It is time for Todd Cray, 17, to go to work. He climbs into his Buick Skyhawk and drives off—accelerating to a tire-burning 160 mph. But there will be no speeding ticket for him. High school senior Todd's after-school job is racing cars; he's the youngest driver in NASCAR's 16-race Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series. And his parents, Mary Ann and Barry Cray of Trenton, N.J., are not alarmed at their only son's running with such a fast crowd. After all, Todd has been racing since he was five.
In 11 years of racing quarter-midget cars—they resemble scaled-down Indy Cars of the '50s—Todd has won roughly 700 of 800 races. He once simultaneously held 22 records at almost as many tracks. He has won the Grand Nationals, the Quarter Midgets of America's annual championship, five times. The most memorable of those titles came in 1984, in Meriden, Conn., when he drove from last on the starting grid to first in seven consecutive races to claim championships in both the Senior and Class B divisions. And all this was accomplished before Todd was old enough to earn a New Jersey driver's license.
But by last season, Todd, then 16, was getting anxious to move up to more challenging racing. So he and his parents sat down and mapped out the next phase of his career. The plan called for Todd to obtain a license to race in NASCAR-sanctioned events at the earliest age possible, which just happened to be 16. The series Todd would enter, the C/DD, is contested on NASCAR oval tracks ranging in length from‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® mile (Southside Speedway in Richmond) to 2½ miles (Daytona International Speedway). But the Crays decided Todd would enter no more than five events in '87 to keep him eligible for the NASCAR Rookie of the Year award in '88.
All of which seemed fairly straightforward, except for one thing. C/DD cars can hit speeds of 160 mph, more than twice what Todd was used to in quarter-midget racing. Obviously, he would have to learn fast, so to speak.
August 14, 1988
The Crays sent their son off to a school for aspiring oval-track drivers run by legendary NASCAR driver and hell-raiser Buck Baker at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. "He was about the most aggressive little fella I've ever seen on a racetrack," Baker says of his young student. "That's what it takes to win. I let my son, Randy, run with him, and Todd stayed right with him—inside, outside, everywhere." Even more impressive, the younger Baker was driving a Winston Cup car powered by a 366-cu-in. V-8, while Cray was driving his four-cylinder Buick. Steve Porter, a former instructor at Baker's school, says of his one-time pupil, "Todd has the ability to understand what the car is doing."
Cray has been demonstrating that ability since his go-kart days. Even then, five-year-old Todd would tell his dad what the kart needed to improve its handling. At first, Barry was dubious. "But I made the adjustments he wanted," he says, "and right away you could see from the stopwatch that Todd had picked up speed." That's when Dad learned to have faith in his son's advice.
But where did young Cray pick up the ability to hit an apex perfectly or to squeeze on the power at just the right point to pull a car out of a turn at maximum acceleration? "There's some talent," Todd says, "but basically it's been the repetitions, the hard work."
The repetitions and work have been orchestrated by Barry, who sat Todd down behind the wheel of a go-kart at age three. While Dad straddled the kart to control the gas and brakes, his son steered. Once that was mastered, the next stop was the big open parking lot of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Trenton.
"We worked on smoothing out his speed," Barry recalls. "You can't jerk the wheel and you can't go through corners at a big angle. I set up pylons and had him go around them—nice and sm-o-o-o-th. Then I took out a pylon here and there so he could get up some speed. Soon he had the pattern drilled into his mind. Then I let him put the pedal down.
"We had 'races.' I put a megaphone tail pipe on his car so I could hear the instant when he accelerated. If I didn't hear the pedal go down when I gave him the green flag to start the race, then I knew he hadn't been anticipating. If I heard the pedal go down at the right time, I would give Todd a checkered flag to carry around the track like a winner—if he got his speed up."
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."