“No. 1 WILL COME”
After 16 wins, six track records and an unprecedented track championship in his first full season of competition, Lee Pulliam is giving his competition a head start in 2012.
…Not that he wants to.
Pulliam’s success last season was no accident. Neither was the on-track collision that spawned an indefinite suspension from NASCAR. As a result of his role in the post-race fracas following the Danville Toyota 300 at South Boston Speedway on September 3, Pulliam has been barred from competing in NASCAR-sanctioned races through April 30.
It marks the second consecutive season the defending Bull & Bones Late Model Stock Car track champion will miss the Motor Mile Speedway season opener— 2010 track titlist Brandon Dean forfeited the entire 2011 season after failing to procure sponsorship.
But the reasons behind Pulliam’s absence are decidedly different.
It was a dream season that went drastically awry. En route to his first Late Model Stock Car championship, Pulliam set new standards and shattered old records at Motor Mile Speedway. He became the first driver to sweep six out of the first seven races. He bested Philip Morris’ single-season win record, becoming the first racer to notch 16 victories. A staggering 80 percent winning record and an average finishing position of 2.4 also made the history books.
Later that fall, a win in the prestigious Martinsville Speedway Late Model 300 solidified Pulliam’s status among local racing’s elite.
His actions propelled him to Late Model stardom. Less than a month later, it would be his downfall.
For the second straight season, controversial contact between Morris and Pulliam in the Danville Toyota 300 at South Boston Speedway hatched a firestorm of ill-advised activity.
This time, the retaliation manifested. The repercussions magnified.
Found in violation of Section 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing, hitting another competitor’s car after the race ended) Pulliam was fined $1,000. A subsequent judgment of indefinite suspension threatened to cripple a burgeoning career.
Taking his appeal to the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel, a nervous Pulliam stood, “scared to death” before racing dignitaries Humpy Wheeler and Robert Yates, among others, to plead his position: Clemency.
He heeded their wisdom, and sought out the advice of others, including Jason Lawrence, whose altercation with Morris years prior is now a part of racing lore.
Like his victories, Pulliam’s “life lessons” came in droves in 2011. It’s a story that could have been the obituary to a bright career. Yet his most recent racing experience serves only as a prequel to what promises to be Pulliam’s most anticipated season yet.
More determined. More disciplined. More driven. Pulliam will return to Motor Mile Speedway May 5, having served his reduced four-month suspension. The Semora, NC native will remain on probation for the remainder of the year.
“I can go to sleep at night. I’ve apologized to everybody, and I’ve tried to make amends,” says Pulliam. “Now I’m ready to go race.”
In a candid interview, Pulliam addresses a host of issues, puts the past to rest, and speaks about the future of his racing career.
Trackside Transcript: Lee Pulliam
JW Martin – Lee Pulliam
How do you look back on 2011?
Everything about it was a life lesson. Some of the greatest moments of my life came in racing last year against guys that I respect like Frank [Deiny] and Philip [Morris]. It’s been a true blessing for me to be able to do this; to do what I love to do. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
The deal that happened in the last race of the year—that’s probably the biggest life lesson I’ve ever went through. It’s cost me a lot. It’s kind of put me in a predicament. But anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What was your mindset after Martinsville as you prepared for the big race at South Boston Speedway?
To win it. I knew Philip was going to be tough, because we had raced all year. We had had several instances where things got heated.
…You know, it was just heat of the moment. I’m a young guy. I’ve got a fire in me to win. That’s the No. 1 priority when I belt into a race car. All these guys are the same way, but you try to have more of that fire than the next guy. That’s the way I feel like I race. And I still have that fire. I think this will make me better— sitting out these first couple months.
At what point did you decide ‘enough was enough’ in that race? And if you can’t answer that, how much did the events of 2010 play into your decision-making process post-race in 2011?
A lot of things went down, and we probably ought to leave that alone. I felt like, between the spin-er and the spin-ee, everything would have been a lot easier if we would have both went to the rear. None of that would have happened. But it is what it is; the call wasn’t made that way. You’ve just got to learn how to get over it. And it’s really tough when you feel like that same call has been made against you so many times. I’ve gotten the black flag for doing less than that a lot of times. You’ve just got to have a lot of patience. I think everything that happened will make me into a better person. Stronger-willed; the fire is there like never before. I want to go race today.
Some point to Martinsville and say, ‘what goes around comes around.’ They say, based on your actions, you can’t take what you dish out. It suggests those critics don’t have a complete understanding of the unique relationship you two share. Can you address this criticism, and in doing so update me, if you can, on the status of your relationship with Philip Morris.
Philip and I have had discussions. People that think the same thing happened at SoBo that happened at Martinsville are blind. Matt McCall would have done the same thing to me. I moved a guy out of the way. The wreck happened well after the contact was made. He actually did not spin out from my contact, and would have finished second or third. The guys behind him were racing double file, and they all came together. There’s a big difference in moving a guy and wrecking a guy. I can hold onto a car pretty good, and when somebody spins me out, it takes a pretty good hit.
In the aftermath, if you had known the consequences of your actions prior to that retaliation, would you have proceeded the way you did?
Well, no. It doesn’t have everything to do with the consequences. I mean, that makes it worse, to the point where you definitely wouldn’t have done it. In hindsight, I’ve got the greatest fans. They travel from all over the place to watch me race. Anywhere we go, I’ve got a big following. I’m just really blessed. The biggest thing was letting those guys down. These people want to see me race, and I feel like I’ve let them down. That bothers me more than anything.
-Certainly. But would it be better if in the future NASCAR clarified their position on the rules: Here’s what happens if you do this. Rather than making a reactive judgment, shouldn’t NASCAR take a more proactive stance? Should there be clear guidelines stating that if you cross this line, here is a set of potential punishments; I would assume that if such guidelines were in place, Lee Pulliam would not have gone that far that day.
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s tough being the example. You don’t see stuff like that, and you have to understand the history of what’s gone on. A lot of people don’t know the whole deal. The guy is over twice my age, and he’s mature. But he’s been there. I’ve seen the other side: I’ve seen him ram a guy under the red flag before.
It’s just a different day and time now. It’s gotten to be so political. You’ve just got to be real careful about what you do and what you say about what happens. This sport is constantly changing and evolving. It just makes it where you have to evolve with it, or get out. But, to answer your question, if it was a point-blank rule, No. I don’t think anybody that loves this sport this much would want to be banned from something they love.
The NASCAR Appeals Panel. I’ve heard both Robert Yates and Bruton Smith were among those serving on the panel-that must have been surreal for you, meeting such distinguished personalities for the first time in such a setting. Describe that day, set the scene for me, and what was that experience like?
It was actually Robert Yates, Humpy Wheeler, and Dale Pinellas (sp). All three were extremely nice about it. All shared similar experiences of things they went through. Humpy Wheeler even said, [heck] that sells tickets. He said that back in the day, he’d have loved to have seen it; he would have packed the stands next week, but he also said that the sport just can’t have that these days. Robert shared stories about him and [Dale] Earnhardt. All of them were really supportive. They didn’t want me to lose the fire; they said NASCAR needs guys with fire.
They knew they had to do something. A lot of people were pushing for something to be done. Overall, they were top-notch. It was actually a really neat deal, and something I’ll never forget.
-How did it work?
I knew who I was going to see when I went in. I had a list. And I was scared to death. I didn’t know Dale, but I knew the other two—two of the top names in NASCAR. I walked into that room as nervous as I could be. It was a tough situation for all of us, but they didn’t make it any worse than it had to be. They didn’t look at me as a criminal—they looked at me as a guy who made a mistake.
-Outcome better, worse, or what you expected?
I don’t know. You always hope for better. I spent a lot of money on that deal, and paid for Philip’s racecar—all of those expenses. But what can you do? I was in the wrong. I was hoping that would make a difference, and it probably did. But I can go to sleep at night. I’ve apologized to everybody, and I’ve tried to make amends. Now I’m ready to go race.
Race fans that will be watching you this season—will they see Lee driving any differently as a result of this experience?
Oh no. No. The car’s gonna be coming home with doughnuts on it every week. That’s one thing that Humpy and Robert Yates told me: just because I’m on probation doesn’t mean I have to drive any differently. I’ll keep driving hard. Hard racing is hard racing, you just have to cut it off after the race is over. Lee Pulliam is going to be driving just as hard as ever, and probably harder.
At least six records set in 2011 at Motor Mile Speedway. Which record are you most proud of?
All of them. It still sends goosebumps up me. Some of the greatest people in this sport have raced at this place. It’s just really cool. I know me and Frank have had feuds, and me and Philip…but at the end of the day, man, these are guys I watched as a kid. It’s really cool just to be trading paint with them. It’s something I’ll cherish.
Having had time to reflect, what does this track title mean to you, personally?
Winning the title and then winning Martinsville—those are the two biggest accomplishments of my career. We set out hoping to do it, but you never know what can happen. We just kept praying and kept digging, and…wow. We could have won every race we ran. That’s unbelievable. We won 16 out of 20, and I felt like we had a car that could have won the rest of them.
What was the defining race for you in 2011?
I guess beating Philip here. We never lost to him until the last race he ran, when we had a transmission fail on us. For this to be his place—the King of this place, and to basically dethrone him down here…that was really cool. To come from sixth to beat him both times…that’s something I’ll never forget. He’ll go down as probably the greatest short track racer there ever was. To go out there and beat him each and every week, that meant a lot to me.
A fun question. Name the bigger rivalry in 2012: Lee Pulliam v. Frank Deiny, Jr. or Lee Pulliam v. Philip Morris. Or, is rivalry even in your dictionary anymore?
It doesn’t matter…I mean, I don’t hold any animosity toward Frank or Philip. I don’t see people when I’m racing. It’s just cars. I race everybody the same. If the black No. 5 hits me in that corner, this corner, I’m going to hit him back. And he’ll do me the same way. It makes for good racing— the kind fans like to see. I just can’t wait to get started; May can’t get here quick enough.
An update on your plans for 2012, both in the Limited Sportsman division and at the Late Model level.
I’ve got Garrett Bunch, he’s going to be running Limited here at Motor Mile for me. And of course Matt Taylor, and they’re going to be running for the title. We’re going to start running up here starting in May every week from then on. We’ve got a new car that’s being finished right now, and I’m really excited about it.
Last question. Have you set any personal goals for this year, and is back-to-back track champion a realistic aspiration—can it be done?
Yeah, it can be done. We really hope to do it; that’s my motivation. But I’ve told all the guys that we’re not going to get caught up in it. If it happens, it happens. We’re gonna go to the racetrack to win. That’s our No. 1 priority. And we’re racing for this national deal. I feel like we can win it. I know that sounds crazy, giving up two months to Philip and these guys. We’ll let those guys get lazy, and the No. 1 will come.