He never tires of NASCAR | TheUnion.com

He never tires of NASCAR

John HartJack Fortner with one of the NASCAR tires he balances for Winston Cup races on the west coast during the season. Fortner is part of a twelve-man crew that puts up to 3,500 tires on rims for a race.
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Imagine having more than $1 million worth of car tires pass through your hands.

It is all in a week’s work for Jack Fortner.

The Grass Valley muffler shop owner moonlights more than a dozen weeks each year, getting thousands of tires ready for stock cars in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s (NASCAR) Winston Cup, the nation’s premier professional racing circuit.

Fortner belongs to a 12-man crew from around the country that gets flown in for NASCAR races west of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s a real treat for a former racer and dedicated fan, who “loves the sounds, the smells, everything,” Fortner said. “I love the camaraderie and being part of the racing fraternity.”

The tire crew mounts a lot of tires on a lot of rims in very little time. They show up on Tuesdays before the weekend’s races and quickly get down to business.

“On any given race weekend, we may do 3,500 tires,” Fortner said. “It’s quite a feat. If you ever saw it, you wouldn’t believe it.”

By race time, each racing team will start “with 12 sets (of tires) behind the wall,” Fortner said. He then takes a seat to watch the race, “but we have to check back in at cautions,” when the yellow flag goes out for an accident or debris on the track. Although Fortner said it would seem 12 sets of tires is plenty, the cautions force racing teams to want even more tires for options.

Fortner handles the final step: balancing the tires by attaching lead weights so they don’t wobble – just like tires are balanced on passenger cars.

But one big difference is that NASCAR tires “cost $1,800 a set,” Fortner said.

And they don’t last long. “It’s not uncommon for them to come in after 50 miles,” he said. After the race, they are often sold as souvenirs.

Fortner has his job down to a science. In 45 seconds he can pick up an 85-pound tire and rim, put it on the balancer machine and attach the lead weights.

On a busy day before a race, the tire crew might work from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.

“If we’re behind, we don’t even stop to eat,” Fortner said. The time-strapped crew sometimes cooks hot dogs on the exhaust pipes of the diesel engine that powers the air compressors for their powertools.

One tedious task is getting ready at racetracks which are more than a mile long, like Daytona, Talladega and the California Speedway just east of Los Angeles, that requires cars be equipped with “inner liners” – a smaller, back-up tire inside the main tire for the driver’s safety in case of a blow-out.

“It’s just hard to shove a tire in a tire,” Fortner said. “If this was your (full-time) job, you’d never do it. You’d quit.”

The tire crew is part of Carroll Shelby Enterprises, owned by the racing legend who developed the Ford Cobra. Fortner gets paid a daily stipend, plus free food, lodging and transportation.

But he admits he’d probably do the work for free.

“Have you ever been in any event where everybody’s pushing for the same goal?” he asked.

He landed the job when he owned the Tire Mart on Joerschke Drive. He knew there was an opening on the tire crew and he approached the Goodyear representative. “I just kept buggin’ him.”

He has rubbed elbows with many NASCAR legends, including Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Richard Petty is one driver who really stands out in Fortner’s memory.

“He was such an ambassador for the sport,” said Fortner, who once watched for an hour as Petty sat at a table patiently signing autographs for a long line of fans.

Petty listened intently to each person’s questions and “answered it as if it was the first time he ever heard it,” Fortner said – even when Petty had just answered the same question for someone else.

Petty’s son, Kyle Petty, was just as gracious, Fortner said.

On another occasion, Fortner was interviewing Kyle Petty for an article he was writing for the now defunct Sacramento Union newspaper.

Kyle Petty explained that his father respected race fans, because “these people are putting food on our table.”

Mark Martin also stands out. “He is a genuinely wonderful man,” Fortner said. “He’s small in size but large in stature.”

Fortner, 57, used to race stock cars and dune buggy dragsters, called sand rails, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He held a national sand rail racing record of 3.23 seconds for the 100-yard standard distance, set at a sand track adjacent to downtown Marysville.

Racing’s gotten a lot more respectable since then, Fortner said, partly because a lot more money is involved. Nowadays, sponsors may pay $10 million to have their names on a Winston Cup car, he said.

“It’s not like it used to be. It’s not rough and tumble.”

Fortner is an Arkansas native who lived in Nevada for 35 years, moving to Nevada County eight years ago. He had owned a tire store before buying Gold Country Hitch and Muffler Service (located across the street) a year ago. Fortner also is on the Clear Creek School board.

He’s been married for 33 years to Pam Fortner, who writes a column for The Union about nonprofit groups. The couple have a son, Justin, who lives in Modesto and three grandchildren, Jocelyn, Samantha and Hunter.

Pam Fortner said, “He just loves everything about (NASCAR). It’s hard work. But he just loves the sport so much it’s really not … work to him.”

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