Tall man on the short tracks

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 23, 2013

MILLBRIDGE — During the day, Taylor Stricklin works at his dad’s salvage yard.
He sometimes picks up cars and trucks that are being junked. But more often, he’s on the shop telephone, selling parts. Sales are really his forte in the family business.
Most nights, Stricklin leaves work and drives eight miles across rural western Rowan County to his race shop, a converted barn, where he’s preparing his late-model stock car for the next event.
His father, former NASCAR driver Hut Stricklin, raced at places such as Talladega and Daytona. For now, 24-year-old Taylor is grinding away in the minor leagues, logging laps when he can at tracks in Hickory, Caraway, Hudson and Greenville, S.C.
In his day, Hut Sticklin raced for big sponsors such as Heinz, Raybestos and McDonald’s. Taylor Stricklin doesn’t have a sponsor at present, and is putting every paycheck from the salvage yard into his No. 7 car.
Because of finances and tough luck, the young Stricklin has raced only six times this year. Now he’s working toward an Oct. 19 race in Hudson at the Tri-County Motor Speedway.
“I’d give anything to race every week,” he says. “It is what it is.”
Taylor Stricklin has the racing gene. Not only is Hut part of his DNA, but both of Taylor’s grandfathers, including NASCAR legend Donnie Allison, did their share of big-time and/or short-track racing.
Hut Stricklin also likes Taylor’s instincts in the car, his adaptability to different tracks and even his gift of gab. Taylor feels as at ease talking to large audiences as he does kidding with the guys in the race shop.
“I think he’s got an awful lot of natural talent,” Hut says. “He’s further along at this stage — so far ahead of where I was, it ain’t even funny.”

You can’t teach tall, so it makes sense 6-7 Taylor Stricklin went out for basketball.
After playing a mostly reserve role at West Rowan High School, Stricklin received a non-scholarship offer to play basketball for Averett University in Danville, Va., a Division III school.
But a knee injury and surgery sidelined Stricklin in his freshman year before he ever played a game. Faced with more than a year of rehabilitation and not playing basketball, he quit school and returned home to have a fateful talk with his father.
Taylor said he wanted to race — a sport he had been around his whole life, though in experience, he really would be starting from scratch. At 19, Strickin also was old in racing terms, compared to the young teenagers he probably would have to compete against.
“I was behind from the get-go,” he says.
His only true experience was in go-karts as a kid. When he hurt himself in a race, “That’s when Mama said, ‘You’re done,’” he remembers.
Hut Stricklin, who gave up racing in 2002, was supportive. He offered to help in any way, other than financially, telling Taylor it would be up to him to find sponsors and pay his own way.
“If we’re going to build a car,” Hut Stricklin also told him, “we’re going to do it right.”

Not many drivers, if any, are 6-7.
“We pretty much built the car around me,” Taylor says.
The seat goes back as far as it can go. The pedals in the race car are where the firewall usually is.
Stricklin thinks it’s actually an advantage for him to be this tall. On a race car, he explains, you want all the weight to be low and to the left.
Hut Stricklin determined his son should start out in street stock races as he had done. Taylor graduated from high school in 2007, had his brief stay in college, then was racing by the summer of 2008.
In eight street-stock starts at Hickory Motor Speedway that first year, he captured three poles and also won three times. He followed that up with a win and three Top-5 finishes in 12 starts in 2009 and six wins and 11 Top-5 finishes over 19 starts in 2010.
Taylor said it took his mother, Pam, only three or four races, “then she was like, ‘Maybe you can race.’”
Moving on to late-model racing and running in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series and United Auto Racing Association events proved to be tougher.
In 2011, Stricklin registered five Top-10 finishes in nine starts; in 2012, four Top 10s in eight starts. The toughest obstacle, especially this year, continued to be paying for things himself and not landing a consistent sponsor.
Because of that, he also wasn’t gaining the experience he needed behind the wheel. Stricklin has run only 50 to 60 races in his short career, while other drivers with financial backing, full-time crews and tractor-trailer haulers were logging maybe 140 races a season.
Hut Stricklin believes in an old adage: “It’s very tough to beat the guy who races the most,” he says.

Taylor also kept telling Hut, his crew chief, their car wasn’t right. It led to a testy confrontation and some shouting last fall during some practice time in Hickory.
“I said, ‘You get in and drive it,’” Taylor remembers.
Hut answered, “I’ll get in there if I can reach the pedals.”
After only a few laps, Hut Stricklin agreed it was the worst-driving car he had ever been in. Though the news was bad, Taylor found it reassuring — evidence his feel for the car was spot on.
Back in the shop, the Stricklins cut off the front clip and looked for help from Greg Marlowe in Statesville to give a new geometry to the front end. The difference has been day and night.
“We’re head and shoulders above where we’ve ever been,” Taylor says.
As an example of the bad luck he has had this year, Stricklin entered the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown in Richmond in April. The crew members installed a brand-new carburetor the day they left for Richmond and were confident the car would be competitive.
But when Taylor took some practice laps, the car wouldn’t run. Hut Stricklin cleaned out the carburetor the best he could, finding a piece of loose silicone in the process.
The chances of qualifying looked dim, however. Stricklin was up against 40 to 50 of the best late-model cars in a three-state area. Thirty would be allowed to qualify, with six provisional spots reserved for star drivers and celebrities such as Kyle Bush, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.
Stricklin qualified 30th and was later knocked out of the race in a wreck involving Stewart. He finished only 27 of 75 laps in the charity event won by Busch.
More recently in Hickory, Stricklin had some good runs, completed 150 laps and finished the race 11th, though he had the fifth-place car in his sights at the end.
“We really try to do the best we can with what we got,” Taylor says. “It’s not something that can’t be done. We’re on the road to competing with them.”
Hut Stricklin adds, “Our last two to three races, he’s made some progress as a driver, and we’ve made some progress with the car.”

Donnie Allison, part of the famed Alabama Gang, offers counsel every now and then. Taylor calls him “Pawpaw.” Allison, inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2009, won 10 times on NASCAR’s top circuit.
“He has helped me a ton from a driver’s standpoint,” Taylor says.
Hut Stricklin says his father-in-law “has a way of seeing it and saying it,” in getting his driving points across.
Hut’s own father, Waymond, similarly ran a used car parts operation and salvage yard in Alabama and raced cars and trucks on short tracks during the weekends.
When he first started racing, Waymond Stricklin couldn’t settle on a number for his race car. In the store one day, about 10 customers each happened to have bills of $7.50, so someone suggested that Waymond Stricklin use the number “7 1/2” for his car.
That worked for a couple of years, until Hut’s mother persuaded Waymond to drop the half and substitute a crown, signifying that “7” was God’s lucky number.
Taylor incorporates the crown above the No. 7 on his car.

Born in Alabama, Taylor Stricklin came with his family to racing-centered North Carolina as a youngster in September 1996.
Besides running the auto salvage and parts business, Hut Stricklin Enterprises, the family tends to cattle on a 70-acre farm off Caldwell Road, where the race shop also is located.
Taylor’s younger sister, Tabitha, is a beautician who has resisted — though she once expressed interest — the racecar-driving profession.
During a race, Hut Stricklin and a spotter are on the radio with Taylor.
In the shop, Taylor receives help from experienced guys such as Greg Campbell and Dan Crate, both of whom are with Michael Waltrip’s race team.
Taylor also will help his cousin Justin Allison at times. Allison races in the Pro All-Star Series.
Always confident, Stricklin says the possibility of his moving up and making it in racing is not far-fetched. Footing his own bills makes it harder, he acknowledges, but it has given him an advantage over most other drivers.
He knows what it takes to build a car and what’s behind setting one up. In the driver’s seat, it gives him a better feel for things.
“I love doing this,” he says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.