By Tom Gillispie
Robert "Bootie" Barker is like those juggernaut football teams you hear about on ESPN.
"Bootie Barker, you can only hope to contain him," Chris Berman might shout.
Contain him? Heck, it’s hard enough to slow him down. His racing career reads like Dave Blaney or Ward Burton charging through Daytona’s turn three in the draft.
It wasn’t so long ago, 1996, that Barker got his degree in mechanical engineering degree at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. By then, he’d already gotten the auto racing bug and had worked with Ashton Lewis’ Late Model team.
Barker, a native of Halifax, Va., later joined Craftsman Truck Series owner Kurt Roehrig as a shock/chassis specialist. That was big in his career, because Roehrig invented the shock dyno that every team now uses.
Barker joined Bill Davis Racing in 1998 as a shock specialist, then worked for Hendrick Motorsports and Jeff Gordon in 1999 and 2000 on shocks and chassis. In the fall of 2000, he went back to BDR and became the crew chief for Busch Series driver Scott Wimmer, who finished a respectable 11th in Busch points in ’01.
Wimmer and Barker had their breakout year in ’02, when the team won three of the last four races and four of the last eight races and finished third in points.
In the recent offseason, Barker was pondering a third season as Wimmer’s Busch crew chief, and the No. 77 Jasper Engines Winston Cup team was looking to replace the recently departed crew chief, Ryan Pemberton. Jasper’s driver, Dave Blaney, thought back to his years as Bill Davis Racing’s No. 2 driver (to Ward Burton), and he suggested the Jasper guys call Bootie.
They called, and he said yes.
"The (Jasper team’s) owners and I talked, and Bootie was on the top of my list," Blaney said. "They didn't know much about him at that point, but I did from working with him at Bill Davis's a little bit, so they spent a month or longer just watching and listening to him on the radio at the Busch races. Once they finally met him face to face they were very impressed, and it was a no-brainer."
Nothing’s slowed Bootie Barker down, especially not the fact that he is paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
You’d think that Barker would be thrilled that he’s a Winston Cup crew chief, and he is. But he’s a little disappointed, too.
"Actually, I had hoped to be (a Winston Cup crew chief) by the time I was 30," says Barker, 31. "So I’m a little late."
Barker says he decided early on to be a crew chief. A Winston Cup crew chief.
"Probably the first year I worked, I reckon after I figured out what was going on in racing, who did what, what I was interested in, when I first started working for Kurt Roehrig," he says. "You have to (decide to be a crew chief). Something like that doesn't just fall into your lap, you know?"
No, it doesn’t. And Barker hasn’t dropped the ball once he’s gotten it.
"Bootie did a good job at anything we asked him to do," Davis says. "He’s a smart guy. He worked hard, applied himself. He did a good job on our Busch car."
The third-place finish in Busch points impressed Davis.
"Yeah, you don't know how many crew chiefs win four races and finished third in points, no matter what series they’re in."
Roehrig says the speed of Barker’s rise is unusual.
“You need to give him credit for doing something amazing," Roehrig says. "He goes to school and can become a crew chief in x number of years. It’s amazing.
"He did the job; he did a great job," Roehrig adds. "Obviously he continued his climb after he left here. He’s obviously done the job for other people, too."
But getting the job isn’t enough; Barker has big expectations.
"To win a race, at least one, to finish in the top 10 in points," he says.
Is that realistic?
"Very. I’m planning on doing it … we are."
Barker is in the middle of an engineering revolution, and he joins Matt Borland among the crew chiefs with engineering degrees. Bootie says his engineering background may be blown out of proportion.
"In one way I think it's over-rated. Having a degree, all it does in my opinion is it tells people that are hiring you that you have the mental capacity to learn. Having that piece of paper says, 'Yeah, I am smart enough to do something.' Now, is it applicable here? I don't know. Naturally, you've got to be a smart guy or be somewhat smart, because to get a degree is hard.
"To get an engineering degree is difficult, but what I'm trying to say is that there are other smart men out here without degrees that could do just as well. I'm not saying it's necessary; it's all in the perception of the owners. I had to get a degree to get into business, so that's why I got it."
Mark Harrah, the Jasper team’s general manager, says Barker is unusual among engineers, and that’s good.
"We’re a strong engineer-oriented team," Harrah says. "If there was anything I was concerned about, it was that the average engineer’s brain will think things through from the standpoint of a lot of variables.
"Bootie is not a micromanager; he sees the big picture, so he’s a macromanager. He doesn't look at details like the typical engineer should. He doesn’t get bogged down in details. I don't think the typical engineer would be a fit for a crew chief."
In this specialized, engineering-oriented racing world, Barker has a specialty.
"It's the front end of a car," he says. "I get a car to handle pretty well, I guess that's what you'd say, in layman's terms. I can do that OK. I have been able to."
Sad to go
Barker says he’ll miss BDR.
"I really enjoyed my time at Bill Davis Racing, and especially working with Scott," he says. "He's a star of the future, for sure, and that made this decision really tough.
"Bill and Gail Davis gave me a chance to find out whether I could run my own program and make all the decisions crew chiefs are faced with to make cars go fast. They always gave us everything we needed to race at the front every week, even though we didn't have the sort of sponsorships some other teams had.
“I'll never be able to thank them enough. But this chance with Dave is my chance to move forward and find out what I really can do against the best. That's what it's about for me."
Barker won’t explain his nickname.
"I’ve had it since high school," he says. "It’s not what you think; we’ll leave it at that."
While Barker at least acknowledges his nickname, he won’t talk about the wheelchair. After the team’s first Busch win, last year at Dover, Barker was quoted as saying he isn’t a feel-good story, only a crew chief. Other than that, Barker remains mum.
And others respect him for it.
Harrah says the team already had an engineer in a wheelchair, Roger White, so he didn’t think a thing of Barker’s condition.
Davis was asked if Barker has a handicap.
"I suppose it was, but it never seemed to matter," Davis says. "I don't know of anybody who was aware of it or thought it was a problem. He never let it be."
He wouldn’t. It would slow him down.
More blog entries by Tom Gillispie
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Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie
Entries from The Dog Blog
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)