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A TEENAGE LEADFOOT VET
Herm Weiskopf
August 15, 1988
Todd Cray, 17, is a rookie with a lot of miles on him
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August 15, 1988

A Teenage Leadfoot Vet

Todd Cray, 17, is a rookie with a lot of miles on him

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In 1976, when Todd saw the 24-degree banking on the turns at Dover (Del.) International Speedway for the first time, he said, "I'm going right up to the...."

"I wouldn't even let him finish," Barry says. " 'No, not the top,' I said. 'The shortest and fastest way around this track is right around the bottom.' " Todd dutifully went around in the bottom groove and set the still-standing track record for quarter midgets. That was when the kid learned to have faith in his dad's advice.

Maintaining a father-son and teacher-student relationship requires a delicate touch. "If Todd ever got a big head, if he ever mouthed off—that would be it," Barry says. "He knows that, and we've never had a problem with that stuff. He's a pleasure."

He is also a two-fisted drinker: milk in one hand, a high-protein mix in the other. For two years a physical fitness coach has supervised Todd's diet and weight-training program, building the strength and stamina needed for 200-mile races in a car where the cockpit temperature can exceed 120�.

Not that Todd was ever out of shape. At seven he took up karate to fill the time between school and his racing. By the time he was 10, he had earned a black belt, and at 12 he held a second-degree black belt. Though Todd has always been diminutive—even now he is just 5'4" and 120 pounds, including braces—he was a defensive back in football for Nottingham High School in Trenton in 1985. Two seasons ago as a wrestler he was named the school's MVP after he had a 21-4 record in the 101-pound class.

Rainouts held Todd to four NASCAR races in '87. He placed third in three of those races and twice qualified fast enough to be on the front row of the starting grid. On May 7 of this year, Todd dogged last season's C/DD champion, Larry Caudill, all the way during a 100-lap event at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway. Then, late in the race, when Caudill went high to avoid an out-of-control car, Todd zipped down and by him. He held on to a narrow lead to the finish line for his first NASCAR win. It was a heady move, not what one expects from such a young driver. But Caudill was not surprised. "He probably has more racing experience than I do," said the 39-year-old C/DD champ.

So far, most of the money for Todd's racing has come from Barry's four-man carburetor repair shop, which is run out of the Crays' backyard. A few local sponsors have also chipped in, but to be competitive on the C/DD series costs an estimated $60,000 a season. To go first class, which means having one car specially prepared for the short tracks (ovals of less than one mile) and another for the Super Speedways, can add another $10,000 to $15,000. The Crays have been trying to get by on about $2,000 an outing with their one-car effort.

But almost all drivers start racing on a shoestring. Most beginning drivers, however, don't also have to keep their grades up. That was especially tough when Todd was scheduled to drive in a midweek race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. His mother picked him up outside Nottingham High after school let out on Monday and, with a friend, drove the 560 miles to Charlotte while Todd slept in the back seat. They arrived at their motel on Tuesday morning with only enough time before qualifying for Todd to grab one hour's sleep in a real bed. But he qualified, and after Todd finished 10th in the Wednesday race, the three reversed Monday night's trip so Todd could be back in school on Thursday morning.

Is it worth it? After 10 races this season, Todd is fourth in the overall C/DD driver standings and is fighting for Rookie of the Year with 23-year-old professional driver Shawna Robinson—who became the first woman to win a NASCAR event when she finished first in the C/DD race at New Asheville ( N.C.) Speedway on June 10. And if Todd doesn't win the rookie award?

It probably will not make a bit of difference. "Music gets me psyched, especially Heart & Soul by T'Pau," Todd says. "It's about giving the best you have. That's what I want to do as a racer, and I want to do it from my heart and soul."

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