The accent gives it away immediately. Rick Crawford isn’t from around here. The Hall of Fame auto racer from Mobile, Ala., had never even been to Big Sky Country until last winter, when the Thornton family invited him to one of the most popular motorsports facilities in the northwest, Montana Raceway Park.
“In my career with NASCAR, I’ve raced all over the U.S., but I had to get the Rand McNally atlas out to find where Kalispell, Montana was,” he says with a smile.
Yet six months later, he’s still here and feeling right at home.
Crawford is the new face of Raceway Park, which is preparing for its 23rd season starting May 11. The track’s owners, Giles Thornton and his family, named Crawford manager in January in a move that builds on the track’s strong reputation with an acclaimed racing pedigree.
Crawford’s career spans more than 30 years of professional competition at renowned sites like Daytona and Talladega. He holds the record for the most races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series — 316 — and earned 160 top-10 finishes. He finished second in the NASCAR Truck Series points standings in 2002. In 2007, Crawford became the first auto racer to be inducted into the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame, joining an esteemed group of local sports icons such as Hank Aaron and Kenny Stabler.
He still competes on a limited basis, but he’s shifted his focus to mentoring, coaching and now managing. Before moving to Montana, he managed Mobile International Speedway in his hometown.
“I have a passion for motorsports and always have,” he says.
When his crew chief called him last year and mentioned an opportunity at Raceway Park it peaked Crawford’s interest, so he traveled up in November. He said right away he was impressed by the quality facility and staff, and by the enthusiasm of racers and fans he met. USA Today named Raceway Park one of the 10 best short tracks in the country in 2000. The grandstands can hold more than 4,000 spectators, and the weekly events between May and September offer some of the largest cash purses in the region, including the Montana 200, which rallies more than 50 drivers from across the nation in pursuit of nearly $50,000 in winnings.
“It didn’t take much to make a decision,” he says.
“I see a great product here in Montana and I’m looking forward to getting the 2013 racing season started. I’m here to help the fans enjoy themselves. I’m here to help the racers put on a show, and we’re going to put on a show.”
He’s also here to help racers who have the same dreams he had when he was starting out at age 16.
“I want to build stars out of Montana Raceway Park,” he says. “And believe me, from the first time I set foot here, you got some characters here. And we’re going to build some characters here.”
The season starts May 11 at the quarter-mile track off U.S. Highway 93 with the Pepsi Cola Spring Opener, which will feature Super Stocks, Legends, Hobby Stocks, Bombers and Bandoleros. The event has a new twist that Crawford came up with: the entrance fee is $10 per vehicle instead of charging per person. It doesn’t matter how many people are crammed in and even motorhomes or buses are allowed, Crawford said.
The goal, Crawford says, is to introduce as many fans as possible to the excitement that takes place every week at Raceway Park.
“We want you to come out and enjoy our sport,” he says.
He’s also having a new two-tier fan deck built apart from the grandstands, where roughly 30 fans can experience a different view and setting during races.
On May 18, the Super Late models will vie for over $35,000 in cash prizes in the second annual G.E.T. Rich 212. The 23rd annual Montana 200 is July 18-20.
On Sept. 7, daredevil Bubba Blackwell will perform a spectacular jump on his motorcycle at Raceway Park, Crawford said.
For more information, visit www.montanaracewaypark.com, or call 257-7223.