Abingdon, Va., racer Eric McClure, top, missed five races after a horrific crash at Talladega in May 2012. Contributed Photo.
ABINGDON, Va. — Eric McClure won't end his racing career with the championships, race wins and other accolades that racecar drivers dream of, but he has done one thing better than any other driver in his era.
Entering the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide season, McClure has been part of the longest driver/sponsor combination in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, driving under the "Hefty" trash bag banner for eight consecutive seasons.
"That's probably the thing I'm most proud of," McClure said. "Sponsors make the world go around, and the fascinating thing is that I've been able to do that, and not win a race. Conventional wisdom says that kind of a relationship wouldn't last based on my statistics."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Morgan-McClure Motorsports maintained a long relationship with its sponsors, including Kodak.
McClure said he learned from observing the family business and used that education to establish the foundation of how he does business with his sponsors.
McClure added, "You put together a program that makes sense for them. Most people believe sponsorships are all about being on the racecar and winning races, and the reality is they're not. Some companies may value that more than others, but our partnership has always been based around them participating at a level that makes sense to them from a financial standpoint, and bringing a positive return on the investment on and off the racetrack, and we've been able to do that."
McClure said the reason you don't see the sponsor turnover with him that other drivers and race teams experience is his team operates like it's privileged to have the sponsor — not the other way around.
There was quite a bit of media discussion during Daytona Speedweeks about the possibility of this being McClure's last season as a driver.
Certainly the past two years haven't been easy. There was the horrific crash head-on into the wall at Talladega on May 5, 2012, which cost McClure five races out with injuries.
And then last year, after posting a career best eighth-place finish at Daytona and riding a wave of the strongest performances of his career, McClure missed another six races after suffering kidney failure — believed to be a long-term effect from the 2012 accident.
McClure said Tuesday he hasn't decided if 2014 will be his last season, and he's committed to at least 28 races this season, if not more, depending on his health.
"Obviously, over the last couple of seasons with everything that we've been through you start to weigh — when is the right time, what's best for my family, is it worth it anymore," McClure said. "This could very well be my last season as a full-time driver, but we just decided we would make a go of this season, enjoy it as much as possible, and make that decision when we feel it's the right time. We don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if we're going to go through another struggle like we have, or if things are going to go really well and change our outlook in a more positive light."
McClure added, "I've got to look at it from a health aspect, and if this is going to affect my ability to be a husband and a father after this is over, in addition to what's best for our sponsorship . There are a lot of factors to figure out. I am taking it one race at a time, but I will definitely say that my future is up in the air at the end of this season."
McClure isn't ashamed to admit that throughout his career finishing a race in the top 20 has been considered an outstanding performance. That top-10 finish at Daytona last year was a "bucket list" achievement for McClure, as would be a top-15 finish in the driver point standings if he can achieve that this season.
When McClure retires, however , he'll be able to hang his hat on another accomplishment that doesn't really show up in the record books.
Prior to his illness last season, he got on a hot streak of top-15 and top-20 runs, some of which were spoiled by mechanical failures. When McClure's teammate and relief driver, former Nationwide champion Jeff Green, took over the ride, his lap times and performance were consistently the same as McClure's.
"Four years ago that wouldn't have been the case," he said. "Jeff would practice my car and be a half second to a second faster. He's been such a great teacher, teammate and friend, and I've learned a lot from him. As a racer you never want to see someone else in your car. But when I sat at home last year and watched Jeff running pretty consistently where I had been, there was a feeling of satisfaction."
McClure added, "To perform on a level consistent with a champion like Jeff Green, that tells me I'm getting everything I can out of my equipment. As a driver, that's all you can ask of yourself."
As Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series "Drive to Stop Diabetes 300" approached Tuesday, McClure had two daunting tasks ahead of him. The first was to prepare himself mentally for another trip to his home track, which hasn't always treated him k i n d l y.
The second was to prepare himself for a 2-year-old's birthday party today as his second youngest of five daughters celebrates her big day.
McClure joked that the birthday party may be the most dangerous of the two tasks, but it's also another reason why he has many reasons to look forward to his impending retirement.
"I look forward to spending more time with my family and watching my girls grow up," he said. "I'll also have to get a real job, but I think when the time is right those opportunities will present themselves."
McClure added, "I've made it pretty far in racing, it's very hard to make it. There's only a few spots, and obviously we've kept the sponsorship, which has enabled me to continue driving. Going back to when I was 21 years old racing Street Stocks at Coeburn, I don't think people have grasped how hard I've had to work to get here and to stay this long. It's been a great reward, but it's also been a challenge all these years. I'm just trying to enjoy it while I'm still here."