KINGSPORT, Tenn. – Danny Rollins remembers the days when NASCAR drivers worked on their own cars and struggled to gather enough money to compete in just one race.
That’s one reason why Rollins cringes at the current state of the sport.
“You’ve got a lot of what I call computer racers with rich fathers coming in,” Rollins said. “They just show up with a helmet bag and jump into the car. I liked seeing drivers who could mount their own seats, decal their cars and just help out their team.”
Following a 15-year-run as a crew chief in the NASCAR Cup and Truck series, Rollins stepped away from the never-ending road show in 2009.
Rollins, 47, is now part of the colorful cast at Kingsport Speedway where he guided 32-year-old Zeke Shell of Johnson City to the Late Model track title last season.
From open trailers to multi-tasking mechanics, Rollins appreciates the scene at Kingsport.
“I’m having fun,” said Rollins, a native of Lebanon, Tennessee. “There’s a lot of talent around here and everyone puts in work. You see crewmen from different teams helping to push cars through the pits and pitching in after a wreck. It’s kind of like one big family.”
There’s another reason why Rollins prefers the off-Broadway atmosphere found at NASCAR Whelen All-American Series tracks.
“I like this level a lot better because it’s less political,” Rollins said. “When you get into the higher divisions of the sport, it’s more of a horse and pony show. Kingsport is about grassroots racing where you can actually kick back and enjoy it while not being on edge so much.”
The resume for Rollins features eight wins and 81 top-10 finishes in 220 truck starts with drivers like Bobby Hamilton, Joe Ruttman, Bill Lester and Joey Logano. Rollins also worked with Hamilton for two Cup races in 2005.
According to Rollins, Hamilton fit the template of a hardcore racer. Hamilton, who lost his parents at a young age and quit school at 13, earned a Cup win at Martinsville Speedway in 1998 for the Abingdon-based Morgan-McClure Motorsports team. He died of cancer in 2007.
“Bobby drove a wrecker and he would use that wrecker to pull his race car to the race track,” Rollins said. “If he blew a motor during a race, and then he would get the motor out of the wrecker and put it in the race car. I’ve seen and heard so many stories of the sacrifices guys used to make.”
Rollins developed his skills at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, but there was nothing normal about his path to NASCAR’s main stage. This welder, pipe fitter and connoisseur of hot rods got his start when a customer asked him to weld together a chassis.
“The man started asking me to come to the track and help him,” Rollins said. “After a few trips, I met a guy from Sadler Racing. I had never changed tires before, but he hired me to be their fabricator and front tire changer. Things just kind of evolved from there.”
The Nashville-based Sadler team, which was not affiliated with longtime NASCAR Cup and Xfinity racer Elliott Sadler, fielded entries for drivers such as Ed Berrier, Chuck Bown and Jeremy Mayfield.
With 5:30 a.m. wakeup calls in far-flung motels to marathon days in the pits, Rollins paid more than his share of dues.
“I was traveling all the time,” Rollins said.
Rollins recently took a trip down memory lane courtesy of a YouTube video clip of a 2001 truck race won by Ruttman at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, Colorado.
“It was over 80 degrees that day,” Rollins said. “As we were taking the motor apart, we were told to get all our equipment loaded on the truck up because a big storm was coming. I thought it was a rain storm, but it snowed over eight inches that night.”
From placing live armadillos in the hotel rooms of crew members to an assortment of other pranks, Rollins came away from his NASCAR journey with countless memories.
“We had plenty of good times,” Rollins said. “Things are just too political now.”
The last stop for Rollins in NASCAR was in 2009 with the closure of the Martinsville-based HT Motorsports team owned by trucking company owner Jim Harris. Around 2011, Rollins agreed to work with Zeke Shell and his free-spirited father, Pat, at Kingsport Speedway.
“I was kind out of racing and didn’t want to scratch that itch again because I was afraid what might happen, but I have fun working with Zeke and being around the track each week,” Rollins said. “This team will do whatever it takes to run fast and I like to watch Zeke make progress.”
In addition to being a track champion, Zeke Shell is a car builder who often works from 7 a.m. until midnight in his shop.
When he’s not at the track, Rollins operates Gear Headz Customs, an automobile accessories business in Johnson City.
“I might look at getting back in [NASCAR] if the right opportunity came about,” Rollins said. “I miss the days in NASCAR when there was camaraderie between a driver and his crew. The sport has changed so much.”