Lee Pulliam wins NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship
Everywhere you turn these days, someone is telling you how expensive it is to go racing. They'll tell you there's no shot at being competitive without deep pockets.
And then there are the folks at Pulliam Motorsports.
"You wouldn't believe what we run off of," said team owner Harold Pulliam, laughing. "I mean, you just wouldn't believe it."
In 2012, 24-year-old Lee Pulliam of Semora, N.C., won 22 of 36 races in weekly Late Model competition en route to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship. For a driver who just six years ago hadn't even begun his racing career, it's the stuff of fairy tales.
Friday night, he was honored for his achievement during the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards at the Charlotte Convention Center's Crown Ballroom adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"As a kid, I dreamed of driving race cars, man," said the younger Pulliam. "It wasn't because I didn't want to be out there racing. I wanted to be out there racing, but I couldn't afford it. My parents couldn't afford it. I graduated from high school early and took a job at a diesel mechanic shop welding. I went to college at night and took classes at night.
"I didn't have a typical teenager's life. I wasn't out there partying and all that stuff. I worked -- I wanted to race. Everyone told me if I worked hard enough, one day it would come true."
Late in 2007, while on a family trip to a nearby beach, Pulliam and his father found an entry-level race car for sale. They thought about it, debated the pros and cons and finally talked themselves into going halves on purchasing the ride.
One season later, Pulliam was the Rookie of the Year in the Limited Sportsman class at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. Three years after that, in 2011, Pulliam set a track record at Motor Mile Speedway (Fairlawn, Va.) with 16 wins in the Late Model division and finished third in the national standings.
"We went into 2011 with a lot of confidence," Pulliam said. "We won at four different tracks that year and ended up third in the points. At the middle of that season, we were climbing on up in the national standings. We were like, 'Wow. Look at this.' We thought it was possible that year (to win the national title). We went into (the offseason), and we worked our butts off to get back into this deal."
The year really took shape in early July. Three races at three different tracks over the Fourth of July weekend, and Pulliam won them all. It set him on a roll that saw him lead the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for 10 consecutive weeks to close out 2012 as Connecticut's Keith Rocco (the 2010 national champion) and Virginia's C.E. Falk, who finished second and third in the national standings, respectively, faded into his rearview mirror.
"That's when we said, 'Gosh, we're on top of this thing. We're not going to back down -- we're going to keep on going,'" Harold Pulliam said. "We never backed up from then. It just made us all work that much harder. We'd go to the track, and we never sat down. We'd change stuff all day long just trying to find that little bit extra. Most times, we'd end up pretty close to where we started, but you always try. Every week, it was something new."
Lee Pulliam can only laugh when asked about his first season in that Limited Sportsman five years ago.
"Looking back at it, we had struggles," Pulliam said. "We didn't know as much as we know now about race cars -- I know race cars inside and out now. We were doing it ourselves. We didn't have help. We were learning it all from scratch."
And they were learning it all on a tight budget.
"We went to the race track with basic, basic setup stuff that the chassis guy would give you," Pulliam said. "Basic shocks, basic everything. The most basic stuff you could get. Even then, we won a couple of races. The more races we won, the more people that wanted to help us.
"It's just a dream come true."
One that came true with an old race car and a volunteer crew chief -- and without the luxuries of the biggest and best new parts and pieces on the market.
"I don't know how we did it," Harold Pulliam said, stretching out his thoughts at a measured pace. "I'm telling you, God gave us this championship. I mean, really. It's just a lot of hard work and long nights. We worked all night some nights and saw the sun come up.
"That's how we did it."