When Jerry Robertson was twelve, thirteen years old, he used to climb into his Uncle Bob's stock car at the old Englewood Speedway, hoping to get his future in gear but quick. "Lemme hot-lap the car," the towheaded kid would plead. Every time, Uncle Bob just grinned and shot a knowing glance at his brother Odie. "You think I'm crazy? Jerry, you're gonna have to wait."
Three decades later, the waiting is still not over.
That's not to say that Robertson, who lives in Arvada, hasn't made a mark in stock-car racing. In the first dozen years of his driving career, which began when he was nineteen, he racked up 126 wins on some very hard-banging dirt tracks in Colorado and the Carolinas. As a head welder, fabricator and foreman for some of the top racing shops in the NASCAR-crazed South, he helped build Winston Cup cars for the likes of Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt and Buddy Baker, all the while soaking up the finer points of chassis design and engine tuning from the smartest old boys in the game. He's raced at stock-car shrines like Martinsville and Nashville. He's run at Phoenix International and the Milwaukee Mile. For five years, he traded paint at the Southern Dirt Nationals in Travelers Rest, South Carolina -- a place even a Yankee can find on the map if he looks hard enough. Robertson beat his old North Carolina roommate, future Winston Cup star Ernie Irvan, so many times on the half-mile dirt at Concord that it got comical. In 1988 alone, he started 64 dirt-track races on the Southern circuit.
Since moving back home to Colorado in 1989 and switching to asphalt in 1994, the hero of our story has become a hero to hundreds of other people, too. You'll find them on Saturday nights sitting on the plain steel bleachers at Colorado National Speedway, thirty miles north of Denver, near Erie. This is the small-time, three-eighths-mile paved oval where Jerry Robertson has become a condition of life -- as familiar as a cold Bud, a grilled turkey leg or the pre-race prayer that booms through the track loudspeakers, imploring the Almighty to "stay back the weather, give the pit crews wisdom and guide each of us to the checkered flag of life."
"He's the best there is," says longtime fan Bob Fitch. "He's fearless and consistent, and he never loses his concentration." Not everyone in the stands loves Robertson, of course. Truth be told, some of the fans absolutely hate him -- in the way some people hate the New York Yankees. But no one could imagine Saturday night without the man they call "J.R." Because Robertson and his silver, red and blue Number 75 Late-Model Chevy Monte Carlo virtually own the place.
The astonishing numbers: Since the 2000 season, when Robertson redesigned his current chassis and Dave Capriotti of DC Racing Engines built him his first competitive motor, he has started 81 Late-Model A-Main events at Erie. He's won 45 of them. His ten victories in 2000 earned him the track championship as well as his first NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series Northwest Regional Championship. Last year he won eleven races and his second NASCAR regional crown. This spring, the 75 car has hit the winner's circle five times in six races. On May 30, Robertson edged the number-eight car of Bear Lynch at the finish line by a coat of paint. Last Saturday night he started ninth, worked his way up through the field, ran door-to-door for the lead with Scotty Backman for fifteen laps and won the race by a scant two feet.
After taking the checkered flag, Jerry Robertson took home $1,500. Not Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s kind of payday. Nothing that would rev Jeff Gordon's motor. But $1,500, nonetheless. The Robertson team has cash sponsors, but they don't cover expenses. J.R.'s got to buy parts. He needs a new set of Hoosier racing slicks -- that costs $444 -- every Saturday. He has to feed the crew and fill the tank and keep up the hauler. It's not easy, and the hours are killing. But winning is enough to keep him coming back for more. Just like Uncle Bob used to do. Just like his father, Odie, a Denver-area racing legend of the '60s and '70s who once ran a big-time race at Riverside, California.
"If I couldn't be in the hunt every week," J.R. says, "I'd find something else to do."
As it is, the 42-year-old husband and father of three teenagers already holds three other jobs to make ends meet. He sells alarm systems for a security company. A couple of months ago, he got a real estate license. And since 1991, he's run Jerry Robertson Racing, a trophy-and-champagne-bottle-crammed shop on the outskirts of Brighton where, among the bent, untidy carcasses of half a dozen race cars, he spends thirty or forty hours a week working on his own Chevrolet as well as rebuilding, repairing and tweaking equipment for other local drivers. Think you're busy? On Monday, June 7, Robertson endured the painful ordeal of passing three kidney stones. By Wednesday afternoon, he was back at work, doing double duty in business, and spent all of Thursday afternoon and evening in the shop. Friday, more of the same. On Saturday night, he buckled himself into the 75 car and drove forty hard laps for the win. Then he and the crew hauled everything back to Brighton, waiting for next week.
If there's something he's used to, it's waiting.
After a four-year apprenticeship at Colorado dirt tracks, Robertson moved in 1985 to Charlotte, North Carolina, leaving behind his wife and family, hoping to make the bigtime. "I always wanted to be a Winston Cup driver or a Busch driver for a living," he says, "but you never know what's going to happen." What happened, as Robertson tells it, is that he stayed too long on the dirt. By contrast, his old friend Irvan got hooked up in asphalt racing, made the right connections and moved on to NASCAR fame. In 1991, Irvan hit the heights by winning the Daytona 500. Meanwhile, Robertson kept a promise to his wife, Debbie, and returned to Colorado after five years in the Southern school of hard knocks. He had lots of wins on his resumé, but he didn't get a break. Sponsorships fell through. Teams changed plans. While dirt racing stayed in Robertson's blood -- and his team owner's -- pavement became the big thing, and he missed the shift until it was too late.
Since 1990, he's had a few cups of coffee, as baseball players say. In 1997, he raced at Phoenix International and was leading the rookie standings in the Southwest Tour Series when he was offered a gig as a replacement driver for Doug Hevron in the first-ever Busch Series race at Las Vegas Speedway -- as long as he brought along $10,000 to pay for his own tires. He out-qualified such big names as Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte, Mike Wallace and Michael Waltrip, and worked his way up to seventh in the race. But the car broke, and he finished 22nd and was relegated to the footnotes. Since then, Robertson's had a couple of Busch Series starts in non-competitive equipment, including a sniff of the action at Pikes Pike International Raceway, but in 2000 he faced his facts and decided to concentrate on the Late-Model Series at Colorado National, despite the long hours and the short money.
"The reality is that I'm probably not going to get that one great opportunity to move up because of my age," he says. "At 42, I'm considered old for the sport, even though I think I'm a better driver now than I've ever been. Yeah, I have regrets about the turn in the road my career took, but that's the way it is."
His immediate goals are to win another regional NASCAR championship -- that comes with a $40,000 bonus -- and the national Dodge Weekly title. That's serious money -- $175,000 to $200,000 -- and it's within reach. Robertson finished fourth in the national points rankings in 2003, and he's the current leader this year in an elaborate NASCAR rating system called the Competition Performance Index. For the moment, at least, that makes him the best short-track driver in the United States -- despite the nasty things outspoken fans of Colorado National rivals like Roger "the Iceman" Avants or Bruce "the Moose" Yackey may have to say about him. "Robertson's the only driver out here I boo," says Avants man Jim Streeter, who says he's been going to the races for 46 years. "He knows how to set up a car. He don't have to do the dirty stuff he does to win." "He's a cheater," says Ray Hallman, who roots heart, soul and sparkplug for Bear Lynch. "They just ain't caught him yet."
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Jerry Robertson smiles at such accusations. Stock-car racing fans are famously loyal to their favorite drivers, and their conspiratorial turn of mind might amaze filmmaker Oliver Stone. But they are also family-values people, so even the most wild-eyed Rick Smith or Roger Avants rooter would have to love Robertson's reason for living these days. That would be Darren Robertson, J.R's only son, a skinny, towheaded eighteen-year-old who lives and breathes car racing, just like his daddy and his grandaddy and his great-uncle before him, and who dreams, more than anything, about one day taking the green at Daytona and Talladega and Rockingham. "Yes, sir," he says. That's the only thing I want."
"That national title would be nice," Jerry Robertson says. "It would be great to have enough money to help my kid along. That's what I'm really working on now: Darren. He needs a good education and skills to fall back on. As I know, you can't count on making it in big-time racing. But I'll do everything I can to help him, with what I've learned and the people I know. I'll just try to steer him better than I was steered. And I'll stop driving myself when I can no longer open doors for him."
Little matter that last Saturday night young Darren Robertson, wearing his grandfather's old racing helmet and running just the third event of his life, slammed his Grand American Modified car into the wall during the trophy dash and, after two hours' worth of frenzied repairs, wrecked it again in the Modified Main. As of Monday morning, his father was undeterred. "It was the first time he got roughed up," Robertson says, laughing gently. "He hit the driver's side hard and got the wind knocked out of him. But that's racing. That's how you learn. I'm proud of him. He's ready to go racing again. That's what he loves."
From the fall of the green flag to, well, the checkered flag of life.