From May 21, 1997 Issue of Racing News
(updated with corrections, additions, links and racing photos)
It’s race week in Charlotte and there is a young good-looking guy getting more television time than its current big star – Dale Earnhardt. There’s talk of movie appearances, billboards of him selling jeans, Buddy Baker’s getting to him complimenting him on his driving, race fans are all a buzz – he’s the next superstar of NASCAR and he’s destine to be the biggest ever.
No, its not Jeff Gordon, who won last weekend’s Winston, not even Tony Stewart, who hot lapped his IRL car between activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Winston Open and The Winston, it’s not even 1997.
It’s 1986 and the star was Jesse Samples Jr.
He stole the headlines in the May 29, 1986 of this paper (Racing News) as well as the attention of all the media in Charlotte for the World 600 activities.
Jesse Samples Jr. in 1986 was a high school kid who had just driven his Wrangler Jeans Charlotte/Daytona Dash entry to victory at Charlotte in only his second major asphalt start. Plans were laid for a trip to the top, but somewhere the road turned and the plans all failed. Jesse Samples Jr. never made the full trip.
"I was just looking over at Winner’s Circle," said Jesse as he sat in the stands overlooking Charlotte Motor Speedway just a month ago. "It’s changed a lot since I was last standing in it. It’s amazing how the whole track has changed since I started coming here."
It has been 10 years since Jesse was around the track where he was herald as a future star. There’s a lot of unfilled script to the racing career of Jesse Samples Jr., but he’s a different person now and has a different life than the one that was being played out as a teenager.
"I guess I actually started racing here when I was about 10 years old, Jesse remembers. "In the World Karting Association, that was before they had the VIP suites and condos. The sport sure has grown over the years.
"When I was three and a half years old my uncle worked at a manufacturing facility that made the go-karts that were sold at JCPenny’s, Sears, through their catalogs. The Christmas before my 4th birthday he specially built a go-kart for me with long extension pedals." Jesse recalled. "My grandparents had a few acre yard – that I basically just trashed as a child."
"When I was about seven, my parents divorced. I lived in the Carolina’s with my father." Jesse said. "I guess where most fathers throw the football together on the weekend, we’d go go-kart racing. Dad knew how much I enjoyed riding my go-kart growing up.
"It just started out being a father and son hobby. It really wasn’t suppose to be anything more than that." Jesse said. "The first year we raced at a local track and ended up winning the local track championship, then the next year we moved on and won both the North Carolina and South Carolina state championships and then the next year we decided to try some of the national karting events.
"I was fortunate enough to win the very first national race we entered at the World Karting Association Winter Olympics in Georgia so we decided to continue racing the national events. We just kept on winning. So, we traveled all over the United States and ended up winning the National Championship my first year in 1979, I guess I was 10-11 years old." Jesse continued. "From then on, racing was a full-blown effort. My dad and I thought, ‘Hey, maybe we’re pretty good at this’, it still was suppose to be a father-son type of thing, that kinda’ became addictive!
Daytona International Speedway... World Karting Championships... Last lap, last turn.
"Charlotte Motor Speedway and Humpy Wheeler were very supportive of me. I played a little football with his son Tripp as a kid and Bruton Smith’s son, Scott, and I went to Charlotte Country Day together. We were pretty good friends and that helped a lot being a local kid.
"Mr. Wheeler said I should start racing Saturday night's at Hickory Speedway in NASCAR Late Model Stock." Jesse explained. "And if there was anyway possible I could find a guy named Frank Heffner, who used to crew chief for Bobby Issac, he had been retired about 15 or 20 years, lived in Cherryville, North Carolina, and if I could talk him out of retirement that would be a big help to me."
"Wonderful, sweet man. Really a gentleman." Jesse said. "He was nice enough, but tough old guy, everybody had been after him 15 or so years, but he wouldn’t come out of retirement. Thank the Lord, he agreed to return to racing and started helping me. We bought an old race-car, it was a 10+ year old car that Sam Ard use to race. It had been beat up, tore up, been owned by about eight people, run into walls, just an old NASCAR Late Model Camaro.
"We began moving our focus away from karting and started spending more effort getting ready for NASCAR. I got a license, with the help of Humpy Wheeler, from NASCAR. They gave me special permission at age 15. At the time, I was the youngest person ever to be given a NASCAR Drivers License. It had a big red stamp on it that said, "Minor" all over it.
"When we started, I think I was a sophomore in high school, we ran Saturday night races." Jesse recollected. "The car wasn’t anything fancy. It was just something I could go knock the walls down with and see if I could figure things out. I had to learn to drive a stick shift the day before my first race just so I could get out of the pits. I was still showing up for some of the bigger kart races, trying to defend a few of my titles, but mainly concentrating on racing NASCAR.
"There are many divisions of NASCAR, I guess we could have started in mini-stock, but no we just went ahead and got the big v-8 late model stock and started running in the fastest division at Hickory Speedway. I was so young the first time I showed up at the track to register that Max Prestwood, the track champion, thought I was a little boy lost. He thought I was in the wrong line and tried to send me over to the spectator's ticket booth line. I can remember the old car wasn’t as fast as the guys with the new cars and sponsors. We’d usually qualify near the back. My goal was to be consistent, stay out of trouble and the walls, and to gain experience." He continued. "I’d usually end up just outside the top five, by staying consistent. As they ran their tires off or wrecked, I would just keep picking them off one at a time.
"We raced Lated Model when I was between 15 and 17 years old." Jesse shared. "I got to be 17 and again, talking with Humpy Wheeler, he said we should try to get into another NASCAR division called the Charlotte/Daytona Dash Division. He said I should try to pick up a ride for the Daytona 500 race week. So we met with a few teams and tried to pick up a ride. Nothing was really panning out. When they saw how young I was, they didn’t want me in their expensive race cars.
"There was a team based out of Taylorsville, North Carolina that was trying to sell their older race car. The guy actually wanted to take it to Daytona Speedweek to try and find a buyer. So my dad and the car owner worked out a deal, Dad took a loan and rented the car for a one race deal." Jesse said.
"We got to Daytona and they wouldn't let me practice. It became obvious the owner was afraid I would wreck the car. He kept saying that it was having problems and wouldn't start." Jesse recalled. "We’ll Dad had already paid him up front, plus part of the deal was what ever money we won, he got to keep all of it. I was just there to get my chance to race at Daytona in a NASCAR car. I had already won multiple World Cup Championships including winning seven times at Daytona in karts, but never in a NASCAR car.
"Finally it came down to the last practice session before qualifying and I hadn’t even been in the car yet, so my dad of course started having heated conversations with the owner. Miraculously, the engine started and they let me go out for the very last practice session prior to qualifying." Jesse recalls of his first Dash experience. "My lap times were pretty good, but I was wide open all the way around and it just wouldn't go any faster. I came in and the guys were acting excited and saying those were really good lap times. I told them what I thought should be changed and then they admitted the car had been geared so it wouldn’t go full speed and that the engine timing had also been turned back. Now that they thought we might have a chance and that I might not wreck the car, they tinkered with it a little bit to make it faster for qualifying. It came time for qualifying and we qualified sixth. That was the best this older car had ever qualified.
"The best that four year old car had ever finished in a race was fifth here at Charlotte with Morgan Shepherd driving it." Jesse said. "The guys got all excited then with the sixth qualifying spot and tried to get it as fast as they could. I don’t think I ever lifted and drafted every car in sight. We finished our first NASCAR race at Daytona in fourth."
During Daytona Speedweek Jesse found himself in the right place at the right time. "I met a young lady that weekend and she invited me to go to a big party that Wrangler Blue Jeans was putting on for their driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr. So, I went to the party with her and it turned out that the people with Wrangler Blue Jeans had been paying close attention to me while I was racing, because there was a decal on the side of the car I was driving for a little blue jeans company out of Taylorsville, North Carolina (Taylor Togs Blue Jeans). The Wrangler Blue Jean Company wanted to know who this blue jeans company was and started keeping an eye on me too.
"It was just a freak coincident. I guess the good lord was looking out for me again." Jesse said. "Wrangler was pretty impressed with it being my first time out and finishing fourth at Daytona."
While at the party Jesse was introduced to several executives with Wrangler and they told Jesse they wanted to keep in touch." About two weeks before the NASCAR race at Charlotte, Wrangler called me out of the clear blue. They said, ‘We’re really impressed with what you did at Daytona. We think you’ve got a bright future and we don’t want you racing for any other blue jeans company. What do you think about racing for us?’
"We’ll here I am, just turned 18 a few weeks earlier, and I was ecstatic." Jesse beams still now. All wasn’t to be perfect though. Part of the deal was they weren’t interested in committing to a full deal just yet, but if Jesse put together a new team with a different car without the other blue jean company on it they would sponsor him for the one Charlotte race and re-evaluate after that.
"Wrangler didn’t know we had just rented that car for the one race at Daytona. That car had already been sold after we did so well with it at Daytona so I didn't have anything to race anyway. Dad called the crew chief that had been working with us at Daytona, Charlie Sigmon who now didn't have a car. Charlie, my dad and the father of the girl I was dating in high school all went in together and put up some money to buy a car that another team had used as their second car." Jesse said.
Wrangler had us paint the car to look identical to Dale Earnhardt's famous Wrangler Jeans #3 (remember The Pass in the Grass car?), but to race in the NASCAR Charlotte Dash race. "We came to Charlotte with a one race career and a enough money from Wrangler to buy some tires and things, but basically dad had to mortgage everything just to do it." Jesse shared. "When we showed up at Charlotte everyone was like, wow! They thought we had this big name sponsor, when really we only had a little money and a chance to get a bigger commitment, but we were the only people in that division with a sponsor of that status.
"So we came here to Charlotte Motor Speedway and I think we qualified seventh." Jesse recalls looking out over the 1.5-mile superspeedway. "The race started and on the very first lap the car was shaking and shimmying, like the wheels were going to fall off the race car. It scared me to death. I got on the radio and said ‘Guys, I think I have a wheel nut that is loose’, remember I had hardly been in a race car at that kind of speed, I was just an 18 year old punk. By the time we decided what to do, there just happened that a caution flag came out for a wreck, so they were yelling for me to come on in.
"I dove in the pits, but none of the other cars pitted, so when I went back out instead of being right there in the front five or so, I was back in 50th or something. They used to start that many cars in the Dash series. It was 150 kilometer race, which was around 62 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway." Jesse recounts of his big day. "I had about 57 laps left in the race and 50 cars in front of me. We ended up passing everybody and winning the Charlotte race. So, basically every lap I was passing a car. I still remember passing cars by going 3 wide on the outside of the high banked turns. It made a pretty exciting time for the fans I guess and winning was obviously a big highlight for me."
It appeared Jesse had taken yet another charmed step toward becoming a superstar of the NASCAR circuit. He had just become the youngest driver to ever win on a superspeedway – be it any division of NASCAR or Indy. "I’m was doing tons of interviews, I still remember Buddy Baker coming up during one interview to interrupt and say, ‘That’s the most impressive job I’ve seen of working traffic in my whole life.’ Little things like that make me feel real good looking back or when Darrell Waltrip later said, "I feel like I'm looking in a mirror" while I was racing Winston Cup cars against him.
The Wrangler Blue Jean Company was ecstatic and wanted to put a deal together for Jesse to race for them. "We had the opportunity to go on racing with Wrangler. I ended up getting more airtime that week than Dale Earnhardt and he had won the big race that week for Wrangler. But I guess me being a local high school kid, the local news went crazy and of course Humpy was promoting me a lot.
"Wrangler gave me a hand shake agreement until all their racing contracts are signed in October for the next year of racing. I was to be there young, new fresh face kid to promote their jeans to a younger generation, they decided with me being the young kid, a new market, at a time when no one young was racing, there wasn’t a Jeff Gordon, this was back when Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrel Waltrip all these guys were strong, 10-11 years ago, they shook my hand and we would plan to finish out that year, 1986, racing the Dash car, then in 1987 and 1988 they wanted me racing the (second level of NASCAR) Busch Grand National cars, and then 1989 start (the top level of NASCAR) Winston Cup." Jesse said.
"Now that we were teaming up with Dale Earnhardt at Wrangler, Dale would be my teacher. The plan was for him to take me under his wing. Wrangler figured I would be used for the younger market - teenager and young 20’s, Dale for the good ole’ boys image and Willie Nelson the country music scene… they planned billboards, magazine and commercial ads with me, Willie Nelson and Dale Earnhardt. That whole deal and my life looking like it was set and I had just turned 18 a few weeks earlier and was still in High School."
Jesse was in invited to Hollywood by Jerry Pam and Dick Guttman (Guttman & Pam back in the the 80's were one the premier publicist firms in LA/Hollywood. They had represented everyone from The Beatles, James Bond/007's Roger Moore, Jay Leno to Elizabeth Taylor and more before Jerry Pam passed away). Jesse did several radio, TV and print media spots. He went to Hollywood hoping to secure sponsorship deals for racing, but they asked him to quit racing and become a model. Jesse turned them down to pursue his racing career.
Later, Jesse was asked to be part of the filming of the movie Born to Race (shown here) filmed in Charlotte. It was fun getting to see a movie made and hanging out with actors like George Kennedy, Marc Singer, Robert Logan, Joseph Bottoms and Marla Heasley. I guess I bombed most of my lines because I got edited out of all but a few seconds of the movie. It was amazing to see how they tape 8-10 hours a day for months and then cut it into a 2 hour movie (released 1988).
That’s where the script for Jesse Samples Jr. varied from the Hollywood success story that would have him atop the NASCAR parade of today – to where he is now.
"Unfortunately a few months later, about a week before my contract was to be signed, the Wrangler company was bought (by VF Corporation)." Jesse explains. "Dale Earnhardt had one year left on his multi-year contract, but the new owners of Wrangler didn’t want to be involved with NASCAR racing. They gave Dale the balance of his contract money for the next season, Dale even became Winston Cup champion, but they still didn’t want to be a part of NASCAR. However, this turned out to be the best things that could of happened to Dale Earnhardt. He got a new sponsor Goodwrench and a new black car. That lead to his new "Man in Black", the "Intimidator", "Darth Vader" nicknames. That persona and his legend may not of ever escalated if Dale would have continued as "the man in blue and yellow" with Wrangler. "My contract had never been written and all I had was a handshake. I was only 18 with barely any experience in NASCAR and no money." So, now what?
He continues. Actually, we raced Pocono before that happened. I even missed my high school graduation. I qualified sixth for Pocono and when NASCAR said gentleman start your engines, my car wouldn’t go into any gear. Something had lodged into the gear linkage system. So I was stuck on pit lane for the start the race. I guess the good Lord was looking out for me again, because quickly they had wrecks from the wet slick foggy conditions and NASCAR stopped the race because the fog was to thick for drivers to see. So, I just sat in the car and watched thinking I can't believe I missed my high school graduation for this.
After the Wrangler sponsorship situation fell through, "We actually came back here for the second race of the year at Charlotte Motor Speedway. We didn’t have enough money to repaint the dash car that still had Wrangler all over it. "We came back here to Charlotte (in the fall of ’86) and qualified third, I was racing against Rob Moroso and Mike Swaim for the lead and then my tire started going down." Jesse said. "I quickly pitted, the guys came running around, then came back to my window and told me to cut the engine off and took the window net down, I said why, change the tire, let’s get going! The Dash races were short and usually you never have to change tires during the race. The rules stated that you had to run certain compound tires on each side or the car. The team had only bought left side tires because we didn’t have enough money to buy all four tires without sponsorship. So, now that I had a flat tire I didn’t have right side tires and I wasn't aloud to go back out and finish the race without NASCAR disqualifying me for illegal tires.
"Humpy Wheeler came running down to the pits and was yelling ‘what are you guys doing, get back out there.’ I told him we didn't have money for tires. He didn't look to happy. So, again there I was watching this race too." As the money had run out, Jesse saw his dash career coming to an end.
Jesse then decided to leave the racing career behind in his mind. A former high school soccer player and place kicker he was being recruited to be a place kicker for college football programs. With his sister attending Appalachian State University, liking to snow ski and being close to his families mountain home in Boone, NC, Jesse agreed to be the kicker for Appalachian State University.
Then, "a couple of months after the Charlotte race, my dad had a broken windshield in his street car and needed me to follow him up to the local glass company to get it fixed." Jesse recalls, "We wound up going to Allen's Auto Glass in Charlotte. While dad was filling out the paper work to leave his car the owner, Ken Allen, was saying ‘Jesse Samples, I know that name, where do I know that name from. Do you ever race cars? I remember being at a track, but I thought he was younger than you.’ That’s my son and he was like, ‘yea, that young kid who won the Charlotte race. He did an incredible job coming through traffic.’ He told dad he was a huge race fan and wanted to meet me some time. Dad said well he’s sitting out in the parking lot now.
"Dad came and got me, we went inside and the guy was asking if I ever have any desire to race in a Winston Cup or Busch Grand National car, I said ‘I’d love to – that’s always been my dream, but I’m young and we just don’t have the money to get into that sort of thing. If the opportunity arose I would.’ Ken said what if I put together a Winston Cup team, ‘Would you drive for me?" Jesse continues. "I thought yea right...thats never going to happen. You hear it all when you start getting some publicity.
"He said if I put together a team would you drive for me. And I told him yea!" Jesse remembers of the formation of what would be a start in Winston Cup. Allen questioned Samples on who he wanted as crew chief and Jesse mentioned if he could have anyone it would be Buddy Parrott. "At that point in time Buddy wasn't with a team. He had been crew chief for great drivers like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and Buddy Baker, but no team really wanted him right then. I had known him as a child racer, because Todd and Brad (Buddy’s sons) and I we’re all friends." Jesse says of the current crew chief for Jeff Burton.
"Me and dad left and kind of laughed the situation off."
Again just like Charlotte all over again, two weeks before he was to leave for Appalachian State University, "I get the phone call from Ken Allen, just like the Wrangler call. Just the good lord blessing me," Jesse recounts. "I think I was getting ready to go out on a date and was running late when Ken calls." He tells Jesse that he is over at Richard Childress’ race shop and has Buddy Parrott with him and they want to make sure he still would drive the race car.
"I was like you've got to be kidding me! Sure I’ll drive it!" Jesse told. "I went downstairs and told my dad and he thought I was pulling his leg.
"Sure enough, we have a meeting and the guy wants me to sign a three year contract. Race five races the first year and Richard Childress has agreed to do the engines for us. He told me he bought a "new race car" from Richard Childress / Dale Earnhardt's team, he would get three more new cars and engine program coming from Richard Childress and Buddy was going to be the crew chief and he was going to let me bring all those guys from the Dash team, who I promised if I got to Winston Cup I would bring with me." Continues Jesse. "He would let Charlie Sigmon be the second crew chief and do the paint/body work. And Buddy Parrott would be in charge and train the whole team.
"We’ll at the same time Buddy was given another opportunity to crew chief for Eddie Bierschwale. So he was trying to do both teams at the same time, because Eddie wasn’t going to run a full season and I was only going to be able to do five races the first year to keep my rookie of the year status for the following year.
NASCAR gave me a Winston Cup license with the help of Richard Childress and Humpy Wheeler. That’s the only reason I got my Winston Cup license at the age of 18, which again I think was the youngest person ever issued one at the top gold level.
"So, I changed to the closest University near home and gave up my chance at college football. At the same time, I started preparing for NASCAR Winston Cup. We went to Rockingham for my first race. I had asked them if I could run my first race at Daytona since I had already finished 4th there in the Dash car and I had won World Cup Championships there in the karts, but NASCAR didn’t want me running on a high speed track at such a young age, so they started me at Rockingham... aka "The Rock" ... just great I thought! I was suppose to go the week before the race to get practice. but, it turns out the car owner could only afford one car, limited tires and one engine." Jesse remembers. "The weather was bad with rain and I only got eight total laps of practice before qualifying started. If I hadn’t gone to the Buck Baker Driving School a few weeks prior I wouldn’t have a clue of how to get around the track in a NASCAR car.
"There were about 60 teams, I qualified 27th out of the 42 they allow. Bobby Allison came up to me and said I was going into the corners to fast and trying to brake to hard. He explained to me to go in the corner and act like there is an egg under the gas and brake pedals. If you mash either pedal to hard the egg will break. Just roll your foot into it" Jesse remembers of his first time in a Winston Cup car. I was mashing the throttle so hard leaving the turns at 140+ mph that I was spinning the tires halfway down the straights.
"I think I wound up starting, because of some lineup shifting going on, right next to Cale Yarborough and I believe Rusty Wallace was just in front and Alan Kulwicki was back behind me.
So here I was in my first NASCAR Winston Cup race with these legends Yarborough, Petty, Waltrip, Allison, Earnhardt, etc. who were all my childhood heroes as a seven-year-old. I still remember playing in the floor pretending to race them with my matchbox cars.
"I started the race with only 8 laps of practice and so we just guessed at a setup. Buddy has set the car up to be real fast, but without practice it was really loose. I went out there and was driving the wheels off the car. It was so loose I was sideways off every corner. The team was evidently yelling at me over the radio to back off and not push so hard, but, it turns out the radios weren’t working. I’m screaming at them asking for pointers and they are screaming at me to slow down, but we can't hear each other. I think I went door-to-door with Kulwicki for several laps, every time coming off the corner sideways, but not giving up an inch." Jesse recalls of his duel. "Going off in to turn one about the ninth lap of the race I tried to outbreak these guys, but I overcooked it and the back end broke loose. I lost control of the race car and wind up backing it into the outside wall. It wasn’t that bad of a hit. I should have been able to keep going, but the way the car hit, it pierced the oil catch can that is welded into the back corner of the car and there was now a leak in it and I couldn't finish the race."
So after a storybook beginning to his other career starts, Jesse faced the true reality of racing in his Winston Cup debut.
"Our second start was at the North Wilkesboro short track. Again we had no practice. The car owner said he couldn’t afford to rent the race tracks like the bigger teams do, and that we couldn’t put much wear and tear on the race car as we only had one car and one motor. Well as it turned out the car he bought was designed to race on superspeedway tracks, it was not a short track car." Jesse explains. "The weather in North Wilkesboro was terrible with snow and rain. So, I got 12 laps of practice before qualifying started. Due to bad weather NASCAR said there would only be one lap in qualifying. I got so nervous qualifying, since it was one lap and one lap only due to the weather that I forgot to put the car in fourth gear. With the car left in third gear, the motor wouldn't come up to full speed on the straights. I just thought something was wrong with the carburetor jetting in the motor so I kept the car wide open all the way around the track to try and make up for it. When I came in the pits and got out of the car Buddy Parrott’s says, ‘Son, What are you doing?’ and I was like what do you mean, the motor isn't tuned right. He said 'You think so? Well I've never seen anyone go through the corners that fast, but you never took the car out of third gear!’ and I was like yes I did, but the motor is messed up and is making a popping noise. He then told me to go over and look at the rev limiter gauge. Sure enough the rev limiter is pegged and the motor had been bouncing of the limiter on the straights. Somehow, I had still made the field and qualified 25th by going so fast through the corners. Not sure anyone has ever qualified for a NASCAR Winston Cup race in 3rd gear before!
The race started. "I had worked my way up to about 17th, I had just caught up to Richard Petty and I still remember going into turn one, Petty let up before I thought he was going to and I just all but knocked him into the turn one wall." Jesse smiles. "So here I am this barely 19 year old kid, going oh my gosh, I just hit the King!" I still remember looking over at him as I passed and seeing he was chewing that towel, looking over at me and he didn't look very happy. It is pretty cool looking back now, but not at the time.
"I was able to keep going and was actually running pretty well, working my way up. I think we got up to 14th or 15th before we started having transmission failure. The rear end started overheating, so I had to pit and we missed the next 150+ laps while they replaced the transmission. I got back out, Rusty Wallace was blitzing the field and I dropped in behind him. Of course I had on newer tires, but I stayed right on his butt for about 25 laps and we were just lapping and passing cars and I thought it was a great experience, but NASCAR didn't like me being so close to the leader and started giving me the wave off because I was to close, they started pointing the black flag and giving the spread out signal, here I was this guy some 200 laps down running all over the leader. I was just trying to follow him to learn the best lines. About 10 laps later the engine blew and we were done again.
"The car owner got the engine rebuilt, because we couldn’t afford a new one and went to the Charlotte race. We were going to run the Winston Open race to try and qualify for a spot in the Winston Million dollar race." Jesse remembers from some ten years ago this week. "The car owner wouldn’t let me practice most of the week. Actually we did the first two days of practice, I was running about 1 mph off Bill Elliott who set the track record that year. I was as quick as anybody. Dale Earnhardt was running about the same times as me. We really felt good because those guys weren’t even going to be in the Open race; they were already locked into the Winston Million race. So, we really thought we might surprise everyone and have a shot at winning the Open and earning a spot in the Million dollar race.
"With about two or three days to go in practice my crew chief Buddy Parrott got very sick and was in the hospital, the car owner said you are fast enough, let’s not take a chance with our one engine until qualifying. I said you've got to be kidding. He was like the money didn’t come through from potential sponsors and all the financial part started coming apart." Jesse continues. "He finally let’s me practice again the day before qualifying, but we had slowed down over 4 mph from what we had been running with track condition changing over the missed couple of days. So we are trying to catch back up and end up making the car even slower. My crew chief Buddy Parrott was sick in the hospital and I’ve got the dash guys, who have never had Cup experience trying to help make this Winston Cup car go fast. Things aren't going in the right direction, but we still ended up qualifying 14th, which was still okay, but we should have been in the top five easy.
Buddy Parrott is back from the hospital before the race and helped get us back up to speed. "I move up to eighth position in the first few laps of the race, passing cars like crazy, the car was flying! Buddy’s then gets on the radio and tells me to back off and settle into the lead draft, as I was now running in the lead draft group with guys like Buddy Baker, Dale Jarrett and Alan Kulwicki." Jesse recalls. "I’m right on Eddie Bierschwale’s bumper and Michael Waltrip is on mine. We are making a run on the car in front of us. Eddie signaled me that he wanted to go high and that he wanted me to follow him high to make a move out of turn two and draft on past the car in front of him. Well at that moment another rookie Steve Christian comes pulling out of the pits and pulls right in front of the leaders as we were entering turn one banking. Everyone starts slamming on the brakes to keep from hitting him. Well, here I am having been use to running go-karts that weighed a couple of hundred pounds to these 3,700 pound beasts. I realized really quick I didn’t know how to stop this big car in an emergency situation, it is like trying to stop a train. Again, just like at North Wilkesboro when I hit Richard Petty who slowed to quickly. That thing was like a freight train, when it started going I couldn’t get it whoa-ed down! Well I ended up getting sideways and Michael Waltrip tagged the back of me sending me into a high speed slide. I tried to save it and keep it off the wall at 170+ mph and wound up sliding down to the inside apron of turn two. It tore up the front of the car and the steering sway bars, we came in and tried to make repairs and went back out.
"As I got back up to speed, every time down the backstretch the car wouldn’t go in a straight line. It kept hunting for a line, back and forth. I couldn’t get up to full speed. I just limped it around at 3/4 speed to the end of the race." He recounted. "We’ll we figured we would try to get he car back together and try qualifying for the World 600 race the next weekend at Charlotte."
The car never was as fast again. "He would be bumped from making the field by the last person to qualify Bobby Allison and would not qualify for the World 600 race. He kept complaining on the handling, but the team blamed him for losing confidence, not wanting to go fast enough through the corners after his first major accident. "I had a lot of people looking down on me. It was the first time in my life I was being told I wasn't fast enough, but just one week earlier I was one of the fastest. It was much later, unfortunately, that they they found out the car's frame had cracks running through it, and that was why the car reacted so strange in the corners. It turned out the reason for all the cracks from such a small incident was because Dale Earnhardt had wrecked the car during qualifying when he had driven it the prior year. During his qualifying run for Darlington the prior year he set a new track record on lap one and on the second lap he destroyed this same car. Well, it turns out that was my "new car". It had been straighten up, re-welded and sold to us. I also found out that the "new engine" had actually been a used engine and raced for much of the previous year too." The car owner let another guy drive the car after me and my understanding is he lost control and destroyed the car the first day.
"That’s basically my Winston Cup career." Says Jesse. Allen would fold the team and eventually his business due to personal problems and Jesse was released out of his contract.
At the same time this was happening, Jesse secretly had been approached as part of a driver search for a young talented American driver by a new team from Europe wanting to start an INDY car team in the United States. The team would be sponsored by the ICI company. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was a British chemical company and the largest manufacturer in Britain for nearly 100 years. Johnny Dumfries, a member of the royal family in England and the Earl of Dumfries, was to be teamed with Jesse. Johnny had just finished the prior year in Formula 1 as teammates with Ayrton Senna, but lost his F1 ride and wanted to give INDY car a shot. They would bring their F1 connections and technology to INDY. "They chose me over all the other drivers in the United States. The team was being formed by
Sir Charlie Crichton-Stuart and he flew over from Europe to meet with dad and me a few times. The plan was to run full time Indy Lights for the first two years mixing in the bigger INDY cars races and then we would move to the INDY 500 cars full time the third year if not sooner. We had an initial sponsorship package for 12 million from primary sponser ICI to get us started, paying me a nice base salary, a signing bonus, plus a percentage of winnings, personal endorsements, etc. all this stuff for a 19 year old!" Jesse shares. "Everything was set, we came to a final agreement at our last meeting. Charlie flew back to Europe to get everything signed with an appointment to meet back in twelve days with my signing bonus and the signed contract after the lawyers finished everything up in Europe.
Four days before Charlie was to return to the United States with my signing bonus and signed contract, the biggest stock market crash since the 1920's Great Depression happened... 1987's Black Monday... and the primary sponsor ICI backed out of the deal. ICI, a massive company that had been around since the 1920's eventually sold off division after division before being acquired by other companies. In the wake of the largest one-day stock market crash in history, the new team was canceled. We had no team and no money. Large companies were holding their breath to see if they would survive the market crash and not looking to spend money on new multi million dollar race car sponsorships.
'Once again, I stood their going OK now what?
Well, we still had the Dash car we won with at Charlotte in 1986, but it had been sitting under a cover for over a year at Charlie Sigmon's shop. It would now be a few years old and would have to compete against newer cars, but it was our only chance to race. We met with the owner of Golding Farms Honey. He offered us a one race deal for Daytona Speedweek 1988. He said, if we finished in the top 5 in that race they would sponsor us for the full season. After a terrible qualifying run put us in 16th, we fought our way up to the lead at Daytona. By about halfway into the race, Larry Caudill and I had broken away with a massive front straight lead over the 3rd place car. I told the team on the radio I was just sitting back and waiting for the last lap. I would draft past for the win at Daytona. A few laps later, my engine blew up.
After the race, the owner of Golding Farms said, "Sorry, you didn't finish in the top 5 and that was our deal."
A week later, here I was a 19 year old, basically been to a race track every weekend of my entire life since I was seven years old, kind of like the gymnast who gets all the way to the Olympics and realizes they are burnt out and really didn’t know what they wanted to do next, I was 19 years old, interested in girls, my grandparents were begging me to go finish college, my father basically had driven himself into bankruptcy, trying to keep me racing, all my racing opportunities seemed to keep falling apart at the final hour and I was wanting to be a kid and do all the things that I didn’t get to do. Basically I never really was a teenager so I decided I would get out of racing, and finish college." Jesse explains of his turn in fortune. "If something happens in racing, something happens. I thought maybe I will finish college and then try to get back into racing one day.
"Basically I was an idiot. I thought, hey, I’m so good, everybody’s gonna remember me and I can get my college education done so if something falls apart in racing again I wouldn’t have to worry. I actually have a letter from Humpy he had written me when I was 15 or so and he said the most important thing you can have is an education. That was ringing in my mind, maybe I should get my education and try to race part time, get something going, basically I had made my whole family suffer while dad and I chased this dream of racing. You know I've got a stepmother and a little brother who didn’t get to see my father very much, because he was gone with me. He had to sell his big house on the lake, sell his Mercedes. Dad basically gave up everything he had for me. He is my best friend and he had given to much already. I just thought maybe I could go finish college and then come back some day. I was really wanting some time off anyway, because I had been racing every weekend of my life for 10-11 years. I wanted to have a normal life. I would only be 22 years old, finished with college and still be younger than anyone else racing.
"NASCAR really wasn’t made up of young guys then. I started at eighteen, but the average drivers age then was in their forties. Besides me there was only Davey Allison and Bobby Hillin Jr and my last name wasn't Allison, Petty, Waltrip or Earnhart and I didn't come from Texas oil money. Basically I was five years to early and to young for many of the typical beer and tobacco sponsors at that time, so I walked away from racing."
Jesse firmly says, "I was nineteen years old and I told myself I would never go to another race track."
"So that was it. I’ve never been back, except for my friend Rob Moroso’s memorial reception. I walked away." Jesse states. "I finished college, got a job, I never pursued anything."
Today Jesse is where he wants to be in the family furniture business, with his dad, "I’m very fortunate. If I wasn’t in racing, working with my dad is where I would want to be.
"All my life I’ve dreamed and worked and been so blessed in the racing arena, I couldn’t ask for anything more than we were able to accomplish with so little financial help. Now, I have a different life, a good job with my family, I travel, and I can set my own schedule. I hope to have kids, do all those sorts of things, but I do miss racing, looking back I am the classic "what-if", where would I be now. This would be my 11th year of Winston Cup. I’d be a very seasoned, very old veteran all at the age of 29. You look back and say, man, what would have happen with 11 years of experience as fast and as much as I accomplished as quick as I did.
"I know it was my fault, I know that I made the decisions. I know that I probably could have gone back to Busch Grand National or back to Dash and knocked on doors. I screwed up and I walked away from it. I probably let a lot of talent go to waste." Jesse deeply revealed.
"There were a lot of scenarios… a lot of things happened. I got a little disenchanted, dishearten, you know when you are an 18-19 year old kid you are pretty sensitive to what happens to you. I mean if I had been a 35 year old man and been in the position I was in I would have pushed harder, continued to work, try to get a sponsor, knock on doors and done all that sort of things, but I was a 19 year old kid. The lord has blessed me. I was given everything. It seemed like I had the golden spoon in my mouth. I was a kid from nowhere."
a follow up to story...
Simply Rc Column and photo by Richard Cunningham
From May 21, 1997 Issue of Racing News
Living Dreams… Interviewing Jesse Samples Jr. was easy. Almost too easy. He wrote a great story himself in telling his racing experiences to me. He seemed very much the "seasoned, aged veteran."
It was very fascinating for me to meet Jesse. Looking back I took notice of Jesse, because as I thought he was, I was planning this racing career I have back in the mid-80’s. As Jesse was dealing with life’s decisions, I was taking my own steps. I hoped one day our paths would cross, I just didn’t expect this to be exactly how. I figured he would be some hard to reach superstar at this point in life, at least from what was written of him back in the late 80’s.
He wasn’t hard to reach. We dealt with getting acquainted over the phone. Actually meeting and my picking to set in the stands at Charlotte Motor Speedway to do the interview seemed to add to the eerie feeling of actually meeting him in person several weeks ago.
I remember reading that May 29, 1986 issue proclaiming, as both Coy Bays and Wayne Kindness wrote, Jesse Samples Jr. to be a big star. Coy wrote of the great,
C-H-A-R-I-S-M-A this teenager had. We’ll some 11 years later he still has it, although altered by age.
We set there and talked, as he shared his career. I don’t think I asked over a handful of questions to him. When I planned this interview I wanted it to be a "Who are they now? type of piece as to a more negative out-looked – "Where are they now?" Jesse filled in any questions, before I could ask. He spent an hour reflecting on a career that got a perfect start, but fell apart.
After writing the story, I couldn’t help but hope for a different ending. Letting a couple of people read it in the office, they too were looking for the punch line almost. But the truth is there is no punch line.
I was afraid when we started these looks back at some of the people over the years that showed great potential, but for one reason or the other never fulfilled the expected results, it might be sad. That’s why I wanted them to be "Who are they now" type of stories. But the reality is that since we are race fans, involved in this sport, we want them to be having success in racing now. It’s not always that a way.
Jesse is living a wonderful life. He’s very content and happy person, except maybe for me forcing him to reflect back and think about where he might be now if he had continued down the same road he was on.
There are so many questions. He was then, what Jeff Gordon is now. Where would that have placed Gordon in history? He might not have been this young, hip, cool, People’s Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful-persona we have now. It would have already been done by Samples.
Then again, you never know. He raced alongside Rob Moroso and Moroso sadly is gone and never fulfilled his potential, but he never got to fulfill any potential as Samples is getting to do just by living life.
In talking with Jesse, it really brought forward how much life is determined by fate – plain and simple.
I hope you enjoy the feature. For me it was very self-rewarding. I finally fulfilled one of my dreams of meeting him and in some way having a slight impact on his life in sharing his story with you the readers, some of whom will remember like I did, and for some an introduction to one who was there but is now living a different life outside of racing.
As we said our good-byes, Jesse said, "Richard, I hope your dreams come true." Well Jess- I admit you caused me to shed a tear, because in some ways you were a part of the overall dream and writing about you came true. But in another way I shed the tear, because I wish you were here dreaming with us and I was writing about you week in and week out in victory lane.
I’ve got to close now; there’s a race at Charlotte. I’ve got to be there to see who is in victory lane – maybe it will be some young, newcomer, destine for…
Over 40 Team Offices in NC & SC
10851 Providence Rd & Prior Awards:
Agent of the Year ~ Listing Volume Closed
Agent of the Year ~ Closed Volume
H. Allen Tate Jr Award
Legend's Club Award
President's Club Award
Chairman's Circle Award
Master's Circle Award
Winner's Circle Award
Top Performer Award