By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. — More than six years after Kevin Hamlin took the biggest risk of his life and moved from Snohomish County to North Carolina, he has reached the height of his stock car racing career.
Hamlin, a Snohomish native who starred as a driver at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, has been hired as spotter for star NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Clint Bowyer on the powerful Richard Childress Racing team.
A spotter serves as a driver’s eyes from high above the track, communicating via radio to let the driver know of traffic and conditions that may not be visible from inside the car. It’s a high-pressure job that can make the difference between winning and crashing.
“To me, it’s the next best thing to driving,” Hamlin said. “You can really either help or hurt the race team as much as a driver, a crew chief or a crew member can.”
He worked with Bowyer the past two Sprint Cup races at Texas and Phoenix, will spot for Bowyer at this weekend’s final Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami and is under contract through the 2011 season.
It’s not only a full-time job at stock car racing’s highest level, Hamlin describes this as an opportunity that provides a comfortable living for his wife Mandi and their two children — daughter Grace, who turned 3 on Friday, and son Cohen, who’ll be 1 in December.
However, the move full-time to the spotter’s stand brings the reality that Hamlin’s driving career probably has ended.
“As much as I love to do it, I’m 31 and there are no open rides unless you’ve got money. Unfortunately, my dad’s not rich and I don’t have a sponsor,” he said. “I looked at the future and realized that if I wanted to stay in this, spotting was going to be my best bet.”
This isn’t where Hamlin, a two-time NASCAR Northwest Series champion, dreamed his career would turn.
Six months after he and Mandi were married, they gave up everything in the Northwest — in addition to racing, he had a good job at Longacre Racing Products in Monroe — and moved in the summer of 2004 to the Charlotte, N.C., area. They arrived there with little more than his dream to drive in the big-time and a desire to make it happen.
“It’s a big pill to swallow when you pack everything and move 3,000 miles away,” he said.
Hamlin spent a year cold-calling to find driving opportunities, then signed in 2005 with Chip Ganassi Racing as a part of that organization’s driver development program. Over the next few years, he drove numerous races for various teams in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Truck series — both a level below the prestigious Sprint Cup series but extremely attractive to fans and sponsors.
“I never told this to Mandi, but right before I signed with Ganassi, I thought it might be time to lick our wounds and move back home,” Hamlin said. “It was really tough. We didn’t have a whole bunch of friends, and when I say a whole bunch I mean one. When you’re not racing, you don’t get to meet all the people out here. But once (joining Ganassi) happened and we had an income, we met people and it was a lot easier.”
Hamlin got good exposure in the races he drove and he had two top-10 finishes in the Nationwide series.
The one element he couldn’t beat, however, was the softening economy. Auto racing, highly dependent on sponsorship, took a hard hit and that ultimately helped determine Hamlin’s future.
“He was born at the wrong time,” said former Evergreen Speedway promoter Tom Glithero, now vice president of sales at Longacre Racing Products. “He went down there to be a race-car driver and just about the time he was starting to make some things work, the bottom falls out of the economy.”
Several of Hamlin’s rides in the Nationwide series were on a “start and park” basis for low-dollar teams whose goal was to make the starting lineup and be satisfied with last-place money. He would practice and qualify those cars, then park after a few laps as the teams chose not to risk the tires, fuel and other expenses that come with running the race.
Hamlin could make $2,500 in a weekend as a start-and-park driver. But it was difficult work, getting emotionally keyed up to practice and qualify a car only to be called off the track, and even those jobs were competitive because other drivers often offered owners a better deal.
Hamlin spent more time high above the racetrack as a spotter the past two years, working many Sprint Cup races driven by John Andretti and Travis Kvapil. It was no match for driving, but he enjoyed the work because it gave him a direct connection with the action on the track.
“It was a good foot in the door for spotting because getting on the roof (of the grandstand, where spotters often are located), it’s a very tight-knit community and I wanted to get some experience,” Hamlin said. “There are a lot of different guys moving around on the stand this year, and I started looking around for a more secure thing that I could pay the bills with.”
Through his relationship with Kvapil, Hamlin became connected with Richard Childress Racing, and he worked as Bowyer’s spotter for two Nationwide races this season. They connected well enough that the team not only hired him as Bowyer’s Sprint Cup spotter for the 2011 season, they had him work the final three races this season.
Bowyer joked with Hamlin in the hauler last weekend at Phoenix, asking if other drivers yelled at him on the radio as much as Bowyer does.
“I said, ‘No, you’re the only one I’ve spotted for who yells,’” Hamlin said. “‘But if you want to yell back at me, do it. Do you drive better when you’re (ticked) off?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
“We’re still feeling each other out. But a lot of these guys, once they hook up with a driver and they work well together, they stay with that guy for a long time. Hopefully it will work out like that with Clint.”
This isn’t what Hamlin thought he would become when he moved from the Northwest in 2004. He had hoped to become the next Greg Biffle or Kasey Kahne, two Northwest natives who moved away and became stars in the Sprint Cup series.
“People may say he didn’t make it, but he made it a lot further than 99 percent of the rest of the drivers in the world,” Glithero said.
The sacrifice has been worth it, Hamlin says.
“I didn’t end up becoming a Greg Biffle or a Kasey Kahne, but I did well enough that Mandi can stay home with the kids and the mortgage is paid every month,” he said. “I’m not getting rich by any means, but I’m making a living going to a race track every weekend and I get to see the country.
“You can’t complain about that. I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I am in.”