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By BRANT JAMES
Published February 18, 2005
ZEPHYRHILLS – David Reutimann thought he was in a safe place, leaning back hard in a chair behind the counter of his father’s backyard race shop. He thought he was free to enjoy the simple pleasure of a Dairy Queen sundae in the last few days before his life as a driver in the NASCAR Truck series got complicated again.
Of course, he was wrong.
“They weigh those trucks with the driver in there,” prodded his uncle, Wayne.
“Yes, yes they do,” Reutimann responded, dabbing another plastic spoonful of the soft-serve in his mouth.
“Watch out,” Wayne said, leaning on the counter. “Maybe you’re putting on some weight there.”
Reutimann, of course, wasn’t. And if he had added a few pounds in the sedentary few weeks since he was named the Truck series rookie of the year, they were spread over his lanky frame to avoid detection. But three generations of Reutimann men were gathered among the car parts and gray old-framed photographs of their brothers and fathers and uncles racing on long-gone tracks. When the Reutimanns collect over the open hood of a race car in the Reutimann garage or a cup of ice cream, they talk racing, and they needle each other.
It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you race. It just matters that you race, that you’ve dirtied hands wrenching on engines on countless Friday nights, had your hopes raised and dashed by a sponsor who never came through, felt both sides of racing luck. It’s love of family, a respect for a craft and a common passion that has permeated the family for more than 80 years.
“I think it’s really kind of special,” David Reutimann said. “Whether you’re winning a modified race at East Bay or a truck race or a sprint car race or whatever, you get a lot of respect because everybody’s doing it with very little sponsorship in a lot of cases out of hard work and dedication. I think there’s that mutual respect that we’ve all raced that way and we know how hard it is to win. Kind of a neat deal.”
No one really knows how the deal began, Emil F. Reutimann and family decided to immigrate to Tampa from Switzerland in 1920, but the story picks up when they moved to Zephyrhills and opened the Zephyrhills Auto Shop that in 1925 became the town’s first Chevrolet dealership.
“They came up, supposedly because they needed someone to work on automobiles – Model A’s,” Wayne Reutimann said.
Emil developed from a mechanic into a racer, and the desire to make cars go fast became a curiosity for his son, Emil Jr. On Sunday afternoons as far back as 1938, Emil Jr. and boys from the local filling stations would find an empty field outside of Zephyrhills and race until sundown.
Eighty years later, racing has taken the family far beyond those dusty fields. David begins his second season in the NASCAR Truck series tonight, starting 14th at Daytona International Speedway. His cousin, Wayne Jr., 27, races professionally in the USAC Silver Crown series. Cousin Greg, 36, drives open-wheel modifieds at local short tracks. Wayne, 60, who drove professionally for five years in the early 1970s, competes on the same circuit. Buzzie Reutimann, David’s father, is a legendary short-tracker who at 63 still gets that twinkle in his eye at a good story, a good car or a joke – often at one of the boys’ expense.
Emil L. Reutimann was born on May 7, 1941, and by all accounts, he came out racing. At least his mouth was.
“The nurse came over with me to my parents and said, “We’ve got a little buzz box here,”‘ Buzzie Reutimann said, smiling.
Agnes initially protested Buzzie racing in local circuits as a teen, but tolerated him working on cars as a 13-year-old. Gradually, Buzzie began sliding behind the wheel.
“After Buzzie got started, she didn’t say much about me getting going into it,” Wayne said. “She really accepted it by then.
One afternoon, Buzzie was working in a modified family car he was hoping to race, when his father strode by and snipped that it “was the nearest to nothing he had seen. In fact, it was double nothing,” Reutimann said.
The Reutimanns have raced under the OO number ever since.
Much of Buzzie’s statistical prowess is hard to quantify because of incomplete record-keeping. Records do show he raced in one Winston Cup event, Nov. 11, 1962, in the only race ever run at Tampa’s Golden Gate Speedway. He started 18th and finished 10th. Richard Petty won. Reutimann’s trophy case and introduction into the Dirt Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997 support his legacy, but not nearly as well as the testimonials of friends and fellow competitors.
“Buzzie Reutimann is a racer’s racer,” said Darrell Waltrip, who owns David’s truck team. “That was one of the reasons I liked David so much. He comes from racing bloodlines.”
The state fair just doesn’t do it for Wayne Reutimann anymore. Tilt-a-whirl, Ferris wheel. Not so much as a gasp.
At age 60, he still tows his sprint to East Bay, to Citrus County Speedway numerous times a week, running hard and sometimes beating son Wayne Jr. and talking the talk all the way back.
“People do different things for an adrenaline rush,” said Reutimann, who teaches shop at Zephyrhills High. “It’s just a high. People do crazy things to get that high and I guess mine is driving a race car. It’s one of the most exciting things in the world, I think. You can go out and drive a race car 160 mph wheel to wheel with somebody, and when you do that, I can go to the Florida State Fair down there and get on any ride and have it not be exciting.”
Wayne earned a living driving stock cars with Buzzie in the early 1970s, spending five summers traveling to tracks such as Nazareth and Reading, Pa., and East Windsor, N.J.
“When it got warm, they would have qualifying races in New York state for the big Syracuse race, 100-lap races,” Wayne said. “We ended up racing five nights a week, and this way you could sort of make a living out of it.
“Leave in April, go to New Jersey. We stayed on a dairy farm. Farmer was a fan and had a garage, raced all summer, last part of October they have big races. We’d come back to Florida in winter and build new cars.”
Though wife Anne, he said, would probably have him quit right now, he plans to compete until his sponsors or his reflexes say “no more.”
Dale Reutimann was going to be the one. He was building cars and winning races in his teens as older brothers Buzzie and Wayne raced short tracks in the northeast. Dale and Emil raced all over Central Florida, returned to the family garage to tweak and hone for the next race.
“If anybody would have made it, he would of,” Wayne said. “It’s unbelievable how quickly he adapted and he was doing it all himself.”
On the late afternoon of Sept.4, 1973, it all came to end. Dale and Emil were towing a car down U.S. 301 south of Zephyrhills when a drunk driver crossed the center line and struck their truck head-on. Emil, Dale and friend Gordon Stone were killed instantly.
“My mother died a month later of an aneurysm,” Wayne said. “We say she died of a broken heart. She just didn’t want to live after that. He was her baby and he was still living at home, and dad, of course; it was more than she could take.”
Everything might have been different had Dale lived, David Reutimann said. No one within the family’s racing circle seems to begrudge their lot in life, but they all might have made it had Dale broken through.
“My Uncle Dale was on track to being a NASCAR star,” he said. “They were kind of on the ground floor of that deal with Richard Petty and all those guys. I really, really think if his life would have continued, I really think it would have been different for a lot of us. I think it would have opened a lot of doors, just like it did for the Pettys and the Waltrips.”
Greg Reutimann wouldn’t have minded pursuing the same path as his cousins, father and uncle. But the circumstances were never quite right. The opportunity was not quite there, and neither was the all-encompassing drive.
So Reutimann owns a collision repair shop in Zephyrhills and has the coolest hobby, he said, on the block.
“I started out racing with David in ministocks at the same time but it just never did work out for me to make it a career,” he said. “He had a little bit different situation because he lived at the race shop and he was there all the time and it was his dad’s workshop.
“My dad, he would race for other people so we didn’t really have a race shop and a place to work in.”
Buzzie made sure Greg had an opportunity to learn, however, sometimes at the expense of his own preparations.
“My Uncle Buzz was great to me,” he said. “I know we had to get under his skin because we’d be in there working on our ministocks and we’d be asking him questions as he was trying to work on his own stuff. He was really great. I don’t think he ever yelled at us and I’m surprised, too, because I have kids now and I know what it’s like.”
Envy could come easy for Greg Reutimann. He’s the only member of the clan now racing who did not get to do so professionally. But he’s helping to raise a fourth-generation of drivers and he has never considered quitting racing as he does so. It just didn’t occur to him.
“I don’t know if I’m selfish or not,” he said, “but my dad’s always raced and my uncle always raced. We didn’t think of the danger of it, and we know our kids will one day race.”
Greg’s sons Garrett, 12, and Connor, 9, race with Greg and Wayne Jr.’s brother Jeff’s son Chance, 9, in karts. Jeff’s son, Reese, 7, will begin racing this summer.
David Reutimann can stride through the truck garage at Daytona International Speedway unnoticed except to friends and the most fervent of fans. Unassuming to the point of self-deprecation, Reutimann gives no inclination he considers his position more important than that of his family.
“I worked hard, but so does every other member of my family,” he said. “So I was just in the right place at the right time. They all have the ability to do it. I just happened to be the one that got noticed. It’s not that I did anything extraordinary, I just feel like I paid my dues and that’s kind of how it shook out.”
Of course, it’s hard to get too heady when Wayne Jr. is in the garage.
“He’s representing our family to the fullest. He’s taking advantage if his opportunity and a lot of people don’t take advantage of it,” he said. “All of us are completely happy and completely satisfied with the job he is doing. By no means would I tell him that to his face. He’s a chump and I tell him he needs to step up and win some races.”
Of course, David’s not going to let that one go. He and friend Brian Pattie, a Busch series crew chief, took the opportunity this week to harass Wayne Jr. as he was racing at New Smyrna Speedway.
“He gives me a lot of heat,” Reutimann laughed. “We have a lot of respect for each other, but that doesn’t stop us from giving each other a hard time. I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up because he’s so short and it goes on and on.”
Wayne Reutimann Jr., “Pookie” to his family, has a reputation to protect and a career to build. At 27, he’s the latest Reutimann to compete as a full-time professional. The USAC Silver Crown series is growing in prominence, but it’s by no means glamorous out in the dirt and the 30-lap shootouts. But it pays the bills if you win. And he does. And it destroys the alternative.
“I’m blessed to be able to drive a race car for a living,” he said. “I worked a real job. Getting up every morning and going to a real job is not me. I can’t do that anymore. I tried that and I’m not any good at it.”
He’s especially proud that hard work pays to put the parts in the car.
“The main misconception of our family is we have a lot of money – we don’t,” he said. “My father is a school teacher for God’s sake. How much money do we have? We traded a go-kart for a ministock. I pulled the vines out of an orange grove in order to buy a cam shaft so I could go race. By no means are we loaded.”
David is hanging out by the front door of his father’s garage, signing for a COD delivery of a car part, when the roar of an engine interrupts the still of the back yard. Reutimann gazes over shaking his head.
“He’s showing off,” he said. “He’s going to spin the tires and dirty that thing all up and he just washed it.
“I hope I have the same good love for the sport my dad has. He just has a love for it, that’s what keeps him driving.”
That keeps them all driving.