by Ryan Isley
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” Those words from LeBron James in Sports Illustrated last July ring just as true for Mentor, Ohio’s Ricky Bowers as it does for James.
Unlike most boys who grew up in Northeast Ohio, Bowers didn’t see himself playing quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, pitching for the Cleveland Indians or knocking down jumpers for the Cleveland Cavaliers. No – Bowers saw himself driving a car to NASCAR victory lane.
The 21-year-old knows that he is taking the road less traveled as an aspiring driver from a northern state without any family ties to NASCAR. But as difficult as the task may be, Bowers is doing everything he can to make that dream come true. The real question is just how does a boy from Mentor, Ohio decide that he wants to be a NASCAR driver? While others were watching baseball, football or basketball, Bowers was sitting down watching NASCAR with his grandfather. He instantly fell in love with the sport and knew that’s what he wanted to do.
The pursuit of the dream began at just 10 years old when Bowers began racing go-karts at Thompson Kart Raceway and Barberton Speedway, where he won his first track championship. He was able to parlay the success he showed at those two tracks and moved to the Great Lakes Sprint Series. The talent followed, as Bowers had 10 wins in the 4-cycle class in 2009 and then was the runner-up in the 2-cycle class in 2010.
What Bowers was doing in the Great Lakes Sprint Series wasn’t going unnoticed and that’s when the dream really looked like it could become reality.
Bowers was asked to send in his driving resume to Ron Sutton’s NASCAR Development Program, Winner’s Circle. At the time, Winner’s Circle was a prestigious program in Sacramento, California for young drivers who were trying to get their real start in the world of auto racing. Bowers sent in his resume, as did over 1,000 other young drivers. From those more than 1,000 resumes, the field was narrowed to 150 drivers, including the kid from Mentor, Ohio.
Of those 150, 40 drivers were given the chance to go to Sacramento to test USAC Midgets or NASCAR Modified. Once again, Bowers made the cut. Only 11 drivers of the original 1,000+ who applied were ultimately chosen for the program. One of those 11 was Ricky Bowers.
It was a different experience for Bowers, as he was moving from go-karts to midgets along with racing on ovals for the first time in his career.
“Go-karts are hard to explain how they race unless you have driven one. They are not as big or as fast as midgets,” Bowers said. “Midgets are one the best cars to drive if you are trying to develop a driver because they aren’t very heavy but are still fast and teach a driver how to race.”
Bowers spent two years in the program, where he raced USAC Midgets. In 2011, he won one pole and had 11 top-5’s with 13 top-10’s in the USAC Western Ford Focus Midget Series. His 2012 season was even better. He picked up his first win and his first trophy dash win while picking up 15 top-5’s and 16 top-10’s in the USAC Western Ignite Midget Series points. Unfortunately, the program and teams went bankrupt late in 2012.
After the program folded, Bowers went on to race USAC Midwest Honda Ignite Midgets, where he had two top-5’s and four top-10’s. Bowers then joined K&K Motorsports in 2013 to run in NASCAR Whelen Modifieds and in 2014, Bowers moved to California for four months to continue pursuing the dream by racing Modifieds. He was able to pick up a victory and three top-5’s along the way before moving back home and signing with McAllister Precision Marketing (MPM).
“There is a big difference between Eastern modifieds and Western modifieds,” Bowers said. “Eastern modifieds have big tires and lot of grip while Western modifieds have smaller tires with tread. They really train a driver how to race.”
The move to MPM signaled another change in vehicles. Now instead of racing go-karts, midgets or modifieds, Bowers would be piloting a truck in the Southeast Super Truck Series. This would also mean that once again, Bowers would be traveling a lot to try and make his NASCAR dream come true. Just like with every other series in which Bowers has competed, he has already started making a name for himself in the Southeast Super Truck Series.
After finishing 8th in his initial Southeast Super Truck Series race at Tri-County Motor Speedway in Granite Falls, North Carolina, Bowers earned his first top-5 in the second race when he finished 3rd at Anderson Motor Speedway in Anderson, South Carolina. He followed that up with three more top-10 finishes, including a 5th-place finish at Kingsport Speedway in Kingsport, Tennessee. The next two races saw some issues and landed Bowers outside the top-10 for the only time this season, finishing 13th at Tri-County and then 11th at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
Bowers bounced back following those two races with back-to-back top-10’s in the last two races, finishing 7th at Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Virginia and 10th at Greenville-Pickens. And now while riding that momentum, Bowers and the Southeast Super Truck Series will head to two of Bowers’ better tracks this season.
The next race is this Saturday at Anderson Motor Speedway where Bowers has his best finish of the season. And then the series will go to Kingsport Speedway where Bowers has his second-best finish of the season. Kingsport might also be the place where Bowers had his signature race so far in 2015. After qualifying 2nd, Bowers was taken out twice during the race and still fought back to finish 5th. The season will come to a close on October 3rd at Tri-County.
“I am really excited to get to the final portion of the season because we finished 3rd at Anderson and Kingsport is my favorite track,” Bowers said. “The last race at Tri-County is also a good track for us. I am hoping within the next race or two, we can get top-5’s and hopefully a win.”
Going into the season, Bowers said his goal was to win the Rookie of the Year and also finish in the top-5 in the points standings. He currently leads the Rookie of the Year Standings by 21 points over Luke Sorrow and trails Tim Lollis by just five points to break into the top-5.
Moving to trucks was just another step in the process for Bowers. It is a different kind of vehicle, a different kind of racing and different tracks than he has raced in the past. Not only has the Southeast Super Truck Series been a learning experience, but it has been a blast for the 21-year-old this summer.
“Driving-wise, trucks are easier than modifieds. Racing-wise they are tougher,” Bower said. “This is the first time I have been in a full containment stock car. You can lean and beat and bang a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.”
Seeing as how this is the first time he has actually raced in a full containment vehicle, Bowers is somewhat surprised at the success he has had this season. While surprised, he also knows that he gained confidence as a driver in modifieds because there were veterans in series from whom he had to gain respect. After earning their respect on and off the track, his confidence as a driver has gone up, leading to his success.
All of the traveling that is necessary for someone to chase the NASCAR dream is a hardship that requires a lot of support from a driver’s inner circle. Luckily for Bowers, his support system has been rock steady.
“My parents were supportive and still are,” Bowers said. “When I decided this was my dream, my dad and I found the nearest track. My mom is always nervous but is supportive win or lose. Both of my parents have done so much to help me. I couldn’t do it without them.”
When you ask Bowers who his favorite driver was growing up, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. He won’t give you a name like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson. Nor will he tell you it was Dale Jarrett or one of the Labonte boys. It wasn’t even his father and grandfather’s favorite driver – Rusty Wallace.
No, Ricky Bowers loved Mark Martin. He liked the way Martin drove and also the way he handled himself outside the racecar. When he first started driving, Bowers even modeled his style after his favorite driver by racing a little more passive and cautious than others on the track. He learned about being a driver from paying attention to Martin’s every move.
“The way he handled himself was all about respect and making fans and team happy,” Bowers said. “He was always calm and patient. But I think one reason he never won the championship was because he wasn’t aggressive enough.”
That’s a lesson Bowers has learned over the years.
“I used to be really passive and cautious and scared to do anything but getting into bigger cars I raced people that were legendary in that series and they don’t give you any slack,” Bowers said. “I had to earn my respect. I am patient enough and never take anybody out on purpose but if I am behind somebody and there is no way around it, I will use the bumper a little bit. That’s racing.”
Bowers is such a fan of Martin that his truck in the Southeast Super Truck Series is No. 61 – the number six coming from when Martin drove the No. 6 at Roush Racing. The blue in the paint scheme on Bowers’ truck is also because of Martin.
“I always liked the number six and the blue,” Bowers said.
While Bowers may have tried to emulate Martin to start his career, his goal is to make a name for himself in one of the top three series of NASCAR – either the Sprint Cup Series, the Xfinity Series, or the Camping World Truck Series. It won’t be easy, but Bowers realized that right from the start.
“It’s a challenge trying to make a name for myself from zero to 100, especially for a kid from Northeast Ohio where other sports are so much bigger,” Bowers said. “In Charlotte, their football is racing. People up here don’t really understand that.”
If the kid from Mentor continues on the path he has started, people will soon know the name Ricky Bowers. And in true Northeast Ohio fashion, you better believe it will have been earned by Bowers, not given to him.