WHAT'S UP WITH THAT - Walla Wallans keep NASCAR rollin'

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Dan Deeringhoff during NASCAR Nationwide Series Sam's Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, NV.

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Richard Childress and Dan Deeringhoff during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Bashas" Supermaket at Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix AZ.

About two years ago I was channel surfing when I caught my favorite wave - ESPN - and saw a NASCAR crew chief being interviewed. Now, I generally would move on as car racing isn't, well, baseball or football.

But on this day I noticed the crew chief's name - Dan Deeringhoff - and it rang a bell. Isn't he from Walla Walla?

As I asked around, I was told over time there are eight folks from Walla Walla who had moved to North Carolina - the center of the stock-car-racing universe - to work on NASCAR crews.

What's up with that?

Why would so many Walla Wallans move across the country to work on race cars? Who are all these NASCAR guys working in NASCAR shops or on Pit Row on race days?

Well, it turns out this cross-country migration can be traced directly to one man - Herb Bellmore.

Bellmore, who owned and operated Lusk Brake & Alignment Service at Alder and Colville streets, is now 72 years old and lives in a retirement community in Ryderwood on the west side of the state.

But in the early 1970s Bellmore took his interest in stock-car racing and a talent for fixing car suspension systems to build himself a career in racing and a reputation as an innovator in the sport.

He did this in garages and on tracks around the Pacific Northwest, which was a long, long way from NASCAR - and not just in terms of miles.

Bellmore isn't the only connection between those who have made their way from Walla Walla to the area in and around Charlottesville, N.C., to race, but it is the strongest.

If you connect the dots between those involved in NASCAR, several of whom live in the same neighborhood in the small town of Denver, N.C. (population 13,000), they lead back to Bellmore.

The first dot I connected was to Deeringhoff, who works for Richard Childress - a former NASCAR driver and owner of several race teams. Deeringhoff, 37, is crew chief for the No. 21 car, Zaxby's Chevrolet, driven by John Wes Townley. The No. 21 car competes in the Nationwide Series, which usually takes place on Saturdays. The Sprint Cup Series races are generally on Sundays.

Whether on Saturday or Sunday, this is the big-time - the major leagues of stock-car racing. And Childress is one of the biggest names in the sport.

When I finally got a phone call through to Deeringhoff at Richard Childress Racing, I found a man who was thrilled to be living his dream.

Deeringhoff, a 1991 Walla Walla High School graduate, was a sophomore in high school when he hooked up with Bellmore and his racing team.

Bellmore, from what I can piece together, was ahead of his time. While others were focused on beefing up engines to win races, Bellmore was into suspension and alignment. Winning races wasn't just about speed he figured, it was also about handling.

He was right as is evidenced by what is going on in NASCAR and other racing today.

Bellmore's race teams in '70s, '80s and '90s were good and his crew members were talented and highly regarded.

Deeringhoff learned from Bellmore a variety of skills, from suspensions to what it takes to be a winning crew chief.

"I get a big kick out of seeing how fast your cars can go," Deeringhoff said. And, he added almost as a tribute to his mentor, "I get a bigger kick out of seeing how to make a car handle" so it wins the race.

Deeringhoff didn't just work for Bellmore on his way up. He worked on several cars with many other teams.

In the mid-1990s, Deeringhoff joined a team led by brothers Jeff and Mark Krogh, who had the goal of eventually moving their team to North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR.

The Krogh brothers came to Walla Walla with the idea of eventually getting to the big time. Deeringhoff went with them to California before going to North Carolina.

Deeringhoff moved around within the NASCAR community as he worked his way up the ladder.

By 2008 Deeringhoff was crew chief for Clint Bowyer, who was driving for Richard Childress Racing. A NASCAR crew chief is a very high-profile and important job, it's like being the head coach.

"I am in the pits (on the radio) talking with the driver. Figuring fuel mileage with engineers and pit strategy," Deeringhoff said. "I call the race."

In 2008 Deeringhoff's team won the Nationwide Series. And it was because of this championship I saw Deeringhoff being interviewed on TV. Deeringhoff was all over the place at that time.

In an article for scenedaily.com (NASCAR News Now) titled "Crew chief Dan Deeringhoff quietly making impact at Richard Childress Racing," Childress talked about Deeringhoff.

"I think he's one of the silent crew chiefs," Childress said. "You never hear a lot about him or anything, but he's as solid as any crew chief out there. ... I'm just proud of what he's been able to do, and to lead the guys at the shop has really been a major deal."

When I talked to Deeringhoff he made it clear - very clear - that racing is a team sport, and that building a strong team revolves around trust.

And that is why two of the key folks on the No. 21 team are Walla Wallans Marlin Cornelius and Tony Hamm (who is Bellmore's grandson). Cornelius is the shop foreman and Hamm is the car chief, who is the right-hand man of the crew chief.

"In those positions, you have to have people you trust. We were all brought up the same with the same beliefs and it all works out," Deeringhoff said.

Those beliefs about racing started with, of course, Herb Bellmore.

Hamm, now 31, got his start in Bellmore's garage as a 13-year-old. The Walla Walla native picked it up quickly and made himself valuable on race teams, which is why he is also on the rise in NASCAR.

Cornelius, too, worked for Bellmore but not for a long period of time. Still, it apparently served as a solid foundation.

Cornelius is the shop foreman, who is essentially the lead mechanic who gets the car ready for race day.

Cornelius is a Walla Walla native who moved to Seattle as a young boy but came back when he was 21 and stayed for about 10 years. He had day jobs such as selling cars and mortgages, but he worked on race teams on the weekends.

"I love it," Cornelius said of the racing. "I always did it part-time. I got hooked on it."

About a decade ago Cornelius decided to move to North Carolina to race full-time. It was a struggle, personally and professionally, but Cornelius is, like the others, living his NASCAR dream.

He lives next door to Deeringhoff. They moved there before they worked at Childress Racing, which is headquartered about an hour away. Cornelius and Deeringhoff drive the hour together when they are both going to the shop. On race days Deeringhoff is at the track and Cornelius stays behind to get another car ready for the next race.

Living just around the corner from Cornelius and Deeringhoff is Marc Craig, another Walla Wallan and another man closely connected to Bellmore.

Craig, 48, was working at Walla Walla Motor Supply, which had a history of building stock-car engines. The first engine Craig did was for a Bellmore car, which won the race and set a track record.

"That really got the bug in me going," Craig said.

Craig soon had a reputation for building quality engines. Ironically, in those early years Deeringhoff and Cornelius worked for him at Walla Walla Motor Supply.

After Walla Walla Motor Supply on Alder Street was destroyed by a fire in 1998, Craig went out on his own and started Craig Performance Machine, which built stock car engines that were shipped around the county. His business on Walla Walla Avenue did very well, but it was all consuming. Working 12 or more hours a day was usual.

"When you own your own shop you have 50 bosses," he said.

After about eight years, Craig sold the business and took his engine-building talent to North Carolina. He's worked for several different racing teams since he's been in NASCAR country. He now works for an independent engine maker, where he runs the dynamometer, or "dyno," testing the engines.

He enjoys much about the racing world, including the competition. In this part of the country it is all about getting more and more out of engines.

"The racing is very, very competitive. It is easy to be a big fish in a small pond," Craig said, "but a lot of people are really good here. We are trying new things all the time. You really strive to be better. As soon as you think you have something you (find out) you are two months behind. These are very competitive people. That's something I really enjoy."

Marc's 23-year-old son, Rob, worked for his dad at Craig Performance Machine. He, too, is in North Carolina and doing well in NASCAR.

Rob is a mechanic on the No. 24 Hefty car in the Nationwide Series. He is a tire changer on race day, which is a difficult and much-sought-after job. Those who excel can make big money.

Marc Craig said he knows a tire changer making in excess of $200,000 working for Jimmie Johnson's car No. 48, which has won the Sprint Cup for the past four seasons.

Rob isn't there yet, but his skills in the shop and on the track have gotten him noticed.

Another who has been noticed in NASCAR is Travis Alexander, who also worked at Craig Performance Machine. Alexander is an engine builder and the engine tuner for the No. 19 Stanley Tools team.

When Alexander lived in Walla Walla he, too, worked with Bellmore on a race team.

In his current position with the car owned by racing legend Richard Petty and driven by Elliott Sadler, Alexander has a very important and stressful job.

"People literally lose their jobs if something happens that could have been prevented," Craig said. "If a spark plug wire falls off, there is a good chance you won't be working there on Monday."

Alexander apparently thrives under the pressure. He previously worked for the Target team where in 2007 his ear for engine problems was highlighted on the official NASCAR website.

"Noises. We've all heard them coming from under the hood at one time or another in our cars and trucks. But for Travis Alexander of Walla Walla, Wash., his ears are filled with the roar of engines every weekend.

"... Travis has a keen ear for diagnosing engine miscues and he knows it's nothing more than splitting possibilities down to only one. It only takes Travis about 30 to 45 minutes to change out an engine."

While that impresses most of us - at least it did me - Alexander sees it as just part of his job. His talent, he said matter-of-factly, was a result of "working all those years with Marc when I was younger."

Alexander, now 32, has nine years of experience in NASCAR.

"I like the racing, the comradery, the competition - and the traveling. We get to see a lot of places," Alexander said via cell phone as he, ironically, stepped off the plane in Dover, Del., to prepare for a recent weekend race.

Another pair of Walla Wallans working in NASCAR and living in North Carolina are Bob Heilbrun and his son, Jori.

And, while they never worked directly for Bellmore, they are still connected to the Bellmore line.

The Heilbruns are friends with the Hamms, the family of Bellmore's daughter, Debbie Hamm, including grandson Tony. That relationship helped Bob and Jori get established in NASCAR when they left Walla Walla about four years ago.

Bob is currently a mechanic for Red Horse Racing, which has trucks in the NASCAR truck series. One of the trucks he worked on, the No. 17 truck driven by Timothy Peters, recently won the race in Daytona.

Last August, when Heilbrun was working Red Horse's No. 11 team, this is what the company said about him on its website:

"Hailing from Walla Walla, Washington, Bob Heilbrun was looking for a change in his life and he had a feeling North Carolina offered just what he was looking for. Heilbrun owned a Chevron station (at Rose Street and Second Avenue) in his hometown but picked up and moved all the way across the country to start a new life in NASCAR country. Friends helped him get a job in the Camping World Truck Series at Woodard Racing at the beginning of the 2006 season. After a year there, Heilbrun took his new found skills to Red Horse Racing for the 2007 season kick-off at Daytona International Speedway. In a short amount of time Heilbrun has become a tremendous asset to the No. 11 team, serving as a mechanic both in the shop and on the road."

The 44-year-old Heilbrun, like the others from Walla Walla, is thrilled to be working in NASCAR.

"I love it. I've loved racing since I was a kid," Heilbrun said.

His 22-year-old son has also found his niche in NASCAR.

Jori is working as a fabricator building car bodies for Michael Waltrip Racing. That's his weekday job. On the weekends, Jori is a tire changer like Rob Craig.

"It is really dangerous, but it's pretty cool to watch. They are definitely athletes when they go over the wall," said his dad.

The gang from Walla Walla is supportive of each other in their NASCAR careers and they are all good friends off the track.

"On the weekends when we are not racing we are all out on the lake (together) playing," Bob Heilbrun said.

And that's pretty much the same story I heard from Deeringhoff, Craig and the others. They all have a common bond. They all share a passion for racing, which brings us back to Bellmore.

That passion for racing, as well as the success of all his "boys in big-time NASCAR racing, is a great source of pride for Bellmore.

That success, he said, doesn't surprise Bellmore one bit.

These "smart kids," as Bellmore calls Dan Deeringhoff, Marc Craig and Tony Hamm, clearly had something special beyond the passion for cars and for racing. They could all absorb information about cars and racing as fast as it was given to them.

And as Deeringhoff worked alongside Bellmore he demonstrated the makings of a solid crew chief.

"Danny, I knew, was going to be a crew chief - he was going to be a good one. He is a very honest, thoughtful individual," Bellmore said.

Bellmore said he tried to teach him about all aspects of the sport from making the cars handle properly to the importance of being competitive.

"I taught him how to win. That's what you have to learn first - you have to have that attitude and desire," he said.

He taught this to others, too. If not for that desire - and a lot of skill and knowledge provided by Bellmore - these Walla Wallans wouldn't be living their NASCAR dream.

And after having an opportunity to talk with these men, I have an appreciation for their talents as well as NASCAR. So now when I'm channel surfing, I've found myself stopping to watch NASCAR races now and then - and always with an eye on seeing how the Walla Walla guys are doing.

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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