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Charismatic Gaughan is a racer at heart


By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

A bubbly personality and an upbeat attitude quickly endear NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan to most race fans. What lies below the surface is a will to win that matches the tenacity of a pit bull.

Sure Gaughan is a nice guy, but don't be mistaken into thinking this nice guy is ever interested in finishing last. He's always been a winner, from the off-road racing machines to the NASCAR touring divisions like Winston West to the Truck Series.

Teamed with Rusty Wallace, a former Cup Series champion, and Ryan Newman, the most frequent race winner in 2003, Gaughan is in a position to make big things happen in his racing career as a Nextel Cup Series rookie. He looks to Newman and his recent domination of qualifying in America's top racing series as something his own team can shoot for.

"He's a great driver, but that's something that can help us get the pole a couple of times," said the pilot of the No. 77 Kodak Dodge. "(Crew chief) Shane Wilson is going to take some of the information from his car and put it on our car and we will win a pole at one of these races. That's what's great about being his teammate, is how he helps me out. He helps the whole program out."

The Penske team working together was never more evident than the series recent stop at Bristol. As expected, Newman won the pole. Meanwhile, Wallace started the race from the fourth position and Gaughan lined up seventh.

No driver in the garage has quite the background of Gaughan, the son of a Las Vegas casino owner. His dad, Michael, was a noted car owner in desert racing. Years ago a young Rick Mears, before becoming a four-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was the number two driver on the elder Gaughan's race team. Brendan grew up idolizing the desert racers and won the first off-road race he entered at age 15. Racing was put on hold in the mid-1990's as Brendan excelled in two other athletic arenas. He was an all-conference football player for Georgetown University and also played on the basketball team under legendary coach John Thompson.

His roommate on the Hoya basketball team was future NBA superstar Allen Iverson, whom Gaughan was often given the task of guarding during practice. Still, it would not be the court or the field, but the race track where Gaughan would get the opportunity to make it to the highest level.

After winning more off-road titles, Gaughan moved to NASCAR competition in the late 90's. He even worked for a while as an instructor at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In 2000 and 2001, Gaughan drove the No. 16 NAPA Chevrolet to championships in the Winston West Series, where cars are identical in specs to Cup Series machines. He moved up to the Craftsman Truck Series in 2002, grabbing Rookie of the Year honors. In 2003, he won a series-high six wins and was leading the series points heading into the last contest of the season at Miami, before being caught up in a late race accident.

His quick progression up the racing ladder caught the eye of car owner Roger Penske, a former champion racer in the Trans-Am Series and one of the most successful car owners in auto racing history. Driving for Penske is a dream come true for Gaughan, following the footsteps of such racing immortals as Bobby Allison, Al Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and of course, his boyhood hero Mears. "I grew up being the biggest fan of those guys in the world," said Gaughan. "To say that my helmet is on the shelf next to Rick Mears, and Emerson Fittipaldi's helmets is amazing to me."

Driving for Penske has obvious benefits on the track as does driving for team co-owner Doug Bawel, the man behind Jasper Engines. Gaughan has now learned how that influence extends beyond the speedway. He recently helped to promote the release of a new action movie, "The Punisher" and attended the film's Hollywood premier.

"This is so exciting," said Gaughan. "You never think about specific things like working with Kodak and hanging around movie stars. It's something out of our world and it's neat to be a part of it because without being a part of the Penske-Jasper team, I wouldn't have a chance to do that."

When Gaughan looks around the Nextel Cup garage, he sees familiar faces from the desert. A ton of publicity has been given to the influx of sprint car racers now in stock car's top series, just as ten years earlier, the racing media focused on stars from the Midwestern-based ASA short track series. In the shadows, the trend of former desert racers like Jimmie Johnson, Robby Gordon, Casey Mears and Gaughan coming to race in NASCAR has been virtually ignored.

"It's not just now off-road racers making it in the big leagues," said Gaughan. "Look back at guys like Parnelli Jones and Rick Mears; they were off-road racers. There's a longer line of guys than you think. Right now, the biggest deal is you have a lot of guys coming to NASCAR from all aspects of the world of racing.

"The off-road racing just happened to have a stretch of some great drivers. I personally think it is the most fun racing you can do in your life. It makes great drivers as you learn how to save a race car and handle a car in out of control situations."

Although, he quickly states that his only racing this season will be in a Cup Series machine, the opportunity most NASCAR stars receive to drive other types of cars appeals greatly to the competitor in Gaughan.

"We all like to go back and race different cars," said the 28 year-old. "We all like to race the cars from our roots. You always want to go back and race a go-kart, if you were a champion go-kart driver. In Tony Stewart's case, you like to race sprint cars if you are a sprinter.

"I would love to go back and race in the desert. My brothers Mike and John still race in the desert. I love to go back out there and hang out with them. Mike won the desert championship last year.

"I used to run some dirt late model stuff. It's fun to be involved in that stuff, but right now I'm definitely not going to be doing any of that. Mr. Penske wants me to focus on my Nextel Cup career."






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