Yet at 60 years old, he still gets a thrill like no other when he walks inside the massive Bristol Motor Speedway to compete at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” It was even true last Saturday when Skinner tested his Pro Late Model car to race in the Rusty Wallace Automotive Group Short Track U.S. Nationals tonight.
“I got cold chills when I walked across the racetrack to test the Late Model here,” Skinner said. “I’ve gotten them every time I’ve ever come to this racetrack. I’ve run in every type of condition you can think of, even tested here in the snow. And I’ve raced three different kinds of cars here on the different kinds of configurations. But the hair still stands up on the back of my neck every time I walk in here.”
After winning three dirt track championships in his native California, Skinner moved east to North Carolina to pursue his racing dream. He worked as a crew member for Petty Enterprises and made some sporadic NASCAR starts before winning the 1993 track championship at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C. Two years later, he was the inaugural champion of the NASCAR Truck Series. Over the course of his Truck Series career, he won 28 races including once at Bristol.
Although he raced plenty on the big tracks as a teammate to seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Skinner remains a short-track driver at heart.
“This and Martinsville are my favorite tracks even though they’re completely different tracks,” said Skinner, who holds the all-time Cup Series record for most laps led (1,029) without a victory. “This place is amazingly fast and always fun to drive in anything I’ve driven here. It’s my first time in a Late Model here and in the center of the corner, it’s as fast as anything I’ve driven here.”
He made 18 Cup Series starts at Bristol, twice qualifying on the outside pole and posting a best finish of seventh in the 1998 August Night Race. Asked if the lighter car with less horsepower than a Cup car felt comfortable on Bristol’s high banks, Skinner laughed as he was reminded of one Hall of Fame driver’s comments.
“Mark Martin told me if you ever feel comfortable at Bristol you’re not trying hard enough,” Skinner said. “If somebody starts to smoke a straightaway ahead of you, it’s like you’re only two seconds away from that. I’ve run good here and won, and I’ve run bad here, even broke my neck here one time. But I couldn’t wait to come back. This might be the last time I get to run Bristol, so I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”
The competitive juices are still flowing and Skinner won a race earlier this year in his adopted home state of Florida. He also posted the best lap of 15.106 seconds (127.022 mph) for the Pro Late Models during last Saturday’s test on the .533-mile oval. The veteran driver said there’s only one place he wants to finish.
“As long as we’re competitive and have a good time. Naw, that’s bull,” he said. “I want to win.”
Practice begins today at noon for the Short Track U.S. Nationals with qualifying to start at 5 p.m. and racing to begin at 7 p.m.