poles in No. 25 Chevrolets.

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Like 10 others, his first victory came at Talladega Superspeedway. There, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July 1988, he won after starting seventh and perfectly executing a last-lap, high-side pass. “I was running about 20th with 10 to go when (crew chief) Harry Hyde came on the radio and said, ‘Boy, I think it would be good for you to get back up there,’ ” Schrader recalled.“So, I worked my way through a lot of traffic and got to … I think … third or fourth near the end; something like that.”

Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, and Bodine took the white flag 1-2-3, with Schrader close behind. When Marlin went high entering Turn 1, Schrader followed in his draft. Marlin then abruptly swung low to pass Earnhardt on the inside, briefly leaving Schrader on the outside of a three-wide in Turn 2.

“When Sterling got his nose under Dale, Dale didn’t like that too much,” Schrader said. “So, he moved down a little and that cost them both a shade of momentum. That put me around them on the outside going down the backstretch on the last lap. At that point, greed kicked in and everybody went for whatever they could get. I never thought I had it won (over Bodine, Earnhardt, Rick Wilson, and Rusty Wallace) until right before the start-finish line.”

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Just over a year later, at Charlotte in the fall, Schrader won again, this time with Richard Broome atop the pit box. His last two victories for Hendrick came at Atlanta in June 1991 and seven races later, at Dover in July, both with Broome as crew chief. His NASCAR resume shows those four Cup victories, plus two in Xfinity and one in Camping World Trucks. Also notable: he won the Busch Clash in 1989 and 1990 and the Daytona 500 pole in 1989-1990-1991. His best points season was fourth in 1994 with crew chief Ken Howes.

At 42, Schrader left Hendrick after the 1996 season, replaced by 31-year-old wunderkind Ricky Craven. The final 16 seasons of his 29-year NASCAR career were largely disappointing. He raced for 10 owners, few of whom had the resources to field a competitive team. He had five poles, no victories, only five top-5 finishes, and 40 top-10 finishes in his last 404 Cup starts between 1997-2013. All the poles and top-5 finishes, and 25 of the 40 top-10 finishes came in 1997-1999 with rookie owner Andy Petree.

He skipped the entire 2009 Cup season to go short-track and ARCA racing, then did a combined 31 Cup starts with owner Frankie Stoddard during 2010-2012. But with more fun and excitement waiting on the outside, Schrader left NASCAR for good after finishing 34th in the 2013 season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He was 58 at the time, but his racing career was just about to take off all over again.

But wait …. there’s more

• Schrader is among the 11 drivers whose breakthrough came at Talladega. The others: Richard Brickhouse (1969), Dick Brooks (1973), Lennie Pond (1978), Ron Bouchard (1981), Bobby Hillin Jr. (1986), Davey Allison (1987), Phil Parsons (1988), Schrader (1988), Brian Vickers (2006), Brad Keselowski (2009), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017).

• When he raced in Alaska in 2017, it moved Schrader closer to his avowed goal of racing in every state. Going into this year he lacked only Hawaii and Rhode Island to reach 50. There’s a track in Hawaii, but not a suitable outdoor venue in Rhode Island.

• Schrader’s 1985 Rookie of the Year season came with team owner Junie Donlavey, maybe the only man in racing about whom nothing bad has ever been written or spoken. “Chief” also fielded cars for Jody Ridley’s 1980 ROTY season and contributed some starts to the 1970 ROTY seaso0n for Bill Dennis. In any reference to his career, Schrader always speaks reverently of “Mr. Donlavey.”

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

• Schrader is more than just a racer. He owns Federated Auto Parts Raceway in Pevely, Mo. (formerly I-55 Speedway) and co-owns Macon (Ill.) Speedway with Kenny Wallace, Tony Stewart, and Bob Sargent. There were years during his career when he briefly fielded entries in NASCAR’s top three classes and the ARCA Series. As an owner he won the 2017 ARCA championship with Maine native Austin Theriault.

• Schrader and former NASCAR star and fellow Missouri native Carl Edwards are first cousins, once removed.

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