KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chris “Pops” Bowyer went to the mailbox the other day and fished out an envelope with a familiar name.
It was emblazoned with the return address: Clint Bowyer Autoplex, 2815 West Highway 50 , Emporia, KS.
“I chuckled carrying that back in,” said Pops, owner of Flint Hills Towing in Emporia, who had delivered some cars to be serviced at the dealership.
“I sent a picture of it to Clint, and said, ‘About time the money started coming back this way.’ ”
Expect more business from your son, Pops.
Long before Clint Bowyer became a NASCAR star, he and his brother, Casey, worked for the dealership, which was then Emporia Motors. He toiled in the parts department and the detail department, where he was trained to perform paint-less dent repair and remove hail damage.
And now he owns the place.
Last month, Bowyer and partners from the Davis-Moore Auto Group in Wichita bought Emporia Motors. On Thursday, while back home for Sunday’s Sprint Cup STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, he cut the ribbon at a celebratory grand opening that included appearances by Bowyer’s Sprint Cup car owner, Michael Waltrip, teammate Mark Martin and Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip.
The dealership is across the street from the Clint Bowyer Community Building, a $1 million, 6,500-square-foot facility that opened last year and is used for school functions, weddings, concerts, business meetings and watch parties for Bowyer’s races. It’s run by the county and was paid for through Bowyer’s 79 Fund — named for the number of his first dirt car.
“This is where I’m from,” said Bowyer, 33. “It’s fun to go back to your roots. It’s important to stay connected to those roots for me. That’s why we built the community building, to serve different purposes in the community.
“To be able to go back there and be a business owner.… Working at the dealership was truly the first job Casey and I had. It was probably the best job for me racing-wise. I could work my hours … I could go in and knock a day’s work out early in the morning, and if I had to leave to go racing, I could work nights if I had to. You know how racing is, if there’s a $5,000-to-win-show somewhere, we’re leaving.”
Cutting out early to race at Lakeside Speedway and other short tracks didn’t go over well with the 35 others in the shop, so Bowyer moved over to John North Ford and was assistant manager of the body shop when he received the famous call from Richard Childress following a 2003 ARCA race in Nashville, Tenn., where he finished second.
Bowyer nearly didn’t take the call, thinking someone was pulling a prank, but he got on the phone, took a trip to Charlotte, N.C., visited the Richard Childress Racing shop, and climbed the ladder with the organization. He won the 2008 Nationwide series championship before moving on to a successful Sprint Cup career.
“Clint’s progression from the dirt tracks of Kansas to being one of the elite drivers in NASCAR is one of those 25-year overnight-success stories,” said Michael Waltrip. “He got his chance to race in NASCAR, and he proved from the beginning he belonged there.”
Correction. Bowyer belongs to Emporia, even after winning eight career Sprint Cup races, finishing second in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2012 and amassing $43.9 million in prize money.
“It’s so important for him to give back,” said Sean Tarbell, one of the principals of the Davis Moore Auto Group. “He was so behind doing that community building, and this dealership is the same way. He wants to be a part of that town, he wants to be a business owner here and give back.”
Bowyer’s love affair with cars began when he rode shotgun with his dad on towing jobs and accompanied Creig Agler, a family friend and owner of Emporia Motors, on trips to the auto auction in Kansas City.
Agler taught him what to look for in used cars at the auction, what would sell and what wouldn’t. They bought cars with minor damage and Bowyer would repair them for resale.
All the while, his mind never veered from racing.
“That’s all he talked about,” Agler said. “That’s all he could think about. Driving his race car was the only thing that mattered to him. Period. His dream was to get to NASCAR. He’d watch it every Sunday on TV. But for a kid from Emporia, Kansas, that dream was probably never going to be reality.
“And then, he kept progressing. He was at the right place at the right time, was able to show his skills, the right person watched and the rest is history. Now he’s the million-dollar kid from Emporia, Kansas. “
Bowyer often wonders what might have happened had he not received that call from Childress.
“I would definitely still be working in and around dealerships,” he said. “I love being around cars. I’m a car guy. I have hot rods. … If I didn’t get that call from Richard, a lot of things probably would have been a lot different.
“Would I have ever made it to the Cup level? Who knows? But that opportunity did present itself, and we were able to take advantage of it.
“And because of things like that, I’m able to come back and do things like this.”
Bowyer stayed close to Agler through the years and told him if he ever felt like selling his dealership, he’d be interested. Sure enough, Agler, 50, wanted to scale back from a factory dealership and run his own used-car lot.
“He called out of the clear blue one day,” Bowyer said. “We got together, formed a partnership with the Davis-Moore group out of Wichita … friends of ours through the foundation, through our golf tournament we have every year.
“They helped me raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community over the last several years … I leaned on them, and they jumped at the opportunity.”
Bowyer has big plans for the Toyota/Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep dealership. There are plans to remodel the façade of the 19,000-square foot building that sits on 3.5 acres and to expand the service bays.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bowyer went on his first test drive with a customer, longtime friend Dennis Murphy, and sold him a truck.
“He said, ‘I’m going to get my first sale,’“ Tarbell reported. “We sold him a truck.”
A truck with a Clint Bowyer nameplate on the rear.
“I’ve sold my one vehicle, and they informed me I didn’t do a very good job if we want to stay in business,” Bowyer smiled. “So I’m going to leave that up to the professionals who know how to sell cars.
“Now I know who bought a car from me, and I take a lot of pride in seeing them driving down the road, in a Clint Bowyer vehicle, that’s pretty cool. I’ve always loved the concept of seeing new cars come in, and more importantly, see them go.”
Bowyer’s not alone among NASCAR drivers who own automobile dealerships. Former Sprint Cup champions Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett own dealerships, as do current drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Martin.
Bowyer’s involvement will bring home one of NASCAR’s oldest expressions, “Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday,” and there’s no place he wants to win more than at Kansas Speedway, where he finished a controversial second in 2007 and a frustrating sixth last October.
“Literally half my hometown comes up here to watch the race,” Bowyer said. “The Kansas City area … there are a lot of family and friends, and it’s just important to race well here.”
And just imagine what the town of Emporia would do if Bowyer won Sunday’s race. It can’t name a street after him. That’s already been done. Just ask Pops Bowyer.
“They changed the name of Graham Street in front of my shop for the last 40 years, and I wasn’t real happy about that.” Pops said, with a twinkle in his eye.
“They didn’t ask me when they wanted to call it Clint Bowyer Boulevard.”