When former NASCAR crew chief/team owner Travis Carter agreed to sign autographs on Rex White Day at the Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, N.C., he felt a bit out of place. Not that he should have. Carter, who was instantly recognized by the steady throng of fans who poured into the museum, is one of the most prominent figures in NASCAR history.
But it wasn’t his status in the sport that concerned him.
“If you do these things you ought to have some pictures, postcards or something like so many guys have,” he said. “I don’t. Now, if I had a postcard made with all the cars I’ve worked on over the years, that would be cool.” And likely impossible. That’s because Carter spent 32 years in NASCAR working with many of the most prominent teams, drivers and cars of his era.
He started out in 1971 with owner L.G. DeWitt of Ellerbe, N.C., and driver Benny Parsons. “After a couple of years I became the crew chief,” Carter said. “But that was by default. Benny and I were, at the time, the only ones who worked on things and there wasn’t anyone else to be the crew chief.”
Carter was Parsons’ pit boss when Parsons won the Winston Cup championship in 1973.
Carter moved on to work for Roger Penske in Pennsylvania and then spent several seasons with Junior Johnson & Associates and driver Cale Yarborough. But he rose to prominence after he joined Hal Needham’s team in 1981 to be the crew chief for Harry Gant, who became one of the most popular figures in NASCAR. The eight-year association produced nine victories.
In 1990, with sponsorship from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Carter formed his own team. Over 13 years, his drivers included Jimmy Spencer, Darrell Waltrip and Todd Bodine.
Today, by his own admission, Carter does little in racing. He leases out shops in Statesville, N.C., and would like to get funding to help his son Matt’s racing career, but otherwise, he’s removed from NASCAR. Carter explained that there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the role of a crew chief has changed. The other is that NASCAR itself is far different than what it was in his time.
“The wherewithal to be successful as a crew chief is really good right now,” Carter said. “From what I’ve been told they can make a lot of money. I’ve heard that some make as much as $1 million. I don’t know if that’s a fact. But crew chiefs today are under extreme pressure – a lot more than in my day. It’s a high-stress job and they have to be committed to it. Even in my time you had to be committed. You had to give it 100 percent.”
“But you know what? If a crew chief gets paid the amount of money I’m told he does, well, people expect him to perform. They expect him to be committed. And that’s not wrong. That’s the way it should be. But it isn’t easy.”
Carter knows it’s too difficult for him.
“It’s hard to stop doing what you have been doing all your life,” he said. “But I know I can’t give 100 percent 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I just don’t have it in my heart to do that.” Carter admits his NASCAR era was far less complicated and commercial. It was also technologically inferior. But there existed a comradeship and camaraderie among competitors that he thinks is largely missing today.
“The last year I raced was in 2003,” he said. “I saw the change.
“The garage area is a closed environment. Drivers don’t have to be shielded from everything. I do think it’s the people around them that do that and I believe that has created a superstar persona for the drivers and has kept them at a distance from people”, he added, “I think it’s the wrong atmosphere. I raced in a time in which guys weren’t necessarily buddies and friends, but at least they acknowledged one another. They might have wanted to fight after a race was over but they talked the next week – and they always talked with the media without someone having to make an appointment.”
“They didn’t have that damn uppity attitude that says ‘I’m better than you.’ I detest that in people. But again I say it’s the people around many drivers that have created that attitude.”
Many NASCAR veterans are asked if racing was better in their day, something many traditionalists believe. As for Carter, well, judge for yourself.
“I actually hardly ever watch it on TV today,” he said. “I’ll watch Daytona and Talladega, because as fast as the drivers are going atop of one another, you know something is going to happen. I think the fans feel the same way.
“Otherwise, it seems to me drivers are just running to get to the end. So maybe I don’t watch because I don’t feel much excitement in it.”