The on-track success was no longer lining up. The money began to dry up. The fun meter was running on fumes.
Ted Musgrave, Jr., at the end of the 2007 racing season, was at a crossroads. His asphalt Super Late Model career had been speckled with wins from Concord Motorsport Park in North Carolina to Montgomery Motor Speedway in Alabama. But the wins weren’t coming frequently and the Super Late Model game was changing in its own right.
With a wrecked car and bills mounting up, Musgrave made a decision that has resurrected his on-track career in recent seasons.
“It was either dirt race or don’t race,” Musgrave said. “I chose dirt race. I don’t mind going broke, I just want to get there a lot slower than I was on asphalt.”
Musgrave’s decision has turned back on a successful trend and he’s having a whole lot more fun than ever before on the dirt tracks of the Carolinas.
The grandson of Elmer, a Midwest short track legend, and son of Ted, Sr., a former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion, Musgrave followed in the family business from a young age. Whether it was driving Late Models or working in the fab shop of Chip Ganassi Racing, where the now-36-year-old is employed, Musgrave has always been around racecars.
That passion led him to chase the racing dream like so many have. He won races in Concord’s once-prestigious Big 10 Series and was a consistent runner in the past decade in PASS South. Dirt racing was never something that crossed his mind during his asphalt career until one chance opportunity to run one in 2007.
“The first time I went and ran a dirt car was a couple weeks before a PASS race at Hickory,” said Musgrave. “I went to Wisconsin to visit my in-laws. My brother-in-law had broken his wrist leading the race with his Late Model. When I was going up there, they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you bring your helmet with you and run the dirt car.’ It was a dirt Limited Late Model. I went the first night and I didn’t do well. I went into it cold turkey. It was my first time ever in a dirt car. There was no practice or anything, you just run a couple laps.
“The second night I went out and I ran pretty good. There were about 16 or 18 cars for the weekly show and I finished fourth. After I ran, I called my dad. He asked how I did and then he asked if I had fun. I said, ‘I had a lot more fun than asphalt.'”
The timing of that first fun dirt experience came at a point when his asphalt career reached its most expensive point.
“I came home and ran the Hickory race up there and struggled through the day. I just had a bad day all around, honestly. I qualified ninth or something like that. They threw the green and it was about lap 30 when I went to miss a wreck and someone just drove through me in my Grand American (chassis) car. After that, it was costing too much to keep doing the asphalt thing.
“I was paying all the bills, but my dad and I split the motor bill. At that point my dad’s career was winding down. The motor was worn out and I was looking at a $9,000 rebuild. I didn’t have the money to do that if I wanted to. It was the same time that the spec engines were coming out, too. It was a sketchy time because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy one of them or if they’d even take off. I was at a crossroads. It just made sense to go and do something that I could afford and have fun doing.”
Musgrave now can be found on the dirt tracks of North Carolina’s Carolina Speedway and South Carolina tracks such as Cherokee and Lancaster, racing his No. 444 Crate Late Model against some of the top dirt racers in the country. The move to dirt has brought a smile back to Musgrave’s face and a little more cash in his wallet than he had in his final seasons on asphalt.
“Most of the time with this (dirt car), you’re buying two tires a week, so you’re looking at a $300 tire bill,” said Musgrave when Speed51.com powered by JEGS caught up with him at Cherokee Speedway on June 20. “There’s times where I’ve run the left-rear a second week and still been competitive. Last week I had a used left-rear on and I only got out-run by Jeff Smith, Jonathan Davenport and Rambo Franklin. Those guys have unlimited Super Late Model budgets and I finished fourth, running right with them. Rambo and I ran wheel-to-wheel for third most of that race. Then I went and finished fifth in the second feature and never put on new tires. It’s just economically way, way better.”
Musgrave may have switched his on-track effort onto the Carolina clay, he’s never too far away from his asphalt roots. Whenever he’s not behind the wheel of his Crate Late Model, he’s tinkering on some of his buddies’ asphalt Super Late Models or working at Ganassi. 2014 is Musgrave’s 19th working in a Sprint Cup Series race shop.
“I was six days old the first time I was at the racetrack. It’s all I know how to do,” added Musgrave. “When I’m not racing my dirt car, you can catch me helping out Jeff Fultz, I went with Kyle Shear up to Milwaukee, I’ll help out (SLM crew chief) Buggy Pletcher, I’m helping Dennis Schoenfeld. It’s either that or go work at Lowe’s cutting lumber or something like that.”
When at the track, Musgrave can usually be found with his wife Natasha and two-year-old daughter Makenna by his side. Makenna is showing signs of wanting to be the next generation of Musgraves to battle behind the wheel, but dad’s still not sure if that’s what he wants for his little girl given all of his short track experiences.
“My daughter’s two years old and she’ll be right there with me wrenching on the car. That scares me. I’m ready to buy her golf clubs or tennis rackets. When we go to the track, she’s in the car flipping switches, she wants my helmet on, she wants the steering wheel on. She wants to drive the dually, she wants to drive the lawn mower.
“All she wants to do is drive. Daddy doesn’t want her to drive.”
– By Matt Kentfield, Speed51.com Executive Director – Twitter: @mattkentfield. Photo credits: Speed51.com