Said has taken long road to carve niche in NASCAR

Published 2:42 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2008

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – When rain washed out Sprint Cup qualifying at Watkins Glen International this month, a frustrated Boris Said had to park his No Fear Racing Ford for the second straight year at his favorite track.

“I used to get angry when this happened. Now I just get depressed,” he said. “I think last year I was a little more angry. Now, I’m just rolling with the punches.”

Considering the youth movement afoot in NASCAR, it’s remarkable that Said is even striving to compete full-time in Sprint Cup as his 46th birthday nears.

“I guess if 10 years ago somebody told me I’d be in NASCAR part-time or anything, I would have told them they were crazy,” he said. “I feel proud of the kind of unique career I’ve carved out in motorsports. I just love being part of the sport.”

Said’s childhood wasn’t the happiest — his parents split before he entered kindergarten and as a teen he hung out with the wrong crowd until he landed a job in a motorcycle shop. Instead of getting in trouble, he fixed motorcycles.

“That’s all I really ever did,” said Said, whose fun-loving demeanor belies a savvy sense of entrepreneurship.

That and sell popcorn. After seeing actor Jack Klugman plug some flavored popcorn on late-night television, Said opened a popcorn shop between a toy store and a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor in Stamford, Conn. He had 32 flavors, one more than the pioneering ice cream store chain.

Between the two jobs, Said saved enough money to buy a Honda-Yamaha franchise at age 22, becoming one of the youngest motorcycle dealers in the country.

Turns out racing was in his blood. His late father raced cars and drove in the 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics for the U.S. bobsled team. So it was understandable that when Said, who never really got to know his dad, went to the Formula One Detroit Grand Prix in 1985 he fell in love with the sport.

Said soon sold his motorcycle dealership to concentrate on racing full-time. Despite advice from an instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School in Lime Rock, Conn., who told him he didn’t measure up, Said quickly began to make his mark in the Corvette Challenge series, even with pit crews that often consisted of friends who showed up to watch him.

Said begged owners for rides and often slept wherever he happened to be when night fell. One such night changed his life.

“I was driving back in a box truck from Florida and stopped about 2 in the morning at a car dealership,” Said recalled. “I hooked up the hose in the back and was showering, and all of a sudden a cop pulled up and told me I couldn’t stay there. I just drove next door and it just happened to be Tom Milner’s building. I didn’t even know it until he woke me up in the morning.”

Milner owns PTG Racing in Winchester, Va., the two quickly became friends, and a couple of years later he finally gave Said the break he needed.

“He was almost like a father to me. When I was struggling in racing he kept me employed,” said Said, who drove for Milner for more than a decade. “All my life people have told me it can’t be done, but I’m a firm believer that if you work hard enough it can be done. I’ve proved it.”

No argument there.

Career highlights include: rookie of the year honors in the Corvette Challenge series; three straight Sports Car Club of America championships; a Trans-Am title in 2002; a win from the pole at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium; two wins in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and a victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring, the signature events of sports car racing in America; and three years ago Said became the first American to win a 24-hour event at the Nuerburgring Nordschleife, a 15½-mile road course in Germany that requires more than 100 shifts per lap.

Success in the highly competitive top three tiers of NASCAR — Cup, Nationwide, and Craftsman trucks — hasn’t been so easy. He has one victory, in the truck series at Sonoma in 1998, and 22 top-10s in 116 starts. He has, however, proved that he’s more than just a road course specialist.

In May 2006, Said, veteran crew chief Frank Stoddard, and Mark Simo announced the creation of No Fear Racing, which receives technical support, engines and Ford Fusion bodies from Roush Fenway Racing and has SoBe No Fear, an energy drink, as its sponsor. Less than two months later, in only the team’s second race, Said stunned the NASCAR world by winning the pole for the Pepsi 400 on the high-speed banks of Daytona. He led nine laps during the race and finished fourth, losing the lead to eventual winner Tony Stewart with two laps to go.

Said calls it the highlight of his career. He wants more.

“I’m not giving up just yet,” declared Said, whose No. 60 team has made only two starts this year and plans only one more, at Talladega. “Given the opportunity with a full-time sponsor, we could compete with these guys. We’ve shown we can do it every time we race.”

Said, who was recruited by ESPN to be an in-studio analyst this year and has acquitted himself well despite skipping every rehearsal meeting, would be a welcome addition to the Cup garage, where drivers often seem like robots, spewing the same answers to the same questions week after week.

“I think he’s awesome,” four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. “I think he brings a lot of entertainment to the series. We’d love to see him out there. All the different types of cars that he’s driven and he’s had success in proves what kind of race car driver he is.”

“He’s all about giving and just a huge asset to our sport,” said Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 19 Dodge for Gillett Evernham Motorsports and one of many Cup drivers tutored by Said on the fine points of road racing. “His personality is second to none — larger than life. I’d love to see him full-time, and I think if he ever got the right chance with the right people he could make it work.”

As Said’s racing career has blossomed, so, too, has his unique fan base, most of whom don Afro wigs made to look exactly like Said’s head of curly brown hair.

Said’s take the first time he saw a group of “Saidheads” at Watkins Glen?

“Frightened! I see guys like Jeff Gordon and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Kasey Kahne, in all their fan clubs there are cute little girls yelling their name,” he said. “Me? I’ve got a bunch of 35-year-old guys (and gals) wearing wigs yelling my name.

“But after I met them and started thinking about it, if I wasn’t racing I’d probably be one of those guys.”