Thursday, November 18, 2010

Camp Hornaday grads reach a crossroads

Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were asked at the championship weekend press conference today about their short term as roommates living at Ron Hornaday's house. Here's my story on the topic from February, 2007 for the St. Petersburg Times.

 Maybe Ron Hornaday should have charged rent.
Eight years ago, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were two unknown Southern California expatriates jostling for bathroom time in Hornaday's always-bustling Lake Norman, N.C., home, hoping they would someday find a NASCAR job steady enough to afford such a place.
Johnson was an off-road truck racer from El Cajon, with a line on a Busch Series deal. Harvick, from Bakersfield, was driving in the truck series and working on a budding relationship with Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s team owner, Richard Childress. But until they figured out exactly where their careers would go, Hornaday, then a star for Earnhardt's truck team, and wife Lindy made sure they had a pillow for their head and a steak on their plate.
"Their door was always wide open for anyone who needed a start," Johnson said.
Johnson, 31, begins the Nextel Cup season as the defending Daytona 500 and series champion. Harvick, also 31, is the defending Busch Series champion, a threat for a first Cup title after finishing fourth last season, and a burgeoning car owner. He's Hornaday's truck series owner, in fact.
"I guess the food wasn't too bad at Ron's," Harvick laughed. "His place must be a good way to get your career started in the right direction."
"I'd always feel bad because I wanted to pay rent, but they wouldn't have it," Johnson remembered. "I found myself washing a lot of dishes and taking out a lot of trash so I could feel like I was earning my keep."
Harvick had dreams like anyone else, but in 1998 he was happy to have a home and a full-time ride in the truck series with Spears Racing.
"Heck, I thought I was on top of the world, just enjoying myself," he said. "I was 22, 23 years old and doing what I wanted to do."
Anywhere from two to five drivers crashed at Hornaday's at any one time. They called it Camp Hornaday.
Lindy was a phenomenal cook, Harvick said, and Hornaday had a flare with the grill.
"Yeah, the steak with dill seasoning, salt, butter, onion and mushroom," Johnson said. "The funny thing with dinner at the camp was four of us would be sitting there eating and then all of a sudden it could be six, seven or 30 and he'd just keep cooking."
The ski boat and tubing gear were the entertainment. There was jug fishing for catfish and that big old bass that taunted Johnson.
"Ron had sunk this thing out by his dock to try and get fish to hang out by it," he said. "There was this huge bass that would hang out there right under the water, and we could never catch him. One time I finally grabbed a net and I was like, 'I'll get that damned bass.' Never got it."
Hornaday met Johnson at a General Motors function in Detroit and invited him to stay a few weeks as he prepared to take a job driving a Busch car for Herzog Racing. He stayed four months.
"I could have gone out and found some kind of apartment ...," Johnson said, "but it was so nice to have some place to come home to."
Hornaday, now 48, brought Johnson to lunches with drivers and executives, helping him weave into the Charlotte racing community. Johnson befriended Jeff Gordon in 2000 and signed with Hendrick Motorsports for 2001, becoming an instant success at the Cup level.
Hornaday was instrumental in Harvick's career well before he ever made it to North Carolina, helping him land his deal at Spears. Finally signed to a Busch deal at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick won three races and finished third as a rookie in 2000 and won the championship in 2001. That season he replaced Earnhardt Sr. at the Cup following his death in the Daytona 500. Running both series last year, Harvick won a second Busch title by an astounding 824 points.
Harvick is fiercely loyal to Hornaday, hiring him as a truck series driver and running a program for him last season though he had no sponsor.
"I guess Kevin's paying me back now," Hornaday said.

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