Danny O'Quinn Jr. celebrates Saturday night in victory lane at Lonesome Pine Raceway. Photo courtesy of Drew Hierwarter.
COEBURN, Va. — His dream of NASCAR superstardom may not have worked out, but that doesn't mean Danny O'Quinn Jr. has forgotten how to drive a racecar.
Saturday night at his home track in Coeburn, Va., the 2006 NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year returned to victory lane after winning the second of two 35-lap Late Model twin features.
It was the first time the 29-year-old O'Quinn had been behind the wheel of a racecar this year, and only the second time in the past two years.
On both occasions he was a winner at Lonesome Pine Raceway, where his stock car racing career began.
After six seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide series and 106 starts, O'Quinn moved back home to Coeburn two years ago to take over the family business — and as it worked out — start a family of his own.
If he were still driving in one of NASCAR's upper echelon divisions, O'Quinn would be in the prime of his career. Unlike other professional sports, however, talent and longevity don't always walk hand in hand.
In NASCAR, money flows the opposite direction from other professional sports.
In other sports, first you are successful, and then you get the big money.
In NASCAR, first you need to get the big money, and then you are successful.
But, for a brief time eight years ago O'Quinn was the exception to that rule.
After winning races and championships racing in local and regional divisions for a family funded team, in 2005 the 20-year-old O'Quinn literally drove his way into a ride with the premier Roush Racing NASCAR team.
He was chosen to compete in the televised "Roush Racing: Driver X" competition, which pitted 26 top young drivers of that era against each other. Also in the competition were current full-time Cup drivers David Ragan and Justin Allgaier, both of whom were defeated by O'Quinn.
O'Quinn finished second in the Driver X competition behind Erik Darnell, which was good enough to earn him a full-time Nationwide ride with Roush Racing in 2006.
Despite his Rookie of the Year effort in 2006, however, there was no sponsorship money in 2007 for O'Quinn.
Eventually he left Roush to drive for smaller teams.
He also worked in the garage area, setting up cars for Bobby Hamilton Jr. in 2008 with Team Rensi Motorsports, spotting for the Wood Brothers, and helping second-generation racer Brandon McReynolds.
But, O'Quinn had moved to North Carolina to drive race cars, and by 2011 there wasn't much available for him in NASCAR as a driver except for the occasional "start-and-park."
"About two years ago I came back up here," O'Quinn said. "Obviously I learned a lot, and got to see a lot, but racing beyond the local level is certainly something you can't fund out of your own pocket. You're dependent on sponsors, and I got in right before the economy went south. In 2005-06 things were booming, and at Roush and we had sponsors for, at times, six cars. In 2007 they downsized, and I ran a partial schedule, and the next year I didn't have any sponsorship and started driving for different teams. They were down to one (Nationwide) car at Roush and laid off a bunch of people. It was kind of like that for every team down there. If you didn't have (sponsorship) to bring to the table, you are not going to drive."
Without sponsorship, O'Quinn could get hired to drive for small teams, but eventually another driver would show up with a few races worth of sponsorship, and O'Quinn would be on the sidelines.
During that time he was grateful for any opportunity to drive, but it was also a frustrating time for O'Quinn, who didn't know if he was racing week to week. And when he did race, it was for an under-funded team that wasn't competitive.
"When you start those Nationwide races, and you know if you've had a perfect day you're going to finish 15th, it puts a lot of stress on you as a driver," he said. "You grow up going to the racetrack to win races. You don't want to unload knowing, man if we finish on the lead lap we've had a good day."
O'Quinn added, "It got to the point where those were the only opportunities available, and mom and dad were trying to take a little time off. Dad was wanting to retire. Driving is where my heart's at, and if I'm not going to be driving, I'd rather come back here and be my own boss. If I'm not getting any opportunities to race, I couldn't see myself staying there."
Hindsight being 20/20, if he had it to do over again O'Quinn would approach the business side of racing differently. As a 20-year-old rookie, he thought if he was successful on the race track, the sponsorship issue would solve itself.
"I assumed things were looking good at the end of 2006," O'Quinn said. "We were running pretty well most of the races. We won the rookie deal, and I had people telling me I had nothing to worry about. I didn't see it coming. I thought I would be racing something the next year, and I was to a certain extent, but not like I thought. Naturally their first priority is getting sponsors for their Cup teams, and the Cup drivers who are running Nationwide ."
O'Quinn added, "If I could go back and do it over, I would have hired a marketing agency to hunt sponsorship for me. A lot of the guys who are making it today are doing that. They get their sponsorship secured and then turn it over to the team. I just wish we could have found a sponsor. I really needed another full year with Roush in Nationwide, and I didn't get that after my first year."
But, O'Quinn said the experiences he gained during his time in NASCAR were priceless. It was a great way to spend his 20s. He got to do things that most racers can only dream of.
O'Quinn recently got married, and he and his wife, Pam, have a little boy on the way. Danny O'Quinn III is scheduled to make his appearance in N o v e m b e r.
Today, O'Quinn is running the family business, O'Quinn Trailers on Route 58 in Coeburn. The business is located on a ridge that overlooks Lonesome Pine Raceway, where O'Quinn's stock car racing career began.
From a racing standpoint his life has come full circle.
"I haven't gotten to do a lot down there (at LPR) since I've been back," he said. "Springtime is the busiest time in racing, getting ready for the season, but it's also the busiest time here (at O'Quinn Trailers). When I came back I thought I'd go back and race my Late Model, and I found out running a business takes a lot more time than I remembered growing up. At this point in my life the business is way more important than racing."
He added, "I do the racing for fun, and we're going racing this (past) weekend at Lonesome Pine, but I'm not going down there if I'm not ready. If we go I want to have an opportunity to win, and that takes time and preparation. You can't just step in midseason and expect to be at the level as the guys who run every week without first putting a lot of work into it."
A few years down the road there may be another Danny O'Quinn tearing up the track at Lonesome Pine Raceway.
"We'll have to OK it with Pam, but she pretty much knows," he said. "But only if he wants to. We're not going to make him do it, but if he wants to we might try to get him into a Go-Kart in about six years. That's about how old I was when I started. I'd be happy with anything he wants to do, but if he wants to go racing I'll be all for it."