FONTANA, Califorina: Looking on as Derrick Cope and his small crew worked on his Xfinity Series Chevrolet out in the Auto Club Speedway parking lot, it was a stark reminder of the wide financial range in NASCAR.
Cope is best known as the West Coast underdog who stunned the racing world in 1990 by winning the Daytona 500, passing legendary Dale Earnhardt in the final lap. It was a life-changing moment for Cope, born in San Diego and raised in Spanaway, Washington.
And it’s very apparent that Cope never met blues singer B.B. King, who reached the top of the charts in 1970 with his ballad, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Although 25 years have passed since his Daytona victory, the thrill has never left Cope.
He’s constantly reminded of that special day whenever he is introduced. There’s something unique when you are introduced, regardless of the setting, as “1990 Daytona 500 champion.” That thrill will never leave.
Actually, when Cope is introduced on Saturday (Sunday) during the driver line-up for the Xfinity race by Jim Mueller for the TreatMyBloodClot.com 300 race, many of his duties will be left out. Mueller will mention his Daytona win, and job as an owner and driver. But he will leave out “engine specialist/salesman/marketer/shocks and whatever-else-comes up guy.”
“I love it,” said the 57-year-old driver whose first Cup race was the 1982 Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway. “People ask all the time why do I keep doing this?
“It’s a privilege. It’s fun. To get up each day and be excited about your job, that’s a gift. The long nights at the shop, on the phone, doing everything. Then I get behind the wheel, put earphones in, put that helmet on and drive that race car? That’s the payoff. The thrill of that has never gone away,” he added.
But an incident earlier this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway certainly tested that resolve. Cope’s car failed to qualify when he suffered mechanical issues and he hit the wall. Because of his team’s limited budget (as compared to Xfinity teams operated by Cup teams), he was forced to move on to Phoenix and work on the car before the race.
Cope finished 31st in that race before moving west across the desert to Fontana.
As a veteran of the industry, Cope understands the importance of Saturday’s race. After all, Fontana is the home base for E-hydrate, which is an associate sponsor for Cope during the series’ West Coast swing. E-hydrate is launching a new natural protein and joint health product: Active Protein On-the-Go.
However, unlike other teams in the NASCAR garage, it’s not all about big bucks.
“The motivation isn’t money,” said Elyshia Cope, Derrick’s wife, who also has multi-role titles for Derrick Cope Racing. “Trust me. There’s no money in this. This is a great way to go bankrupt. But he loves it. I love it. That’s why we keep showing up.”
Cope also understands the premise of just being at the track.
“This sport is out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “If you go away, you lose any momentum you’ve ever had. If you go away for a little while, you go away forever. I couldn’t let that happen, so I did what I had to do.”