NASCAR WCUP: Mike Ford returns to east Tennessee with Elliott and Evernham
Posted By Terry Callahan
August 23, 2001
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
BRISTOL, Tenn. - For Morristown, Tenn., native Mike Ford, racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is like coming home. Now the crew chief for Evernham Motorsports No. 9 Dodge Dealers Intrepid R/T, driven by Bill Elliott, Ford began his trip to NASCAR Winston Cup in the Tennessee hills.
Born in Arlington, Va., Ford's family moved to Morristown, Tenn. when he was just four years old. Early on, he liked cars and all things mechanical, but working on cars wasn't his priority, football was. That was until a health problem moved him from the gridiron to the garage.
"As a kid, cars weren't my first love," said Ford. "Football came first. But, I found out I couldn't play in high school and I shifted my interests to cars and hot rods."
Before he was old enough to drive, Ford bought his first cars - one Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was wrecked in the front and one that was wrecked in the back. He set them up in the driveway and went to work, assembling the two wrecks into one car.
"I really did it by teaching myself," remembered Ford, who was 14 at the time. "I couldn't drive anyway, so what else was there to do. I read some books and magazines on auto repair, and when my grandfather, who was a mechanic, was around, I'd shoot him questions."
Ford's interest in auto racing came a little later, although he made his first trip to Bristol Motor Speedway when he was around 10.
"We went to some race, although it wasn't Winston Cup," he said. "It was loud and the cars beat on each other. I liked it. But I didn't really know what Winston Cup was until high school. And the first person I ever recognized as a Winston Cup driver was Bill Elliott."
When Ford got to high school at Jefferson County High, he enrolled in shop class, but balanced his schedule with advanced math courses like trigonometry and calculus.
"If you took shop, some people looked at you like you were taking it just for the credit," said Ford. "It was far from that for me. I wanted to learn and I took all the shop classes I could so I could advance my learning. But I also took a lot of advanced math. There's a direct correlation between math and mechanics. Being a crew chief is math and science combined. There are facts and reasons why the car performs like it does. It's really a chunk of steel guided by math and science."
Ford credits his shop teacher, Mr. Estes, with giving him the motivation to pursue a career in mechanics. "He knew that I wasn't there just for the credit," said Ford. "He saw that I wanted to learn and gave me more attention."
Ford's family moved near Charlotte, N.C. while Ford was still in high school. He found he needed more of a challenge than high school shop classes, and entered the American Motor Institute. It was there, in 1989, that he would get the opportunity of a lifetime -- a place on driver Kyle Petty's crew.
"I didn't have the money to go to college like I wanted to, so this was the next best thing," said Ford. "I spent $10,000 on the school, and at first I thought it was a big rip-off. Then, Gary Nelson called the school looking for the top students, and I got a job working for Kyle. So it really paid off in the long run."
Ford said that he always set his goals high. He knew that one day he would be a crew chief, and hoped his youth, ambition and ability to absorb information like a sponge would be the keys to his success. By 1995, he had gone from sweeping floors, cleaning parts and running errands for the Petty team to working as lead mechanic. But, Ford's desire for something more challenging led him to a new job - with Robert Yates' No. 88 team.
"I knew Robert Yates was starting up the No. 88 team, and it sounded pretty interesting," Ford said. "It was something new to do, and I was the third employee. I was a part of the team that helped Dale Jarrett win the 1996 Daytona 500 and 1999 Winston Cup Championship. I learned a lot and there are some really good people there, but a new opportunity came along where I had to decide if I was going to stay put and be content with my mechanics job or take one more chance."
The opportunity came from Ray Evernham.
"I wanted to go to a team with a future where I could grow, but it's hard to make that move when you are with a team with lots of resources," Ford said. "But I had heard that the Dodge deal might be happening, and I knew Ray Evernham and Ed Guzzo a little from around the garage. I gave Ed a call and let him know I might be looking, and he said he'd get back to me. The next thing I know, he's calling to tell me that Ray wants to meet with me.
"When Ray presented the idea of working with Bill Elliott for a year and joining the Dodge program as a crew chief, I was shocked," said Ford, who joined Elliott's then No. 94 team for the 2000 season. "I was a mechanic, a grunt guy, an under the car person. I couldn't believe that Ray would recommend me for that position. Being in a management position and making decisions was a whole new world. But I thought about it, and figured I could bring some knowledge and a new level of competition to the team."
Ford quickly found out about the promise of his new job when they went to the 2000 Daytona 500. Elliott qualified third and won one of the Gatorade 125s. But for Ford, that doesn't compare to coming back in 2001 with an entirely new team, new equipment and new car.
"To go back this year, sit on the pole and make everyone mad, was pretty cool," he added.
Now, Ford is turning his attention toward Saturday Night's Sharpie 500. Not only is he looking for the first Evernham Motorsports victory, he's also looking forward to a trip back home.
"I feel like I can hold my head up high when I go back to East Tennessee," said Ford. "Not many people leave there, so it feels good to go out and accomplish something. I don't know if folks there would still recognize me, but I saw a guy I used to play baseball with at a race a few years ago. I always keep an eye out for my old friends."
Ford has another stop on his itinerary in Bristol - a trip down to Nick's Grocery in Morristown where his mother used to take him and his brother when they playing Little League baseball. The store offered five hot dogs for $1, and Ford's Mother always bought $2 worth. Now, the hot dogs are two for a $1, but it's a good bet Mike Ford will splurge and spend $2 to relive his childhood memories in his hometown.
Text provided by Molly Morter