Bob Pockrass of NASCAR Scene
Just outside of Central City, smoke billows from one of the world’s largest coal-fire power plants, a reminder that the mines once defined this small Kentucky town. Almost every dad labored as a coal miner or served as a vendor tied to the mining industry.
Times have changed. The local high-sulfur coal caused acid rain, and the mines closed by the mid-1980s. The community saw its high school disappear – not to mention the winningest boys’ basketball program in Kentucky history – when it shut down for consolidation in 1990.
Teenagers now go to a high school in Greenville, the town within spitting distance that Central City residents love to ridicule and loathe comparison with. For them, rallying behind the Muhlenberg North Stars just doesn’t evoke the same emotions as rooting for the Central City Golden Tide.
But the 5,000 people in this city do have a home team to celebrate. Tucked away on the southwest side of town sits a one-story building at 106 Brewer Drive that looks like just another warehouse. Inside, people who work there give the town of Central City a reason to have a parade in December and a rally in February.
For this type of town breeds NASCAR fans. A town where at a local pizza shop, a race fan can buy a knife with a black No. 3 on it. Or a red No. 8. Or an orange No. 20, which doesn’t sell nearly as well as the other two.
Located 525 miles from the racing hub of Mooresville, N.C., Brewco Motorsports remains the team not in the Charlotte vicinity to rank in the top 20 in Busch Series points. In fact, every team within the top 35 in Nextel Cup points is based in the Charlotte region of North Carolina.
Basing his team away from the Charlotte hub hinders owner Clarence Brewer from hiring some of the best mechanics, and it requires the team to send a truck weekly to Charlotte to get parts. But moving would cost so much more because Brewco’s heart and soul would remain in Central City.
“Central City is such a small town, and it used to be such a booming town,” says Tanya Chadwick, who runs a pizza shop with her husband, Danny. “It’s kind of an inspiration when you hear, ‘Brewco Motorsports from Central City, Kentucky.’ It puts this little bittie spot on the map.”
A family affair
Clarence Brewer Jr. doesn’t know how long his family has lived in Central City, located 35 miles south of Owensboro just off the Western Kentucky Parkway. His father lives across from the race shop. His grandparents are buried in the town cemetery. His great-grandparents are buried there. His great-great-grandparents are buried there.
Ask the people at the pizza place or the local barber shop where Clarence Brewer lives, and they all respond the same: “Junior or Senior?” Then they might tell you, depending if they trust you.
“As a young man, you could go hot-rod your car down the street, and by the time you got home, your mom and dad would know about it,” Brewer says. “You couldn’t get by with much in a small town like this.”
Or, as driver Jamie McMurray, remembers: “You just know everybody, and everybody knows you. If you brought a different friend home, they knew you brought a different friend home and are like, ‘Who’s that?’”
McMurray used to live in an apartment next to the shop, which houses the Busch Series teams for David Green and Johnny Sauter. Across the street from the shop sits the sawmill equipment business Clarence Brewer Sr. built, and two football fields away remains the lucrative paint booth and spray machine supply company spearheaded by Clarence Brewer Jr.
Although his dad had owned a dirt track right down the street and friends built cars in the back of the sawmill shop even before he turned 10, the racing bug never really hit Clarence Brewer Jr. as a child. If he had nothing better to do, he would hang out as the locals built cars and then get in trouble telling his mother the dirty jokes he learned from his dad’s friends.
“Junior was down there, and he was more or less in the way,” says family friend Hugh Sweatt. “We had no idea that he would even give half a hoo-rah about anything like this.”
While at a trade show to sell paint booths, Junior – or Brother, as his friends call him – would see fans line up to meet NASCAR drivers such as Ken Schrader. If so many people had an interest in the sport, it seemed like it might be fun to take part in it, he thought. Thanks to the profitable family businesses that he would later sell to Snap-On Tools, a clueless-about-racing Brewer thought about sponsoring a Busch Series team in 1995. Then some friends convinced him to own one instead.
He hired a stock broker named Todd Wilkerson to help get the team started and local body shop worker Sam Nelson to run the shop. Brewer didn’t know any drivers, but being from near Owensboro, he had heard of the Green brothers. He had a friend who knew the Greens, and Mark Green soon wore the first Brewco Motorsports driver suit.
“I could see it becoming one of the better teams just because of the way Clarence ran his other businesses and the way he treated people,” Mark Green says. “He’s just so personable with everybody. Not to say a lot of owners are above the guys that work on their cars, but Clarence was there late at night with us working, bringing us supper and being just one of the guys.”
Brewer seemed to have an affinity for hiring young up-and-comers. Hungry drivers jumped at the chance to join the team, even if it bunkered in the Kentucky outback. Casey Atwood got his start and won the team’s first race in 1999 before joining Evernham Motorsports. Kevin Grubb joined the team. McMurray also piloted a Brewco car until Chip Ganassi snatched him up.
“They had a big parade every year with the fire trucks – it’s as redneck as I guess you could get,” McMurray says in an affectionate way. “It was a very small town, and it was kind of cool. I enjoyed it. Everybody was very nice.”
It wasn’t hard for Brewer to find guys who wanted to work on the car. Ken Christerson used to leave his tire store at 5 p.m. and come work on the cars – for free – until late at night. Brewer credits the strong Late Model programs in the Ownesboro and Nashville areas for providing him with gearheads who wanted to make it to the next level. He has built a strong relationship with Timber Wolf for one secure sponsorship, and his reputation earned him the much-wanted Kleenex sponsor for his second team in 2004.
“I’ve never seen a business that if you didn’t manage it well or market it well, couldn’t make it anywhere,” Brewer says. “I just knew we had to get the right people.”
He has had four shops since starting the business in the back of his warehouse. He moved to an old pantry that could house about three race cars and is now a chemical supply company, then to an old Coca-Cola bottling plant and then back on Brewer property about three years ago.
“Clarence told me originally and he still has that mindset that it’s his race team, it’s where he lives, and why does he want a race team if it’s not going to be there where he can enjoy it and overlook it?” Green says.
Only game in town
Brewer also wants a race shop that doesn’t waste money, considering his sponsorship packages routinely cost $1 million less than those of Cup-affiliated Busch Series teams and he doesn’t have the luxury of a separate engine program and unlimited wind tunnel time.
One way to cut costs? No sign at the shop. He decided against putting up a sign that says “Brewco Motorsports” because the haulers serve as a beacon.
“When you’re the only NASCAR team in Central City, you don’t need a sign,” Brewer says. “Most people there are pretty smart people. We don’t need signs. We just know what it is.”
Brewco Motorsports isn’t the only place in town without a sign. Raymond Ellison’s barber shop has no sign as well, just a pole with the red and blue stripes. It’s a place to get your hair cut while debating whether Tony Stewart races a car better than Jeff Gordon.
“Most of the conversations that are here are NASCAR-oriented,” says 28-year-old barber Clay Vincent. “One of the nicest things about having Brewco out there is that you know somebody in NASCAR.”
The barber shop sits two doors down from the town’s weekly newspaper and across from the post office. A couple of blocks away stands the City Hall, with a tribute to the Everly Brothers in front of it. The musical duo spent summers with their aunt in Central City, and one of them was even born there. Don Everly owns a nearby hotel, and the annual Everly Brothers Foundation puts on the Central City Music Festival.
The main drag, just a strip, will serve as the site for an annual festival that will draw 1,000 cars for a “cruise-in” to remake Central City into a scene from “American Graffiti.”
The city does have lore beyond the dirt track. There once, the story goes, was a man named Virgil who sawed part of his house in half just prior to his divorce. The town was officially “dry” until October 2002 when liquor sales were legalized.
“It never was dry; it just wasn’t legally sold,” says Sweatt, who has served as mayor for 12 years.
Make no mistake, Central City doesn’t rate as totally backwoods Kentucky. The movie theater plays current, first-run films. But down the road at Ellison’s barber shop, a haircut still only costs $9 and a beard trim is $3.
Brewer likes to say, “When I get my haircut, I find out a lot of things about our company,” although Ellison insists that’s not true. Ellison used to take money at the back pit gate of that old dirt track and loaned Brewer a trailer to haul his first race car.
“It’s really neat that we’ve got a team here,” says Ellison, who has lived in Central City for almost 40 years and whose son works for Brewer in the race trailer manufacturing arm of Brewco Inc. “To know the Brewer family – they’ve helped the town ever since Clarence Sr.’s daddy had the sawmill and hired people. ... But everybody in this area wants Brewco to do good, it being local and all the jobs he produces.”
Even credit for the town’s McDonald’s goes at least in part to Brewco Motorsports. A few years ago, a TV report on Brewco said its town was so small, it didn’t even have a McDonald’s.
That statement made Sweatt so mad that he used his pull as mayor to lobby a friend who owned franchises nearby to put a McDonald’s in Central City.
Sweatt takes pride in this town. He grew up here. He used to announce the races at the dirt track, which had to close when no one wanted responsibility for the fights afterward.
“We used to pull an average of about 60 to 70 cars on a given Saturday night – and would double the population of the town that night,” Sweatt says. “The population back then was about 4,000, and we’d pull that many down there.”
Sweatt has attended NASCAR races since the first Talladega race in 1969. So stoked that Brewco operates in his town, he put signs up that say “Home of Brewco Motorsports” along the highway at the entrances to the city. The Department of Motor Vehicles often tells him he has to take down the unofficial signs. Every time, Sweatt scoffs at the order.
“They say it’s illegal, but we’ve fought ’em for four years,” Sweatt says. “Every time they change a governor or change somebody, they complain about the sign. Once we say we’re not going to change it, they leave us alone.”
Obviously, Sweatt likes to get what he wants. He didn’t when a week before the 2003 Busch Series season finale, Sweatt told Brewer that whether David Green won the championship or not, the town would hold a parade in Brewco’s honor. Brewer didn’t want to go through with it.
“That’s not my kind of thing – I don’t do this to set up a parade and wave at people,” Brewer says. “At first, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ It was stupid. I didn’t think anybody would show up.”
To Brewer’s surprise, people put on their heavy coats and lined the streets the first week in December.
“I knew we had a lot of fans around here, and it really made a lot of guys feel good,” Brewer says. “It was 2,000 pats on the back right there, and anybody would appreciate it.”
The owners of the pizza place, DanO’s, closed their restaurant just to go to the parade.
“That was one of those things that we could not miss,” says Tanya Chadwick.
Tanya and Danny (hence, DanO’s) Chadwick had no choice but to close that day. The Brewco team eats at their restaurant, right underneath the signed hood of an old Timber Wolf car. Next to the Timber Wolf hood are pictures of Elvis. Ancient racing magazine covers grace another wall. A photo of Dale Earnhardt hangs on another.
Tanya and Danny grew up in Central City and have felt the impact of Brewco Motorsports and not just as customers during lunch hour. Both of their families worked in the coal mines and have roots in Central City.
“It’s definitely a community pride type thing. I can’t tell you anybody that lives in this town that is not going to root for Brewco motorsports,” Tanya says.
On Saturdays, the restaurant will have the Busch Series race on the radio, where people can eat fried catfish or pizza and listen to how the home team runs.
“Our customers would probably kill of us if we didn’t [have it on],” Tanya says.
They had the race playing loudly Nov. 15, 2003, when David Green challenged for the Busch Series title. Danny actually skipped work and went home to watch it on television. Tanya and the townsfolk listened to the drama as Green fell three laps down, rallied but then finished 14 points short of Brian Vickers for the title.
“We were listening to the radio and kind of going into silent mode every time something happened,” Tanya Chadwick says. “I can’t say we were actually disappointed for the simple fact that we were just so proud he had done that good.”
They beam with pride for the Brewco drivers, past and present. They want Atwood and McMurray to do well even though they don’t drive under the Brewco banner anymore. It’s being a home team in a major sport in the middle of what some would say is nowhere that makes having Brewco there so neat. But also so important.
“Everybody thinks it’s cool – all but the people who are trying to sleep in the morning when we’re running the dyno,” Christerson says.
It’s cool for the team members as well. They truly have a sense of community and know other race teams don’t compare to Brewco Motorsports.
“If you’re down in Charlotte, you’re just another race team,” says Nelson, who still runs the parts department.
But being another race team in Charlotte can have its perks, including the accessibility for jobs.
“We don’t have a guy wheeling his tool box out for 50 cents more an hour down the street,” Christerson says.
Most other crew members live in towns where they can have more of a social life and go out and commiserate with crew members of other teams.
They also can work in bigger shops. While Brewco has a nice shop, it certainly wouldn’t rival some of the palaces in Charlotte. A short slab of cement with a small wall on the side smack in the middle of a gravel parking lot serves as the pit stop practice area. Every member of the pit crew also has shop responsibilities.
“It doesn’t fascinate me much, but it should because I live in Charlotte where you see all these Taj Mahals, and then you go there and see Brewco,” David Green says. “I know where Clarence came from and where all these guys have come from.
“Race shops don’t win races and championships. It’s the people. .... A lot of people will be surprised to see what a hard-working group of just old Kentucky boys that we have up there that do a lot with a small amount.”
Brewco has eight wins and five poles. Entering the July 10 race at Chicago, Green ranked sixth in the Busch Series standings while Sauter was 20th.
“Whenever we started the team, we didn’t have a goal of being a two-car, championship-contending team,” Brewer says. “We had a goal of going to the race track and just having a good time.
“We never did set out a lot of goals. We just worked hard every day.”
If Brewer had told his workers that his goals were to have two championship contenders, they might have laughed at him. Nelson, the son of a coal miner, left the stability of working at the body shop for the risky, competitive business of racing. He remains the only jackman the No. 37 car has ever had.
“Lo and behold, you never knew you’d have an opportunity to work for a professional race team,” says Nelson, who grew up a stone’s throw away from the Central City border and used to pal around with Brewer when they were teenagers. “It’s amazing where we’ve come from where we started.”
Moving to the Charlotte area, home to almost all Nextel Cup teams, never held much allure for Brewer. The team sends a truck to Charlotte once a week to pick up parts and cars. If he needs something, “We have the United States Postal Service now and we can get parts,” Brewer says.
“When we just had the 12-race deal [in 1996], they thought Clarence was crazy,” Nelson says about the team’s second season. “A lot of people wanted him to do the team down in Charlotte. They said it would never work.
“The people just didn’t know Clarence, how successful he was in business and making things work. ... You wouldn’t believe how many people come up and thank us for being here.”