Will Lind … Old School And Proud Of It
By Rick Houston
Will Lind sits in his office at Richard Childress Racing, discussing his part in the over-the-wall crew that was at times called the Flying Aces and others the Junkyard Dogs. The office isn’t necessarily fancy, but it’s still a long way removed from the trailer he once slept in while trying to break into the sport. He’s been with the team through six Cup championships, and after that, guided the organization to several Busch/Nationwide and truck titles. He saw the rise of the legend that was Dale Earnhardt, and he grieved over the loss of his friend.
Lind is talking about the Flying Aces/Junkyard Dogs, what it meant to him to have the kind of bond that those teams shared. He doesn’t choke up, really, and tears don’t come to his eyes. Lind just … pauses. Remembers. He quickly collects himself and moves on. In that instant, it’s clear to see just what it meant to him to work with Childress, jackman David Smith, gasman Danny “Chocolate” Myers and crew chief/front-tire changer Kirk Shelmerdine.
Today, Lind is the director of competition for RCR. He loves the sport, and did long before he ever got involved on a professional basis. In this revealing interview with Stock Car History Online Editor Rick Houston, Lind discusses the road he traveled in breaking into the sport and what it was like when Dale Earnhardt ruled the race track and his crew ruled pit road .
Stock Car History Online: How did you break into the sport?
Will Lind: When I first started getting involved in ’76 or ’77, I was volunteering for James Hylton. That was back in the day when he only had one or two full-time employees. I think I went to the Nashville race or something and met Hylton. I started helping him. Back in the day, everybody had four or five volunteer people. Basically, all you got was a motel and pit shirt.
Kirk (Shelmerdine) and I worked together there. Whatever year Al Holbert drove for James (actually, it was 1978), I moved over to (Hylton)’s place and worked full time for him. It was just Kirk and I and James. James built the motors and Kirk and I did all the work. (Hylton) taught me stuff that I still use today. That was back when you were doing it for $75 a week and working 100 hours … driving together, no airplanes. People (now) don’t know what burnout really is.
Kirk and I slept in a trailer beside the shop that wasn’t as long as this little room that we’re in, and worked from seven in the morning until midnight every day. That’s just the way everybody did it at the time, even the big teams. I got to where I was like, ‘Man, I can’t do this for free any more.” I moved back to Chattanooga and started helping Grant Adcox. They only ran a partial schedule. I worked for him full time one year, and then his thing shut down. I worked at his family dealership and then worked on the race car part time.
Kirk left Hylton, went to DiGard and then came here. It was the same deal. Kirk wanted to make a little bit of money. It wasn’t that James wasn’t paying us … James was paying us all he could pay us. It doesn’t take a guy five or six years, working 100 hours a week at $75 a week, eating baloney sandwiches, to realize he’s not heading down the right path.
It’s funny … we haven’t all been there. These cats now don’t know there’s a road to the race track. They fly everywhere they go. They have no idea what it’s like to jump in James Hylton’s old four-door Dodge truck and go to Ontario or Riverside. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. I’d maybe trade it for some of the salaries these cats have nowadays.
A friend of mine in Chattanooga was wanting to get into racing, and we’d drive to Michigan. I had an old Torino. We’d get off work and drive up there Friday night, get there at 3 in the morning and sleep until the gate opened. We’d go in there and just couldn’t believe we were on a race team. The race would be over with, we’d drive back and go to work. It wasn’t just me … it’s the way everybody did it trying to get into the sport. You couldn’t get in with a connection. You had to get in with stupid effort and dedication.
Stock Car History Online: Were you changing tires for James Hylton?
Lind: I was doing everything. I think I jacked, and I gassed. It’s such a weird comparison to where this sport has gone. … Back when they had the Plan A and the Plan B … the six good teams were racing for one amount and James, (Buddy) Arrington, Richard, Cecil (Gordon) and all those cats were racing for another purse. We had a good year. … I remember we beat Richard (Childress) by one spot (in the point standings). That was back when it was just him, (Tim) Brewer and maybe one other.
When we’d go to the West Coast, sometimes, we’d pit two cars. Hylton would carry the spare motor and Richard would carry the nitrogen bottles. I remember at Riverside and somewhere else, we would combine the teams and pit two cars. That’s the connection today. It’s not a sympathy case on Richard’s part by any means. They were friends, and they were both headed down the same path. Richard was fortunate enough to end up on the good side of it.
Stock Car History Online: When did you first start work at RCR?
Lind: September of 1982. Kirk went to DiGard and then over here. Then, when Rudd came, there was a sponsorship. Kirk and I continued to talk. Kirk knew the deal, that I had a two-year-old at the time, and with the Piedmont (Aviation) deal, we could at least afford to make a living. So I packed my stuff up and moved over.
Stock Car History Online: How different was it working with a team that had some decent funding?
Lind: Kirk called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a sponsor and you can at least make $125 a week. I think that was the number … but at least we had insurance. Back then, you got cash from James. You ate baloney sandwiches.
Stock Car History Online: In the late 1980s, Dale ruled on the race track and you guys were pretty much kings of the hill on pit road. What was it like to be a member of this team back then? You guys were pretty much the Junkyard Dogs …
Lind: It was pretty cool. … I’m a firm believer in chemistry, but I’m also a firm believer that part of chemistry creates itself. You can’t put five people together and say, ‘You’re going to like each other, be best friends and fight for each other.’ That’s a perfect example of total different personalities between (jackman) David Smith, Chocolate (Myers, gasman) and Kirk (front-tire changer).
David was very religious and didn’t drink or anything. Chocolate and myself made up for that. Kirk was not much of a drinker or partier. … A lot of it (of the team’s bad guy reputation) was driven by Dale and Richard. Richard’s a run-pretty-hard personality, and always has been. At the time, we had a tremendous amount of fun at the race track. We worked really, really hard. We were able to win, do what we wanted to do … which was have a good time and have success.
We probably didn’t have a lot of friends in the garage area, but anybody that ever wins a lot doesn’t. We had the friends we wanted to have. Our motto for a long time was, ‘We brought all our friends with us.’ We weren’t there to make friends. That, again, was generated by the guy that was driving the car. I see it today. I see guys try to be Dale Earnhardt. I see drivers that think, ‘I’m gonna be Dale Earnhardt. I’m not gonna shave for a few days. I’m gonna be a tough guy on the race track.’ Dale Earnhardt wasn’t trying to be Dale Earnhardt. He just was that guy.
We had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. There was times when we fought. We argued. But we always were able to patch through it. We tell each other today that we love each other. David had a pretty serious bout with prostate cancer. We formed a bond there that was real. It’s funny … you can look at those pictures of us celebrating. Winning’s fun, but it was more than that to us. I see it in other sports teams, where I go, ‘THAT’S what we had.’ Richard can’t get the credit … the coach can’t get the credit. It just happens.
I think that’s where a lot of my success has come from, as far as going on and winning championships in truck and Busch. I knew what that feels like. I still can’t make it happen, but … I try to instill it in these guys. Some of ‘em have got it, and some of ‘em don’t. It’s got to be driven by the people that are responsible (for actually doing the work).
This is a long answer to a simple questions, but there’s no simple answer for what made us work. It’s just the fact that we really believed in each other. There were not outsiders. We really cared about each other. The main thing is that we were able to have success, and that’s what kept us together. Had we not won six championships over a nine-year period, would we have stayed together that long? I don’t know. Success cures so many issues. We might have two bad races in a row and we might be a little chippy at each other. Then, we’d go win a race and it goes away. That chippiness cannot be overcome if you’re in an eight-week losing streak.
Stock Car History Online: I would assume that the Dale Earnhardt I knew – the steely eyed guy whose glare seemed to be able to bore holes in you – was not the Dale Earnhardt that you knew. Who was the Dale Earnhardt that you knew?
Lind: I feel like I got to know Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Terminator. To this day, I look at the governor of California as The Terminator. They call it stereotyping. Jim Nabors is always gonna be Gomer Pyle. With our deal, I knew Dale Earnhardt way better than The Intimidator. It’s so funny … there’s a very small amount of people out there that know what I’m talking about. I don’t know how many people know just what was there when you got to know him.
That’s what hurt so bad when he had his accident. It wasn’t about how we lost the best race-car driver ever. We lost a tremendous friend. It would take three months to explain why he was that way. He was a big part of why our deal worked. He fit in. He was one of us. He never, ever blasted us. He defended us. Cecil Gordon used to say, ‘I don’t give a s—if Dale backs into somebody. It’s still their fault.’ You’d be out there on pit road, the caution would come out and there’d be a bunch of guys down there shakin’ their fists at you. You were like, ‘Uh-oh … got a pretty good idea of what might have happened.’
The guy off the track was a totally different deal that no movie or book would ever be able to explain. It just won’t happen. Like I said, that small group of people that he let into his world – and it was damn sure him letting you in – you couldn’t force yourself on him. If you tried to force yourself on him, you were done. If you just treated him like a normal guy … that’s the way he was in ’84 when he came here. It’s not something he adapted to later. He’d already won a championship, but he didn’t have near the fame he had toward the end.
It’s not 10 people ... it’s several hundred people … but there aren’t very many people who got to see (the private Dale Earnhardt).
Stock Car History Online: What’s your take on how people view the history of the sport these days?
Lind: The 21 car was in the garage stall next to us at Darlington one time. David Pearson was sitting out there, and we got him to autograph the car. The rest of the guys were like, ‘Who’s that old man that wrote on the car?’ I was like, ‘You’re (kidding), right?’ That was my first taste of it. That was in 2000.
When I walked into the garage area in ’76, I knew everybody in there. I knew every driver. I knew where he was from, knew what he used to drive, knew what his car number was, what color it was. I was a maniac about it. With these cats (who didn’t know Pearson), I was like, ‘You’re kidding me? That’s the baddest SOB that’s ever driven around this race track.’
Stock Car History Online: Who was your favorite driver growing up?
Lind: Fred Lorenzen was my hero. He was here one time for the media tour, 20 years ago. It was a long time ago. I saw him, and I was like, ‘Son of a …’ I went up and talked to him. I went, ‘Man, I was a huge fan of yours.’ He was giving me that, ‘Oh, really,’ look like drivers do. I went, ‘Man, I’ve got something I’d like for you to sign. How long are you going to be here?’ He said, ‘I’ll be here an hour.’ I just live three miles down the road. I haul a—back home and got … this book. They did a bio on me and who my favorite race car driver was, which was Fred Lorenzen. I wanted him to sign it. After I showed him that book, he was like, ‘Damn …’ I told him, ‘I remember when you wrecked a ’67 Fairlane at Daytona.’
I’m from Lakeland, and I’ve been to almost every race at Daytona. My grades were always up during the Daytona races, because my dad would take me out of school. Daytona races were over, my grades would go back down. I’d go to the 100-mile (qualifying races). (Lorenzen) had a big wreck and crawled through the windshield in his old ’67 Fairlane. He was amazed I remembered that.
Stock Car History Online: How did you make the move from changing tires for Dale Earnhardt into a management role?
Lind: That’s something we’ve talked about several times over the last five or six years. I (raced) for a 12-year stretch with Dale and Ricky Rudd. It was really, really taxing on everybody. You hear everybody now talking about burnout and stuff like that. We won six championships in nine years and three times back to back. That puts some time on you that people don’t realize.
I was just ready to get out of (traveling) when I got out of it in 1994. I was just tired of traveling. Right when I got out of it, Richard came to me and said, “NASCAR wants us to start a truck team to help that new series. I know you’re not wanting to get back into traveling, but would you be willing to try that?” It was good, because I was looking for something different. That was a totally different challenge. I’d never really been in the management side of it.
About halfway through the year (1994), we started the truck deal. We started hiring people, and we had those Winter Heat races. Basically, I went back to traveling, but it was only a 16-race schedule and it was in a lot of places that I had never been before.
Stock Car History Online: How hard a decision was it to step back?
Lind: It wasn’t as much the racing side of it as it was my kids. My kids (Jake and Laura) were growing up. They were born in 1980 and ’85, so in ’94 when I quit going, they were both real young. But at the time, I was also kinda noticing, ‘Damn, they’ve kinda grown up without me.’ That was the bottom line about my decision to get out of the Cup side of it, was to be able to spend more time with them. I’m glad I did it.
They both played a lot of sports, and I never was there. The truck thing, only going to 16 races, enabled me to see ballgames and stuff like that. That was kinda neck-and-neck with burnout (in deciding to step back from the Winston Cup program). The term ‘burnout’ nowadays … it’s kinda like an injury in football. Poor bastards back then used to limp around and didn’t know about burnout. They just limped. But back then, burnout was a legitimate thing. Burnout’s a copout now, in my opinion.
I was very fortunate to be on the right team. We won four pit crew championships in a row, and no one’s ever done that before or after. There were just so many things we were able to do with Dale as a team. All of us are driven by the next challenge, and in ’94, there just really wasn’t much of a challenge out there for me. … The truck thing was a good fit for me. Then Busch (Series) was a good fit. Now, I hope this (being director of competition) is.