|Date: 7/2/2015 12:02:12 AM|
NE Mod Hall Of Fame To Honor Mechanic Mike Hillman
By Len Sammons
Mike Hillman Sr. took what he learned as a teenager on the dirt tracks of New York State and applied it to the highest levels of NASCAR racing. For his career achievements, he will be honored with the prestigious Mechanic/Engineering Award during the 2015 Hall of Fame ceremonies, to be held on Wednesday, August 5, at the Northeast Modified Hall of Fame and Stock Car Museum on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
The former Lockport, N.Y., resident won countless features in dirt Modified racing before moving south. His long journey to the big show now has him as the co-owner of the No. 40 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team with full-time driver Landon Cassill.
He’s also part-owner of Circle Sports with Joe Falk. Their No. 33 has been driven this season by Ty Dillon and Alex Kennedy.
Hillman began his journey working on race cars as a teenager when he wandered up the street from his house in Lockport to the shop of Ross Holmes. He learned some great lessons working with Holmes and another top racer from the region, Sege Fidanza.
“I got hooked up with Alan Johnson when I was like 18 years old,” said Hillman. “We won a lot of races and had a lot of fun racing all over the Northeast for seven years.”
Hillman remembers the days that he and Alan seemed to win at every stop with a Howard Conkey Show Car-built Modified. He then was on the ground floor when Maynard Troyer built his first dirt Modified called a Mud Buss.
“Mike was a knowledgeable mechanic; he made sure the car finished the races we started. It was just him and I in the beginning, two teenagers racing against guys like Will Cagle, Jack Johnson, Lou Lazzaro and Dave Lape,” Alan Johnson remembered. Hillman did his job well: “In 1980, the first full year we were together, we won 23 features—and a bunch of those were 100 lappers.”
As a crew chief for driver Merv Treichler, Hillman also went to victory lane at the New York State Fairgrounds one-mile speedway in Syracuse, N.Y. After Sanborn, N.Y. resident Treichler and his car owner John Jackson won Syracuse back-to-back in 1981 and ’82, they decided to give NASCAR racing a try in the south and Hillman went along for the ride.
Treichler entered the NASCAR Grand National (now Xfinity Series) race in Daytona in 1984. In 24 events over a four year period, he finished in the top ten just once despite his success up north in both dirt and asphalt Modified competition.
“We came down here to Daytona with a dream of running the race,” Hillman said. “I didn’t even know how to put fenders on the car back then.”
While that effort fizzled, Hillman never returned home.
“It spiraled from there and I was lucky enough to benefit from it,” said Hillman of his career in NASCAR. “The good Lord has been good to me. I’ve been involved with some great car owners.”
Throughout his career, Hillman has worked as a crew chief and general manager in each of NASCAR’s top three series. In 1988, he won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship with driver Tommy Ellis, and secured two Truck Series championships with driver Todd Bodine in 2006 and 2010.
Hillman went from winning crew chief to owner after he acquired the championship-winning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series assets of Germain Racing following the conclusion of the 2011 season. He then assumed the dual role of owner and general manager of Hillman Racing at the start of 2012.
Midway through the 2013 season, Hillman added the No. 40 Sprint Cup Series team to the organization with Cassill as his driver.
As a NASCAR Cup Series car owner, he’s racing at a top level with a small but growing team based out of Mooresville, N.C.
“When I walk into work on Monday morning, I’m proud to say about 75% are like family and most are related in some way,” said Hillman, whose daughter is married to the head of his fab shop.
“The people who work at Hillman Racing are racers. They are there to race.
They don’t work 40 hours a week; they’ll put in whatever it takes to succeed. We don’t push time clocks or look at the clock very often. They don’t go home for supper a lot of the time either. They work hard and they know the goals.”
Hillman has less than 25 employees at his 22,000 square foot shop. One of his competitors, Hendrick Motorsports, has a staff of over 500 in their
430,000 square foot building.
“We want to be able to win races,” said Hillman. “We’re taking that in baby steps. I started two years ago with Landon and a couple hundred thousand dollars in sponsorship. Last year we came up with $2.3 million, this year we’re looking at $3 and a half. We hope to grow with our sponsors and bring our program up to the $7 then $10 million range. Hopefully we’ll build it to compete in the top ten and knock one out of the park every once in a while.”
He would have never guessed 40 years ago when he was wearing t-shirts and jeans to the dirt races, that he would be making million dollar deals someday.
“Mike started with absolutely nothing, and now he’s a car owner in the Cup series—like the Jack Roush of the North!” Alan marveled. “Back in the day, he’d be worried about nuts and bolts falling off the car. Now, he’s worried about 401k plans for his employees. It’s a whole different deal. I can’t believe the way he’s adapted.”
“I never had aspirations to own a race team. It just worked out that way,”
explained Hillman. “I had some great opportunities as a crew chief and made a good living doing it. I’m a very honest person and I’m not good politically. Most times people don’t really want to know what you’re thinking and I’m not good at sugar-coating things. It’s always been my way, if it’s the right way or not. Fortunately, it ended up good.”
Hillman’s dreams of one day being a NASCAR Cup race winner as a car owner and then a champion. But he also wants to go back in time and race and win at Syracuse with old friend Alan Johnson.
“Some day I plan to go back to Syracuse,” said Hillman in February, while sitting in front of his team transporter prior to the Daytona 500.
“My dream is to put together a Modified and go back with Alan and take a shot at winning that big race (Syracuse) one more time.”
If he does return to Super DIRT Week, don’t look for Hillman to do anything different than he did before.
“I told Alan, if we do this we’re getting two old campers and we’re going to stay in the infield and party like rock stars again. We did a lot of that in the past and always had a great time.”