We’ve had long discussions here and with the racing community at large about NASCAR’s “golden age,” but most people agree that the sport hit its maximum potential (to date) in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon dominated, but from pole to last place most casual NASCAR fans could identify with the drivers, teams, and even the sponsors on a week-to-week basis. One such driver in his prime during this particular era was Kentucky’s Jeremy Mayfield. Winner of 5 cup races and many more notable moments, Mayfield thrived in a time where race wins might have been hardest to come by in a field of top talent. What should have been a universally revered racing career became marred with off track controversy and legal trouble, and the name Jeremy Mayfield brings a lot of feelings to the race fan’s mind before we even think about his time on the track. Is this how we’re compelled to remember a contemporary of the greatest time in American racing history, when the man can still speak for himself? Mayfield was kind enough to give TehBen.com an interview and I learned more than what conventional history wants to sum up with an uncomfortable footnote.
Jeremy Mayfield’s career in NASCAR cup racing started in a way that would be impossible to duplicate in the current professional environment. Driving for the Sadler Brothers out of Tennessee, a one car operation that did all of the work themselves, Mayfield explained the nature of getting a car on track compared to today. “We built the car ourselves, with our own little team down there. We were a little team, but we made races, and that’s what made NASCAR great. You build yourself a car, and go race. Today, you can’t do that. I’ll challenge anyone out there…if I had even One Hundred Million dollars, I would not be winning races today.” Mayfield points to a prime example already proving this theory of forced homogenization. “Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, they’ve got all the money in the world, but the way the rules are written and the way the sport is, how can you put a better car together…who am I gonna get my engines from? You’ve got a couple options, but that’s it. If I’m Michael Jordan I’m not gonna take that much longer.”
I realize as I’m speaking with Mayfield that our conversation sounds like we’re talking about something that happened 100 years ago, noting how different the sport is constructed today. Jeremy raced competitively against drivers still winning in the Cup series to this day, yet with charters, ever changing playoffs, race team alliances and new sponsorship metrics it feels like we’re reminiscing about some long-forgotten era. Car owners like Junie Donlavey, Cale Yarborough, and even Mayfield himself as a team owner seem totally unrecognizable in 2021.
On paper, it may look to some that Mayfield is complaining about the current state of the sport, but there’s a level of concern in his voice that shows rather a desire to re-level the playing field. “Back then, couple million dollars, get a sponsor, you could afford it. Every year you hear [from NASCAR] ‘we’re gonna save the teams money,’ but how are we doing that? I don’t get it. You can’t hang your own body; you can’t make your own parts. To make things better we need to take it back some. It needs to be a free enterprise sport again…there’s no telling what it costs today.”
While the business end of racing is always stressful, being competitive as a driver was championed during Mayfield’s era, and most of that pressure was performance driven. “When I drove for Sadler, the pressure was just on myself. If we made the race, fine, if not, fine, it was a limited amount of pressure, you just raced” After Mayfield’s time with the Sadler Brothers (and a brief stint with T.W. Taylor), he raced full time with Cale Yarborough driving the #98 car as well as the #37 Kranefuss-Haas entry, and pressure increased beyond personal goals. “It’s 24/7, you’re fighting for your life at that point. With Kranefuss, it was an everyday pressure to perform. When you drive a car into the pits in 1st place, and come out 6th, they are going to ask you what happened. As a driver, if you’re not careful you’re throwing your teammates in the river, and feelings are getting in the way. I had no experience in politics, all I knew was racing hard, I wish I had done that better.” Responding to that pressure as a driver still led Mayfield further up the NASCAR Cup ladder. Driving for Penske in the memorable Mobil 1 #12 car, Mayfield was finally winning races, but doing so alongside a legendary driver in Rusty Wallace who also had never had a teammate at the highest level of stockcar racing.
Years apart in age and even further apart in driving style Mayfield and Wallace were contenders to win most every weekend around the turn of the century, and yet it seems like they were only concerned with racing each other. “We raced each other more than the field, I don’t know why. If Rusty finished better than me, I couldn’t handle it very well, and neither could he if I did. Looking back on it, it was stupid, and childish and everything else, but we were racers and wanted to win.” No greater example of this relationship was on display than at the 1998 Daytona 500. No one will ever forget that Dale Earnhardt finally won NASCAR’s biggest race, but to those that remember the day, Jeremy Mayfield nearly spoiled the party. “I pushed [Earnhardt] all day long, I know we could have beat him. I’m gonna throw Rusty head first in the water here, but all we had to do was pull out together, and we had that plan. The biggest reason Rusty didn’t pull out [of the draft] with me was that he was afraid I was going to win the Daytona 500….we got ’em at Pocono though.”
While Mayfield’s signature moment in NASCAR was certainly his bump’n’run victory over Earnhardt at Pocono, the business of the sport received the most attention from a win scored with his next team, driving for Ray Evernham. In the first year of the NASCAR playoffs, then referred to as the “Chase for the Cup,” Jeremy Mayfield clinched his way into the playoffs with a buzzer-beater win at Richmond, securing a playoff spot with the dramatics this new post season concept was promising. Unfortunately, this moment has been hard to duplicate in the years since and the playoffs have less public support than ever. “That one particular race and win was great, but the next week you go right back to where it was. Those are the kind of races you need to have every single week. You get that excitement from the competitiveness of the cars, not from how you [score the points]. You talk to the fans about what they want and need, I don’t think any of them are asking for Playoffs like football or baseball.”
Despite all of the success, the response to pressure, evolving with a sport that was changing the fabric from which it was once spun, Mayfield’s falling out with NASCAR came quickly after a public criticism of Ray Evernham during the #19 team’s struggles. Worse still, while taking on a new venture with a self-owned team, Mayfield’s most public controversy came to light. After reportedly failing a NASCAR initiated drug test, a publicized back and forth commentary from NASCAR and Mayfield exposed vulnerabilities in both the relationship between competitor and governing body, and the damage that can come from holding a trial in the court of public opinion. “It was so immature, and so stupid on both our parts. For me it was believing what I believed in, believing that I didn’t do anything wrong, and just standing my ground. For NASCAR, it was just a ‘we can’t lose to him’ because of this drug test thing, and it was just a HUGE deal that didn’t even need to be public. All they had to say was ‘don’t take Adderall anymore,’ and that would have been it. It’s been a waste of money and time on my part, and for no reason really.” (A series of short films produced by the Mayfields are available on YouTube explaining their side of the issue in greater detail). To this day, Jeremy Mayfield remains suspended by NASCAR pending, in NASCAR’s words, completion of the “Road to Recovery” program.
As a casual fan, this is probably the last you’ve heard of Jeremy Mayfield, a footnote on NASCAR history, fairness not withstanding. But while the light of a Cup career seems dim, the racing spirit is alive and well. “I’ve got a dirt car [crate engine late model] I’ve been playing around with racing down in Georgia and places like that, we’re laying low, but we’re racing.”
There’s a nervousness in my voice as I talk with Mayfield over the phone. Part of it may be from my inexperience as an interviewer, but also from the fear that I’m opening a wound in someone that was on my television before I knew anything about the stress of being a racecar driver. Drivers like Mayfield would be the first to tell you that racing professionally is a childhood dream come true. However when that opportunity goes away, it’s hard to deal with that reality no matter the circumstances. “Sundays are still pretty tough on me personally. Doing it all those years, you get up and get used to that schedule, so it’s kind of tough anyway. When I do watch a race, it’s hard to watch, and it’s so different now.” The pressure to perform still rings true on the dirt racing circuit as well. He is still, as always, a competitive race winner, but there’s a constant desire for more. “My own personal belief, is that I want to come out and do something huge and successful to put all that behind me. With a limited budget, I feel like the odds are stacked against me, it’s a fight everyday to survive. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me whatsoever, but to have to prove myself all over again-again-again, and I’m gonna keep fighting until the end of it.”
Jeremy Mayfield’s story, for better or worse, is one of redemption. For all the professional rivaling and disagreements with Rusty Wallace, Mayfield went on to drive for Wallace’s Grand National series team for a number of races in 2004. For all the public dissolve of the relationship with Ray Evernham that looked to most as beyond repair, the two have, in Mayfield’s words, buried it. “About six months ago, we hadn’t really talked through all the junk that went on. Ray and I both know we made mistakes throughout our whole deal, and we’ve apologized, and we’ve buried it. Lot of things we could have done better….you live and learn.” While there were rumors about Mayfield potentially joining Evernham’s new veteran based SRX racing series, no such deal had been struck, but Mayfield remains open to the possibility. “We had been in touch, we were on a list of drivers potentially, but for this year [12 cars] was what they were gonna go with, but maybe next year we’ll talk with them again.”
There’s still time for another chapter in Jeremy Mayfield’s NASCAR career. Maybe not as a full time Cup driver the way we knew him, but Mayfield is clearly one to never shy away from a challenge. In the years since Mayfield’s suspension, NASCAR has gone through its own issues with personal missteps including a change of leadership at the very top. With every passing day comes a new opportunity to close the gap and reunite NASCAR with one of its nuggets from the true golden age. For a man that could do the impossible and intimidate The Intimidator, it’s foolish to think this is all a done deal. If he and his fans refuse to forget the driver he was and still is, there’s a chance for one more win in the NASCAR history book of Jeremy Mayfield, and this one would top them all.
Jeremy Mayfield’s Current Racing Partners
Wendell and Pat Norton of Safety Plus (Georgia)
Special thanks to Shana and Jeremy Mayfield for their time and consideration in agreeing to this interview.