There is something intoxicating about an interview session with Felix Sabates. Four or five reporters, a dozen or so questions, couple of easy set-ups for some zingers, good times.
Simply put, he might say anything on any subject at any time. For the interviewer, he's money that way.
This was the man who on the fifth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death -- when pressed by me on how that cataclysm had changed NASCAR -- compared him with the son of the Christian god. Maybe you've heard of him?
"Sometimes things happen for a reason. And as cruel as it may sound, Dale Earnhardt getting killed at the Daytona 500 in 2001, he brought awareness and the name 'NASCAR' to the world that before maybe had never heard of before," he said in January 2006. "His death was in every major newspaper in the world and on the television, where before, if he had won the Daytona 500 it would have been no big deal. In a way, Dale dying did a lot for the sport.
"Jesus dying did a lot for Christianity."
"No, no, no, I don't compare him to Jesus. I compare him to Elvis."
Sabates, who sold a majority interest in his SABCO race team to Chip Ganassi in 2000, credits himself with being the first to lug a bulky motorcoach into an infield, sparking a trend that has become the normal living arrangement for most drivers and owners. But Sabates' quips are surpassed only by his insight and his experience. He's a businessman, a philanthropist, and a survivor. He's displayed an amazing penchant for being at the intersection of History Avenue and Important Street again and again since he entered the Sprint Cup series with Kyle Petty as his driver in 1989. He's seemingly everywhere -- like Forest Gump with a Cuban accent and a way better boat. And cigars.
He was a friend to the late Bill France Jr., served as one of the former NASCAR chairman's pallbearers in June 2007. Outside the Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center in Daytona Beach, he was the most eloquent and poignant of the well-wishers, claiming that France Jr.'s "true" legacy was he "never gave up on Brian," sending the college dropout to a track he'd leased in Tucson to learn management. Brian France went on to become the sport's chairman, following his grandfather and father.
"I've been around his family a long time, and when Brian was a young man, Brian was Brian and a lot of people would have given up on him and Bill never did," Sabates said that scorching June day. "I told Brian last night at dinner, 'When they shipped you to Arizona, I thought they would keep pushing you down until you went to Mexico and they never saw you again.' But Bill had a plan with Brian, and what's happened with NASCAR the next four or five years has been attributed a lot to what Brian has brought to the sport and I don't think it would have happened had Bill given up on him."
A few weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway we learned that Sabates was a close friend of late Sprint Cup series champion Alan Kulwicki, the executor of his estate, when he spoke at an endowment ceremony from Kulwicki's foundation to the North Carolina-Charlotte engineering department.
Sabates held court afterwards, and as usual, it was worth it.
On the level of anxiety within NASCAR team ownership:
"If any car owner tells you he's not worried, he's lying. We're all worried to death. You have Chrysler probably on life-support right now. How they're going to make it, I have no clue. When I look at the cut and who they're going to cut, all they've got is Penske and Penske could easily go to Toyota.
It would be a shame for General Motors to pull out and leave the series to Toyota and Ford. Ford is strong financially. They're a lot stronger than General Motors is. General Motors people are racing people. The people we deal with at General Motors are racing people. We love working with them. We cooperate with them. They do everything we ask them to do. I just hope the powers to be in Detroit don't start cutting the money back. That's what worries everybody.
"They can take away from Hendrick and Childress, that's fine. Just leave ours there. They have plenty of money. We don't. They have a lot of sponsors. We don't."
On whether a 'foreign' champion - namely Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya - would be embraced by NASCAR fans:
"You either are an American or Colombian or Cuban. You drive in an American series. If you win, you are an American champion in an American series. ... He could be the first South American. Well, so what? It's sort of, it's like the first guy from Alabama. Bill Elliott, that was a foreign country when he won it.
(Someone informs Sabates that Elliott is from Georgia. Besides, 'Awesome Bill" from Alabama completely doesn't rhyme).
Quipped Sabates, "What's more foreign, Alabama, or Georgia? Georgia? Close enough. They're about the same. Same colors."
Sabates has somewhat of a kindred spirit in Montoya, sly, irreverant, creatively mischievous. Montoya should therefore expect his comeuppance for a recent goof to be epic. Montoya was a celebrity prisoner in a recent charity bail auction when he called Sabates feigning an urgent need for help.
"He's a big jokester," Sabates said. "What he did to me last night I wanted to kill him. As a matter of fact, I want to find him and hit him. I'm in a poker tournament, Make A Wish Foundation, and the phone rings and I see it's Juan. So I get up from the table and go outside and he goes, "I need your help.
"I say, "What?"
"He says, "I need $5,000."
"I say, "For what?
"He says, "I'm in jail."
"So I run outside, "What'd you do? What'd you do?"
"Well, I'm in jail and I need $5,000."
"I said, "Well, I can get you out of the jail right now. What jail you at?"
"He started laughing and said, "NASCAR jail."
"They were having some charity thing. But he pulled my yang-yang. When I see him again I am going to choke him."
Someone asked Sabates if he had enough money on him to cover the bail.
"Yeah. I have a credit card. They take a credit card in jail."
Really?, someone asks. How do you know that?
"Because I got a couple dudes of jail with a credit card, in Florida anyway."
The story is interesting on a couple levels. First, Sabates didn't seem exceedingly surprised that Montoya could be in jail. He also didn't express any qualms about spiriting him out as quickly as possible. And just how many guys has he bailed out of jail in Florida with his credit card? In any case, that's how to instill loyalty.
On the difficulty in securing sponsors, seeing as how Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is fielding cars for Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. on one and a half sponsors:
"There are a lot of sponsors out there. We will be fine. What it is, the money that was there before isn't there now. The guy with the wheel barrow full of cash saying he's going to throw money at you, they are now very conscientious how they manage their sponsorship dollar. And if they don't, we'll go to Chip's inheritance and get the money from him."
On how his race team gets it done:
"I think we've shown you don't need a budget of $20 million to run one car. We made a lot of sacrifices because we didn't have airplanes. We rented airplanes to go to the racetrack. Hendrick had a fleet of airplanes. Childress had a fleet of airplanes. Gibbs had a fleet of airplanes. We have our plane.
"We don't have any company cars. We have the ones Chevrolet gives us. We have two guys staying in a room. And we don't have that many specialists. Before we had a guy who was a specialist to put on the left fender and another for the right fender. Now we got one guy who puts on all the fenders and the roof of the car. That's the way it used to be. Nobody's the same, but in 1992 and '93 we finished fifth in the points both years in a row. We had 12 employees total, including the engine shop and the pit crew was all volunteers. You can do it.
"I think NASCAR allowed too much technology to take over the racing. People who have the money, they went out and hired the best talent, paid the most amount of money, the most to the driver, and they started winning races because of money. What's happened today, this Car of Tomorrow has brought parity.
"Rick Hendrick is one of my closest friends and I kid him all the time, 'you could put a monkey in the car and win the race.' Every time they win, I say, 'Get the monkey."
On the winless (this year) Montoya:
"I believe if Juan was driving a Hendrick car, he'd have won six or seven races this year. Because they've done much better. Not that we're bad. But they're that much better."
Did he just suggest a salary cap or Maoist race series?:
"What they need to do is put a maximum you can spend, and NASCAR writes all the checks. A dictatorship. You do that and you'll have 20 drivers who can win a race a every week. Some of them are in equipment that's not capable of winning. And the other ones can't win it if they were the only car on the race track. This is a competitive sport."