By Jeff Linville
November 11, 2013
Mount Airy race car driver Luke Fleming heads off to Charlotte next month to accept his 2013 Southern Modified Rookie of the Year award at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the latest success for the Fleming racing family.
Luke kicked off his NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour career with a bang in 2009, becoming the first driver to win a race in his first start. He also was the youngest driver ever (age 22) to win a race when he captured the Whelen Advance Auto 199.
After running some other circuits, Luke dedicated himself to the Whelen tour this summer and finished in the top 10 five times. He will accept the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award on Dec. 14 in the Crown Ballroom at the Hall of Fame complex, along with the top rookie drivers from NASCAR’s other premiere series.
Luke said it was his grandpa Charles Fleming who first got the speed bug, racing motorcycles decades ago.
His dad Chris and uncle Frank also raced motorcycles growing up, but Frank was the first to branch out into cars.
Frank got his start running the dirt track at 311 Speedway, and soon Chris was drawn to the dirt life as well.
Both Chris and Frank won races at 311, and Chris (aka The Showstopper) took a season championship 1989, Luke pointed out.
Frank got his first taste of asphalt racing in 1985.
Frank’s NASCAR career began in 1986 in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. He became a Southern Tour fixture when that series began in 2005; there he has earned 25 top-five finishes and 59 top 10s in 96 starts. He also made 10 starts on the Nationwide tour along the way.
Chris began his asphalt career in 1993 at Bowman Gray Stadium. He has won three races and numerous top-five finishes.
Chris was one of five racers that were followed in 2009 to compile the History Channel show Madhouse, which aired in 2010.
Growing up in a racing family, Luke was itching to try racing himself at an early age.
At 8 years old, he started driving go-karts at Bear Creek and State Line race tracks.
Frank said he spent time helping Luke with go-kart racing back then. In fact, he recalled, the first time that Chris won a race at Bowman Gray, he and Luke weren’t there because Luke had a race elsewhere.
At 16, Luke built his first modified car.
The frame came from a builder, but most of the parts were made by hand, he said.
Luke said the family has its own machine shop. He grew up watching his dad every evening and absorbing every bit of knowledge he could.
“We make a lot of our own parts now, that’s also an option for saving money, but requires hours in the shop,” Chris wrote to his fans on Facebook. “We know if we are going to race we have to pay the price. The girls know if they want to see us, we are at the shop and, believe me, (wife) Amy makes that trip a lot, bringing food, running for me and what not.”
Luke used his home-built car for two years and won the 2005 Bowman Gray rookie of the year award with it while still in high school at North Surry.
Modified is the premiere series around here, but it can be more expensive to operate and harder to be competitive at an early age, Luke described.
So despite his early success, he dropped down and raced stock cars instead for a couple of years.
In 2009, he won back-to-back races and was flying high. Then he was disqualified when one of his homemade parts was found not to be in compliance with regulations.
Unable to finish the rest of the season in stock car, Luke wanted some way back into the racing circuit.
He said his dad let him drive his own car in the Whelen Advance Auto 199 where he won in his first Southern Modified race.
That level of competition was way over his head, Luke admitted, but he somehow lucked up and won. Still, he knew he needed more seasoning to compete in that series on a regular basis.
Also, his younger brother Jordan had gotten into the family business. It is hard for a family on a tight budget to field one race car, so three or four is very taxing.
The reason that Luke was able to run an entire season and perform well was that Frank decided to take a year off from racing.
Frank said he is 54 years old and has been racing cars for 33 years. He had intended to retire when he reached 50, but kept on going because he loves the sport and wants to remain a part of it.
Frank knows he is on the downhill side of his own career.
“Luke is a smart young man and he deserves a chance to succeed,” Frank said.
By acting as crew chief, Frank has been able to find another way to be part of racing.
“I really enjoyed it and had a fun summer,” said Frank. As for next year, he said he may drive again, but he isn’t certain.
Luke drove Frank’s #40 Koma Unwind car this year.
That actually was a new car, and it took several races to really fine-tune it, said Frank. Luke did pretty well in the first half of the season, but he really took off once the car was squared away.
“Frank was and is a great resource,” Luke said. “He has a wealth of racing knowledge. Beyond his knowledge of the sport, the biggest thing he did for me was keep me calm during the races, which was a huge help.”
Being just 26 years old, Luke admits his passion could have gotten the better of him at times, but Frank helped him keep his cool and focus on the whole year, not just one race.
As a result, Luke said, “We had a really consistent season.” The team had five top-10 finishes, with a season best of fifth place at Southern National Motorsports Park in Kenly. Six times he won the rookie of the race award in just 12 races.
At the tour stop in Charlotte, the car was really running great and qualified sixth out of 22 cars, said Frank. Luke moved into the top 10, but had to be cautious because the points lead was so close, and there were seven rookies in the field, he noted.
While Luke could have easily made the top five and even challenged for the lead, Frank reminded him that he had to protect his season lead and not be reckless.
Luke finished eighth in the season standings, best among rookies. He beat out Jeremy Gerstner (13th in points) and David Calabrese (14th) for the honor.
“It’s what we set out to do at the start of the season, and we’re really proud that we could see it through,” said Luke. “With the point structure, it’s difficult to build a lead. It made it exciting.”
Despite being a rookie with little time to build a fan base, Luke is fourth in a fan voting in a NASCAR online poll for Southern Modified drivers.
Luke, who is a manager for Kevin Powell Ford, hopes that winning the award pays off long-term as well. He will get a chance to shake hands with a lot of movers and shakers in NASCAR at the awards banquet.
Next year, he said he will focus more on strong finishes to try to win races. That is a riskier strategy that could mean more up and down finishes, but he wants to get a few wins to draw the attention of potential sponsors and racing teams.
Among his sponsors this season have been Koma Unwind, AutosByNelson.com, Krazy Kevin Powell Motorsports, N.C. Granite Corp., Lewisville Motor Co., Adams Towing and Recovery, Jerry Hunt Auto Sales, William Smith Trucking and Perkins & Associates.