January 18, 2006 Campbell, California By Stephanie Condon
"It's a real prestigious honor," says Campbell. "It just hit me when I got back from the big awards banquet in Las Vegas. All the head executives from NASCAR came out and my parents were there, and I realized what I achieved this year."
Campbell's accomplishment puts his name next to some of NASCAR's premier drivers. Racers such as Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick--household names to NASCAR fans--won the same title. Now they race in the Nextel Cup-- NASCAR's top racing series, previously referred to as the Winston Cup.
"At least for one year, I was equal to where they were," Campbell says.
Though he won Rookie of the Year for this series, Campbell, a San Jose resident, has been building up an impressive racing résumé for 12 years.
Campbell participated in road racing for 10 years--racing Vipers, Porsches, Corvettes, Mustangs and Camaros down long, winding roads. In 2001, Campbell was on the first-place team at the U.S. National Viper Championships. Before that, he won the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Solo II Regional Championships three years in a row. In 2002, Campbell won the National Auto Sport Association's CMC Season Championship and set six road race track records. He competed in the SCCA Pro Speed World Challenge in 2003, racing his Corvette C5R throughout the United States and Canada.
"Let's say you race from here to Santa Cruz down Highway 17," Campbell says, explaining what it's like navigating the curves and changing elevations of road racing.
In 2004, Campbell decided to take a shot at NASCAR stock car racing. He competed in NASCAR-type stock cars for the first time, racing the AC Delco Late Model Series in Tracy, where he was the Rookie of the Year runner-up.
Campbell says the NASCAR circuit has so much more going on.
"The bumping, the banging, there's so much more passing and action in the race," he says.
Since the company signed a deal five years ago to air its races on network television, NASCAR's television ratings have increased by more than 50 percent.
Campbell is right in the thick of it. What started as a hobby while he worked in marketing for an investment planning firm eventually grew into a career.
"It started off as something to do with your guy friends--get a few beers and some pizzas and work on your cars," Campbell says. "I had no expectations of being professional."
Amateur drivers learn to race by joining clubs and participating in autocrossing, says Campbell, who graduated from UC-Berkeley with a double major in psychology and biochemistry.
"It's almost looks like a driving school," he says. "You have to go as fast as you can around these cones, and it really teaches you car control."
Once Campbell started setting track records and winning championships at the amateur level, he started to think about becoming a professional racer. He turned pro four years ago.
"It hit me that maybe I was blessed from my parents with the racing gene, and this is what I should be doing," he says. "I started a little bit later than some people, but I'm living the dream now, and all this hard work is paying off."
Campbell's younger sister Christal, who has been a part of his racing crew for the past 10 years, says it came as no surprise to her that her brother decided to pursue racing professionally.
"He always strives for the best, and he never lets himself get down," she says.
Switching from road racing to oval tracks was a challenge, and to move so quickly up to the Southwest Series was a huge accomplishment for her brother.
"It took a lot of guts to do that," Christal Campbell says. "He really took the bull by the horns in doing that, and I'm really proud of him for it."
Campbell says that when he started, he wasn't sure he had what it took to race.
"You have to be pretty much crazy and be able to just turn off the fear," he says. "You have to be able to go 200 miles an hour into a corner with a guy 2 inches from your bumper and know that he's professional and not going to take you out."
Yet there is more to the sport than speed and dexterity, Campbell says. Strategy is equally important. For one thing, drivers need to be aware of the damage done to their tires by quick turns.
"If you're going into the corner a little bit faster, it's just like a cheese grater, it'll take the rubber off the car, and the car's going to be slower," he says. "You want to protect your equipment and save it for the end of the race."
Campbell hasn't built the foundations of his career on his own--he has a crew that he wouldn't be able to race without.
His sister is the team photographer and takes all the photos for his promotional materials. She is also the team scorer, who keeps track of Campbell's lap times in case the electronic system goes down. And she takes care of other tasks such as cleaning the car, strapping Campbell into his car and working on the tires.
Campbell's crew chief, Dino Fry, is a racer himself. He has the crucial job of prepping the car for a race.
"There are a lot of rules unique to Southwest tour," Fry says. "If you miss one thing you have to start at the back of the field."
Professional leagues also have high standards for safety equipment.
"Some of the crashes I've been in, I know 10 or 15 years ago, I would've been dead," says Campbell, noting how far the research has come in safety gear. "I've seen guys roll their cars at 200 miles an hour, and an hour later they're sitting around joking with you."
He says the biggest innovation in recent years has been the HANS (Head And Neck Straightening system) device. The device tethers the driver's head to the car so the neck doesn't snap during a crash.
"That's how a lot of people die in accidents, so it saves a lot of lives," Campbell says.
He says that if Dale Earnhardt, the famed driver who died in a crash a few years ago, had been wearing the device--which is now mandatory--it is likely he would have survived.
Crashes, though, are just part of the sport, especially in NASCAR races.
"You can't race that close together and go that fast without some bumping and banging, and that's excitement for the fans, too," he says. "You never want to see someone get hurt, but even when I watch a race and some guy's beating and banging on somebody, it's fun to watch, as long as they don't crash into the wall."
His sister says she's been scared more than once for her brother's safety.
"There's been times when I'm in my scoring booth--we have a little window and we can only see so much of the track--so I don't know what's going on," she says. "But it's part of the sport, and you know the risks are going to be taken."
In his 12 years of racing, Campbell has never even broken any skin, though he has been in his share of crashes.
"Mentally you're completely shaken up," he says. "The whole life flashing before your eyes happens, and you don't know if this is the one that's going to kill you."
Fry says that last season, Campbell wasn't even in a crash severe enough to hurt any panels on the body of the car.
"He's a very calm, cool and collected driver, and I think that's what's gotten him to where he is today," the crew chief says.
Campbell might attribute part of his safety to his car's lucky number. Ever since he was a child watching Speed Racer, the No. 5--the number of the car featured in the cartoon--has been his number.
This past year Campbell had to drive with the No. 55 because five was already taken. In this upcoming season, however, he'll have No. 5 again.
Campbell will be in the Southwest Series again this year, racing more than 40 weekends. His first race is in Phoenix on Jan. 30.
"Now we don't have the rookie stripe on, so I'm looking forward to showing what we can do," Christal Campbell says.
As the green flag goes down on the upcoming season, Campbell knows strategy and courage not only make a good racer, they're what it takes to run a good business.
Campbell has been able to finance his racing with his own company, Campbell Racing. The company's function is to maintain Campbell's cars, schedule his races and acquire sponsorships.
One of Campbell's biggest sponsors is Campbell-based GKI Construction and Development. The company works mostly on high-end custom homes, the majority of which are in neighboring areas, such as Los Gatos and Los Altos Hills.
GKI owner Gary King heard about Campbell through a friend, who happens to be the driver's father. The construction company has been sponsoring Campbell for the past year.
"It's kind of a novelty for us right now," says King. "Most of our advertising is just word of mouth, so we don't do a whole lot of marketing, but some of our clients go to the races, and we do get some exposure television-wise.
"Don's a genuinely nice guy, so it's good for the city of Campbell for sure, and it's a good partnership for us," King says.
Campbell says the business aspect of racing can be almost as important as the driving itself.
"Driving a car fast is only a small percentage of the whole package," he says. "Sponsors are looking for your education, how you speak, what you look like, how you conduct yourself. You have to present an attractive marketing package. It's not always about who wins the most races."
Locating his business in Campbell was also unplanned, but has turned into a marketing plus.
"When people announce your name on TV or over the loudspeaker, they'll say, 'It's Don Campbell from Campbell--wow, does he own the whole town?' "
For more information about Don Campbell, go to www.campbellracing.com.