OLD SCHOOL: Fleming Ready For Next Chapter Of Career
Frank Fleming couldn't help but chuckle when his crew chief garnered more attention at a recent NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour autograph session than he did.
His brother Chris, who serves as the crew chief for the No. 40 Lewisville Motors Ford that he drives, was one of the personalities featured on the popular History Channel television series “Madhouse” a few years ago. On that show, Frank Fleming only made brief appearances on his brother's crew at Bowman Gray Stadium.
So during the UNOH 150 autograph session at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Wednesday, Frank couldn't help but laugh at his brother's expense. “I've won more than 80 races in my career, and you've won – What? – one... two... three? They want to see you?” Frank asked he counted on his fingers with a wide grin.
But Fleming's career has been one that was easy to overlook. Despite more than 20 Modified feature wins in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competition at Bowman Gray Stadium, a record number of Whelen Southern Modified Tour starts and a brief stint in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Fleming has never won a championship of any kind.
Not that he's going to judge his own merits based on statistics.
“I'm probably the Mark Martin of Southern Modified Tour racing,” Fleming said. “I guess I've just never gotten enough points to win a championship.
“Maybe my championship will come as a car owner or a crew chief. I don't have to have that to be satisfied with my life as a race car driver. I came into this sport with nothing, and I started my own race team. I didn't take over from nothing, my father wasn't an ex-driver or anything like that. I started it myself. I was successful. I won a bunch of races. I got to do a lot of traveling, and I got to meet a lot of people – people who never would have known me if it weren't for racing.”
Fleming, 53, of Mount Airy, N.C., has started every race but one in the eight-year history of the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour. He's credited with one win at Bristol last year, and he's never finished outside the Top-10 in the final point standings. He joins Jason Myers as the longest-tenured Whelen Southern Modified Tour drivers.
Despite the 91 career starts and and sixth-place standing in the current point standings, Fleming will retire from full-time driving at the conclusion of this season. He intends to field a car for his nephew Luke Fleming – Chris' 25-year-old son – and is open to the idea of adding a second car to the mix if the right driver and funding can be found for 2013.
Fleming admits he's driven longer than he originally planned, in part because of his affinity for a NASCAR-sanctioned Modified series.
“I always said I was going to drive until I was 50 – why I picked that number, I don't know,” Fleming said. “I've always said that since my early 30s. I thought 50 would be forever, I reckon. Most people do.
“I've been successful, I've been fortunate. I've driven these cars for 33 years now, and NASCAR finally did what I had been trying to get to happen for many years – and that was start a Southern tour. I was 44 or 45 years old when it started. I wanted to run the Tour. That's something I always wanted to do was run a touring series under NASCAR.”
During his time on the Whelen Southern Modified Tour, Fleming has seen it grow. Car counts this season have been the best in the tour's history – averaging more than 20 cars each race – and the series' credibility is at an all-time high.
From the beginning, the series' success was important to him.
“I always wanted NASCAR to pick up our series. I felt they could take it to another level and make it better and better,” Fleming said. “It gives me something to still be involved with, and it also gives these younger drivers a place to go and learn and then move up to the higher levels.
“When I grew up, there wasn't a series I could afford to run. I was a part of the SMART (series) since in started, but I just think NASCAR has taken it to another level. We just raced at Bristol this past Wednesday. I'd like them to take it and see more, but on the other hand you've got to be careful. You don't want it to get out of the budget that guys like me have.”
Fleming's efforts grew from humble roots.
“Frank just represents the spirit of the weekly racers all over the country,” said Gray Garrison, general manager of Bowman Gray Stadium. “It's not just Bowman Gray, Oxford Plains or South Boston – or pick whatever your track is. All these tracks have the Frank Flemings. They stand out from the average Joes, and they make themselves stand out with the means they have.”
The closest Fleming came to a NASCAR championship was at Bowman Gray in 1988. That season, he won nine races and finished second in the final Modified standings. He also recorded several DNFs that year, a product of his “checkers or wreckers” attitude.
What he's learned over the years, he believes, will help Luke Fleming. Luke won a Tour race at Bowman Gray in 2009 – in his first of only two career starts.
“I could guide Luke to a championship from what I've learned,” Fleming said. “Last year (as crew chief) I brought Chris to a third-place finish at Bowman Gray Stadium, in what was probably his best year ever points-wise.”
Garrison admires Frank Fleming's competitive nature. Just as importantly, he admires his attitude off the race track, too.
“He's a fierce competitor. He wants to win,” Garrison said. “He'll put you in the wall, but then he'll get out and help you fix the car. That's just how he is. He doesn't give anybody an inch out on the track, but he'll also turn around and do anything he can to help anybody in the pit area. He's that kind of person.”
At the end of the 1988 season, Fleming turned his attention to trying to advance his career to the national level. He traveled extensively to Nationwide Series events trying to land a ride – which he finally did with a part-time deal in 1990 for car owner John Pharo. He qualified ninth and finished 20th in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, and also competed at Darlington, Nazareth and Hickory.
But by 1991, he was out of sponsorship and turned his focus back to being a Saturday-night racer. He started a family and an auto body business, running for 18 years for well-known car owner Wayne “Speedy” Thomas out of Martinsville, Va. He followed Jimmy Spencer, Tommy Houston and Satch Worley into the seat of Thomas' No. 07 cars.
With more than 50 career Modified wins on his resume, Fleming is now ready for the next chapter of his racing career.
“Anytime it's family involved, it's more fun,” Fleming said. “I'd never seen myself being my brother's crew chief until he came and asked me if I'd help him at Bowman Gray. I've had a lot of fun over the last four years. I've found a side to racing that I didn't know about.”
And despite all the wins, all the accolades and all the stops along the racing highway, Fleming remains proudest of one occasion among them all.
“When I'm 80 years old, I hope I'm at a NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour race,” Fleming said. “I will say, I helped get this series started. I ran the very first race. I was part of this.”