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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

Father's Day extra special in Craven pit

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Steve Williams, left, and son Chris wouldn't want to be any other place than MIS today for the DHL 400. Steve Williams, left, and son Chris wouldn't want to be any other place than MIS today for the DHL 400.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Steve Williams will spend this Father's Day with his son in the ultimate male-bonding exercise.

The two of them will dress up in fireproof suits, leap over a concrete wall, and smell like gasoline for hours. If all goes well, before the day is done they will jump up and down and hug, and spray each other with beer.

And they'll do it in front of 170,000 witnesses.

Steve and his son Chris are part of the pit crew for Nextel Cup driver Ricky Craven, and also work in his shop as mechanics. They have spent the last week getting Craven's car ready for today's DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

The Williamses work side-by-side, room together on the road, and collectively consider themselves one of the most fortunate father-son duos around.

"I think about it a lot," Steve said, "about how lucky we are to be doing this, and how lucky we are to be doing it together. A lot of guys would do anything to be this close to racing, and I get to enjoy it with my son, and I get to do it every day. I'm a lucky man."

Their good fortune did not come without considerable chance. Steve left a sound and secure job as a machinist in his hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, in January of 1997 for an uncertain future in North Carolina. He promised his wife he would give it no more than a month, and if nothing developed, he'd return to Ohio for good.

"I was listening to the radio one night and somebody called in and asked Darrell Waltrip how anyone ever got started in the racing business. He said they should just come to Charlotte and carry a sign that said 'will work for food.' I kind of kept that thought in mind," Steve said.

So at age 42, the elder Williams got his financial affairs in order so the family was secure, and loaded the motorhome for the trip to North Carolina.

"I was nervous, I was worried, and I had no idea what to expect," Steve said. "I just knew I wanted to give it a shot, and not spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened."

On the first or second day down South, Steve got hired, but at considerably less pay than he had been earning at the machine shop in Ohio. The pay got better, and his wife joined him in North Carolina a few months later.

"I didn't have an auto racing background, but I learned every day and then tried to apply what I learned in the shop," Steve said. "I started to get established and feel like this just might work out."

When Steve came home from work one day, his wife said Chris had called from Ohio to inform them he quit his job in the steel mill and wanted to come to North Carolina and maybe work in the same field as his dad.

"That kind of surprised me, because he had never seemed that interested in cars before," Steve said. "Chris kind of saw cars as a means to get where you were going, and that's it."

Chris, 29, said his move to North Carolina was family-related much more than a racing sojourn.

"Honestly, I missed mom and dad, and I was at a point in my life where I thought the change would do me some good," Chris said. "I had all of my ducks in a row, and I did it because I could do it - it really had nothing to do with wanting to be in racing."

Chris started out far from the glamorous side of the business, sweeping floors, washing cars, making parts runs, and emptying the trash in the racing shop where his dad worked.

"I said I'd work for free, and that's what I started out doing," Chris said. "I had no background, so I didn't have a lot to offer them."

But Chris paid close attention to what was going on around the shop, and in six months he was involved in building race cars. Before long father and son were part of the same team, working on Craven's Cup car.

"I think the fabrication and the car building - that part of it came a little easier than the rest of it, having worked in a steel mill," Chris said. "But I wasn't really much of a craftsman - that part came a lot more easily for my dad."

On race day, Chris is the gas man for the Tide No. 32 Chevy pit crew, while Steve is his counterpart, on the gas catch can.

"Ninety percent of the time, we are so busy and so focused on the work we're doing or the task in front of us, that it doesn't even register that he's my dad and I'm his son and here we're are working together on race cars," Chris said. "But there's a bond there, kind of an understanding about what each other is thinking, and you don't have that with any other members of the crew."

Steve, who went to the races at Eldora Speedway and the now defunct Queen City Speedway when he lived in Ohio, said a second son, Scott, still lives in Lebanon where he works as a deputy sheriff.

"I wish my other son could be here with us, but he has a family to take care of, and that comes first," Steve said. "As far as Chris and I go - I really can't describe it - it is beyond words. It some ways things get so busy that it gets kind of lost, about us being father and son and working on the same car. But it is really the ultimate."

Chris considers his father's move into auto racing a much more bold exercise than his was.

"It was much more of a gamble for him than it was for me, because he had so much more at stake with a family and all," Chris said. "He made a huge sacrifice to go after a dream kind of job. I guess I just tagged along with him."

The elder Williams said one of the biggest joys for him is being able to watch his son progress from an errand runner in the race shop to a respected member of the race team.

"When we started in racing, neither one of us really knew anything about it," Steve said. "I learned a lot, but I've also got to see my son progress from where he was when he started, to where he's at now. This is the best thing I ever did, and I can't really explain how thrilling it is to have him follow me into this. As a father, I'm pretty proud."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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