Bayne’s work ethic led to quick success

Trevor Bayne is in Phoenix this weekend, basking in his Daytona 500 victory and preparing for the next step in his career.

But where did this kid, a relative unknown until last weekend, come from, and who helped pave the way for his meteoric rise?

There’s an overwhelming sentiment from most who come in contact with the 20-year-old that he was simply “raised right” and used that foundation to excel through each rung on the racing ladder before reaching NASCAR’s top tier — Sprint Cup.

Bayne’s father, Rocky, was instrumental in supporting Trevor’s career financially from the time he was 5 through his first start in the K&N Pro Series East tour at 16.

But it wasn’t just Trevor whom the elder Bayne guided. Jordan Napier, 21, first met Trevor in go-karts when he was 9, and the drivers became fast friends.

The relationship deepened when Napier’s father died two years later.

“My whole life I knew Trevor was pretty special,” said the London, Ky., native. “Rocky and (Trevor’s mom) Stephanie did a great job with him, and when my father died, they invited me to race out of their shop. I spent more time at their house than I did at my own. Rocky was like a second dad to me.

“We both did very well in go-karts. Trevor was winning national championships and beating guys that were older than he was when he was 8 or 9. I noticed his talent a lot more when he got to cars. We moved to the Allison Legacy Series, and they let me race out (of) their truck. And that’s when people started noticing Trevor.

“Rocky knew to surround Trevor with all the right people — owners, sponsors. That along with the money and Trevor’s desire, it was just a matter of time before he was going to make it big.”

Jason Shultz started racing against Bayne when they were still in grade school, and they became pseudo-teammates in go-karts as they shared engine builders in 2000. Shultz, 21, also raced with Bayne in the Allison Legacy Series before his focus turned to an engineering degree at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

“He just always had a knack for staying out of trouble — on and off the track,” Shultz said. “Even on the track, if there was a big wreck that we all got a part of — he instinctively had a way of staying out of it. He kind of proved that in the Daytona 500 with all those wrecks going on. He just stayed away from it. There wasn’t even any big moves to get out of it — he wasn’t even around any trouble. He’s just really smart when it comes to stuff like that, and he doesn’t put himself in a position where he has to worry about getting out of it.

“In the Legacy series and go-karts — especially go-karts, where it was such a wreck fest the whole time you were lucky just to finish the race — he always seemed to be the one, the consistent one that would finish the race and stay out of trouble. It really showed in the Allison Legacy Series where he won all those races. That was also another series where there’s a lot of young guys, a lot of young blood eager to make a name for themselves with a lot of wrecks going on. He always seemed to stay out of trouble and get to Victory Lane. I don’t know if it’s instinct or whether he just has luck on his side, but he was always there.”

During Bayne’s karting career he posted 300 feature wins, 22 titles and three World Karting Association National championships in 11 years.

At 13, Bayne moved to race cars in the Allison Legacy Series. He won the 2004 rookie title with two wins and 11 top-five finishes in 19 races. During the summer, Bayne also raced in the Legends Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The following season, Bayne won the ALS title with 11 victories and an average finish of fourth place. Donnie Allison, who has been a consultant for the ALS since his sons Kenny, Ronald and Donald founded the series, became Bayne’s driving coach.

“From Day One, when I first started working with Trevor, there’s a certain thing that I guess those young guys have — he understood what he was doing,” Allison said. “Like you’d have a conversation about trying to do something in the race car, and it wouldn’t be a mystery to him. He’d go out and even though he may not talk about it very well, you’d see him try to implement what you were talking about.

“There’s a talent there because they might be lost on a lot of youngsters, I think, because they don’t have somebody to talk to them that had been there and done that. Trevor always had a cool head, and he knew what he wanted to do in the car. When we worked on the car, he wasn’t satisfied until we got in that way.”

In just two years, Allison could see a dramatic difference in Bayne, despite his age. The biggest gain, according to the former NASCAR star, was the 14-year-old’s ability to navigate traffic. Allison took a shine to Bayne, who refers to his former coach as “Uncle Donnie.”

“Being able to work with other competitors in close competition, that’s really what the Legacy cars does for young drivers," Allison said. "The Legacy cars really helped Joey Logano when he was 12. It was exactly the same thing. Some kids progress a lot faster than others, and some drivers never get it. Some never progress far enough. Trevor was an exception, like Joey.

“I worked with Brian Vickers, Chad McCumbee, Clayton Rogers and Regan Smith. I’ve got one now that is just as good if not better — Justin. He’s Kenny’s — my oldest son’s — boy. He has . . . what I’m talking about. Trevor was an exception because you talk to him about getting to a certain point of the race and then taking it easy so there would be something left at the end, and he would do that. Even though he wanted to lead from lap 1 to the end, I’m sure, he would sit there and he would drive his car according to what he could and still maintain something for the end.”

Clay Rogers, who led the Camping World Truck Series points standings after Daytona, took a path very similar to Bayne. Rogers won two WKA titles and moved to the Legacy series, where he won the first tour title in 1997, at 17, before moving to what is now the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series the following year. Rogers finished second in the standings and was named rookie of the year. In 2000, he moved to the USAR Pro Cup Series, where he won the 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010 titles. But his first big break came from Roush Fenway Racing’s Robbie Reiser, who put Rogers, then 21, in the No. 17 Chevrolet to share driving duties with Matt Kenseth.

“Right off the bat it didn’t take long to figure out that Trevor was special,” Rogers said. “He had a lot of heart, a lot of pizzazz and a lot of want-to and a lot of talent. I was just telling Owen Kearns (senior manager, NASCAR communications) that about three years (ago), Trevor was sleeping on my couch some when they first tried to move to Mooresville (N.C.)  from Knoxville (Tenn.). He came to stay at the house. We got to be pretty close friends. He’s just an all-around good kid.

“Car control was a given, but he was really good at the fast racetracks; some of the shorter tracks it took a little longer to get a hold of. But the first time he unloaded at Bristol, he was just flying. For someone that had never raced there before, that was really impressive, especially at 15, 16 years old. The faster the racetrack, the more Trevor seemed to excel.”

Wade Day, 38, built go-karts for Bayne out of Dennis and Georgia Noonkester’s Prototype Engines. Although he raced on his own, the Baynes asked Day to be Trevor’s crew chief once he made the jump to the USAR Pro Cup.

“I’ve known Trevor since he was 5 or 6,” Day said. “They were running the Allison series and wanted to go Pro Cup racing, and that’s when Rocky called. Trevor had the enthusiasm and the drive that you need to have to excel. From the first time we went to the racetrack, he was up to speed right off the bat at 14. What I tried to do was shorten the learning curve.

“A lot of his strengths is what you see. His humbleness turns into his willingness to learn. You just had to tell him one time, and he’s on it."

At 15, Bayne became the youngest driver to win rookie honors on the Pro Cup tour. He finished second in the points the following year and posted two wins and seven top-five finishes.

“It is mind-blowing in a way,” Day said of Bayne‘s accomplishments. “You race your whole career to win the Daytona 500, and here he does it in his first start at the track. With the talent he has, it’s not a surprise. He’s a very smart race car driver. With that kind of (speedway) racing, I knew it wasn’t out of the question — and it all fell into place. Obviously, he’s a tremendous talent. He and his dad worked very hard to get where they’re at . . . I’m so proud. It was a privilege to work with him.”

Bayne was drafted by Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007 as a development driver to compete in what is now the K&N East Series the following year. Rich Lavalette, who raced go-karts as a kid, was aligned with Bayne as his crew chief. Lavalete never “had to teach Trevor speed,” that was innate. Lavalette says the key was channeling Bayne’s energy. He remembers Bayne taking the competition three wide at Greenville Pickens Speedway in his first start at the South Carolina track — much to Lavalette’s astonishment.

“He had plenty of energy — he just needed it going in the right direction,” Lavalette said. “He had great car control at the time — you just had to calm him down. He knew what he wanted. He was very open with how we were going to get there, and he wasn’t dead set in his ways on anything. He knew what feel he wanted and completely trusted me.

“That’s how we got to work in a direction where we had an unbelievable trust in each other to achieve those goals. Then he would start to study these things on his own at night when we would have conversations about (different) things. He really wanted to learn about what the race car did. And that’s the best part about it. He didn’t want to just show up and drive a race car. He showed that he wanted to know everything about it because at the end of the day, he needed to have a grasp on everything or he didn’t give it his all that day.”

Lavalette watched Bayne distinguish himself on the tour despite the amount of talent and solid equipment that abounded.

Lavalette, now the chief mechanic for Jason Leffler’s Nationwide Series team at Turner Motorsports, was also impressed by the youngster’s humility and desire to shoulder the responsibility of the team.

“He had to learn it wasn’t just about him, the team let him down,” Lavalette said. “He matured tremendously while honing his skills as a driver — learning how aerodynamics changed on the bigger tracks. Since we only had a 13-race schedule and he wanted to race, his dad kept the Hooters Pro Cup deal going out of his own pocket for Trevor. His dad helped him out with the Pro Cup stuff, and Chevrolet helped out with the engine bill. Trevor was real excited about his DEI deal because that was the first time he didn’t have to bring any money to race. For the first time in his life, he was a professional race car driver.”

Through Bayne’s quest for knowledge and desire to improve, Lavalette also witnessed the driver learn how to dial in his car throughout the course of an event. Lavalette felt that was the driver’s greatest gain at 17.

“Trevor changed immensely,” Lavalette said. “He always knew what feel he wanted in a race car, but he didn’t know how to get there. He didn’t have a great understanding about how race cars worked, but he wanted to know. He was at the shop every day to figure it out.

“We did quite a bit of testing and worked through a lot of stuff to explain to him why things worked that way. He actually had a really good grasp on all of that by the time the season came to an end where we could sit down and have an actual race car conversation, where at the beginning he was just a kid that wanted to go fast. By the end of it, he knew how he could get fast. But I’ve never met anybody like Trevor. He has a real good head on his shoulders; his parents did a good job raising him.”

Dave Charpentier, a former crew chief who headed DEI’s research and development department, is credited with first putting Bayne in a Cup car. Bayne was 16.

“When I was the crew chief for Paul Menard, I took Trevor testing at South Boston (Va.) during our (car of tomorrow)  R&D development,” Charpentier said. “He was amazing smooth, only one-tenth off of Paul’s times in a seat that did not fit him. I knew then he was a natural.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt was one of Bayne’s teammates during the DEI era. Earnhardt referred to Bayne as “just a well-rounded guy.”

“He’s a great guy and a great driver,” Earnhardt said. “He makes all the right decisions on and off the track and was always focused, which equaled success. I’m very proud to call him my friend and past teammate."

Mike Greci was in charge of DEI’s three driver development programs at the time Bayne, Earnhardt and Jesus Hernandez were under contract with the team. The veteran crew chief, who led both Mike Stefanik and Ryan Truex to back-to-back titles in the K&N Pro Series East tour, said Bayne’s “car control was exceptional.”

“For a kid his age, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Greci said. “We went to every type of race track that he hadn’t been to yet — road-course racing and all that. He excelled at every one. How he controls a race car and the limits he puts on it is pretty amazing. But he didn’t seem to be out of control when he was driving; he was always in control, and that’s hard to do.”

Greci moved to Michael Waltrip Racing after DEI folded and enlisted Bayne’s services once again. After moving from the K&N series to the Nationwide tour, Greci said the biggest challenge for Bayne was “learning how to finish races." Fortunately, for Bayne’s race teams, Greci said the 20-year-old learns “very, very easily” and absorbs information quickly.

“He could drive them the same speed on (the) first lap that he did on the last lap,” Greci said. “I think that was probably the only (thing) he needed to learn as the tires gave up, you have to change your lines and the way you drive a race car. When he was driving the 99 (at MWR), at the first part of the year he was wrecking some stuff, but if you look at the finishes he was having before he left, it was pretty amazing.

“He did such a good job of learning. He had to change sitting in the seat as the race cars and racetracks changed during the race. He didn’t have to do that as much in the East series because the races weren’t as long and tires didn’t give up as much. Just look at his qualifying in the Nationwide Series. He sat on three straight poles in the Nationwide Series. Here’s a kid that was just 19 years old doing this stuff.”

Bayne has become very close to the Greci family. He called his former manager just hours after the biggest race of his career, first asking, “Can you believe it?” and then, like any kid, inquiring when he could come for dinner. Greci believes it’s Bayne’s balance of personality and talent that will carry him far in NASCAR.

“He’s very funny, but at the same time he knows what he needs to do,” Greci said. “Sometimes I’d get mad at him because I didn’t think he was serious enough. But he really is, that’s just his personality. And you’re not going to change that — and I’d never want him to change that. Our sport needs something that’s new, bright and lively — and that kid is the deal right now. There are champions that have won a lot of championships, but people want to watch somebody on TV that they can relate to.

“The first thing you fall in love with is the personality — so the hard part is done. But God, the driving comes so natural for him. He has a lot of confidence in himself, but he’s not arrogant and he’s not cocky. He’s a very, very intelligent young man. When it comes to understanding the race car, he’s amazing at understanding how the race car functions and the purposes of every part on the car. It’s pretty cool. I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s really good.”