In 1994 NASCAR announced a new racing series to their successful circuit. It would be known as “The NASCAR SuperTruck Series.” Richard Childress along with many of the top owners in the sport fielded entries for the inaugural season, but it would be Childress along with a new driver to RCR who would win the first series championship. We caught up with Mike Skinner recently who discussed his championship season as well as being the first teammate to Dale Earnhardt.
How did you get hooked up with Richard?
“It’s a crazy story and Richard has tried to tell it a couple of times, but he’s never got it completely right. I was working for Gene Petty (Richard Petty’s first cousin), building late models and ran a lot against Mike Dillon when he was racing. We were up at Motor Mile (New River Valley) there was a big crash, I was running second or third. I wouldn’t come in to the pits because I was broke and needed that money. There was a hand full of laps left in the race. Dillon went and told Richard “that guy was crazy and tough; he’s relentless and does a lot with a little.” He said that I was one of the guys he should look at to drive the truck next year. He called me one day; I was working day and night on a BUSCH car. I had no idea they were building a truck series. He said “I want to know if you’re interested in driving my truck next year,” well hell I thought he was talking about a transporter. I said I appreciate it Richard I’m not interested, but if Dale calls in sick, give me a call I’ll come drive the No. 3 car. I then hung up.
“A few weeks later I learned about the truck series, I was like ‘oh my gosh, Richard Childress asked me to drive for him and I was so stupid I didn’t understand it.’ I called him asking if he found a truck driver yet. He laughed and said ‘No, you want to come over and talk to me?’ I went over and he gave me the fifty cent tour, and I never made over $30,000 in my life. Richard offered me the job, and I asked ‘How much does it pay if I take this?’ he said, “I don’t know we could probably start you out around $120,000 and 40 percent of the purse.’ I just wanted to reach across and kiss him. I put my poker face on and never even let him know I flinched. He walked me to my truck and I accepted the offer.
“To this day we are good friends. We’re pretty good friends when I was an employee, but we’re probably better friends now that I don’t work for him.”
When you first heard they were going to race pick-up trucks, what went through your head?
“I knew there was another outfit who tried to run trucks at Daytona and Talladega. They had no success, and I thought if this is Bill France’s baby and there were four guys out on the west coast who had built some trucks and presented them to NASCAR. I thought if NASCAR had gotten involved with it and Bill France wanted it to work, it was going to work this time. Then I got to thinking about the kind of race team I was going to be working for, because I was always the chief cook. We cleaned the toilets, drove the hauler, built own engines, bodies etc. We built our own stuff because I had to. The thought of actually being a driver…I didn’t know how to act. The first five or six months, I was probably the first guy there and last guy to leave every day. I’m wanting to drill holes and light stuff up, there’s Will Lind and those guys building Cup cars, I’m like we need to build short track stuff. I came to work one day, Will Lind called me into his office and said ‘We’re gonna fire you as a mechanic. I want you to start acting like a race car driver.’ I asked how do they act? He says, ‘You know, stay up late, get drunk, play golf…you know…a race car driver.’ I said, I don’t know how race car drivers are supposed to act, but I’ll give it a shot….Be careful what you wish for buddy, because I’ll probably be pretty good at this. We had a lot of fun and a lot of success.
What was the difference we had that the other big teams didn’t?
“We had Todd Berrier, Jessie Coke, Will Lind, Rich Burgess etc. We had a freakin’ all-star team, we had the deck stacked. We had one of the best chassis men in the business and Todd Berrier was my shock guy. I just really got some chemistry there for a while; we butted heads at first and had some issues about chassis. I kind of knew what I wanted, but they were trying to set it up like the No. 3 car short track stuff. I was like, that’s all fine and dandy, but when that doesn’t work lets put my stuff in it. Once we all got the right sparkplug wires on the right plugs, we were unstoppable.”
What was it like running on the short tracks throughout the United States?
“Back then it wasn’t all that unnatural for me, Hornaday, Sprague, Butch Miller and those guys. Those tracks are what we cut our teeth on; I used to go to Bakersfield and Carson City and Altamont etc. The only track that I ran on very much that NASCAR went to was Bakersfield. We went to all these places where I’ve never raced before. It really wasn’t that unnatural for us to do that, the unnatural part was I was there with a ton of horsepower and talented people surrounding me.”
“I-70, Flemington, Topeka…man if I live to be 100 years old I’ll never forget those places. They were so iconic to me and NASCAR and RCR. We would go to these places for the first time and win. We went to Japan three times and I won two of them. Anywhere we went that NASCAR had not been to, RCR always did really well.”
Did you feel pressure that you had to preform?
“I think so, we went to the winter heat race and sat on the pole by half-second and in 20 laps I thought I was going to get lapped. That was the first night of my whole career, I drank an O’Doul’s I’d always drink a couple beers the night before a race. I went and shot a couple games of pool and drank an O’Doul’s, was in bed by nine o’clock and never got a minute sleep then ran like shit. The next time Richard came out and asked how I normally prepared for a race. I said I’d go out have a couple beers, nice meal and try to stay up till about eleven o’clock at night. Well, that crazy fool took me out till two or three o’clock in the morning, we got back to the motel and I was trashed. We went out and qualified third, I was so pissed because we qualified third. I think we then lapped everybody but two or three trucks that day…we killed them. He goes ‘Now we know how to prepare you to race on Saturdays.’ We made a joke out of it. As times went on and we got more serious about things and got closer to winning a championship, I think Richard wanted me to change more than I was willing to change. I’d go horse riding, motorcycle and four-wheelin’; he was like “we don’t need you getting hurt.”
What was going through your mind as you got down to the final races in the Truck Series championship?
“I wasn’t really freaked out about it I had won some championships in late models, Gene Petty and I had won a championship a year before I went to work for Richard. My motto was if you win enough races, the points will come, so you just go to win every week. You try to win practice, sit on the pole, lead the most laps and win the race; if you do all that you’re going to be better. I’ll never forget when we were at Sears Point (Sonoma) we were leading the race and Hornaday was beating the back bumper off the truck. Richard and Will both were telling me to pull over and let him by. I said we can beat him, they said he’s gonna spin you out. He needs you to loose points right now. I pulled over, never forgot it, never got over it, but I did and won the championship. We won Bakersfield, went back and Ernie Irvan was racing the crap out of me at Phoenix, Richard comes on the radio “Mike what are you doing? You only have to finish 16th, get out of the way,” I was like bullshit, we won the first one and we’re gonna win the last one. They were trying to make a better racer out of me and I should have listened a little bit more, I might have been a better driver and Cup driver if I had lost that championship by being so hard headed.
“It’s funny, when you get mentally where you need to be a good Cup driver you’re almost too old physically. That’s kind of what happened to me, I got a late start, had some bad wrecks and my body was so beat up. After I left RCR, my mental capacity to be a Cup driver increased 100 percent. I learned so much, by then I wasn’t in that great stuff anymore.
Was there a sense of pride in running the No. 3 with Goodwrench?
“There was an enormous feeling over that iconic thing and at first was really hard, there were a lot of naysayers because there were a lot of people who didn’t want to see Mike Skinner’s name above that black No. 3 with Goodwrench down the side of it. We had some issues, some fans upset and I don’t think Dale was too thrilled about it. Richard told me one time, “you go establish your own identity, he has his…He’s Dale Earnhardt, you go be you and win races and you do that number and sponsor proud. You establish your name and identity as that guy in that black No. 3 in the Truck Series.” And that’s what we did. Will Lind called it a 20-year overnight success story because I worked hard for 20 years and overnight I was a superstar. I was always the proudest guy on the planet to climb in the window of that truck. I think that was one of the things that motivated me to run as well as we did and to win as much as we did, because I had to do that truck right. Otherwise everyone would say “Told you shouldn’t have put that loser in there.”
Finally, what advice would you give to your younger self?
“When people tell you how to maintain yourself, know when to hold em’ and know when to fold em’. Listen to that and learn how to make your own way. I ran too early in the race then had all my stuff wore out at the end of the race. Now days that’s how you have to run, in those days you needed to have something at the end and I always used mine up.”
What do you think the best advice Richard has ever given you?
“Two things. One: We’re winning races left and right and he said this sport is easy when everything is going right. You’ll find out how tough you are and your team is when you go out and wreck three or four weeks in a row and I’m mad and the sponsor is mad, you’ll see if you can come back from that. The other thing he told me is, while you’re making decent money put something back, get your stuff paid for and think that that you’re literally a right front tire away from disability. While you’re making hay, make sure you’re taking care of yourself for a rainy day.”
“Richard is definitely one of the two or three…maybe the only one who started with nothing that’s still there and has made it all in racing. It didn’t come in having 100 car dealerships or the richest guy in the world as a partner like now in days.”