Reiser Still Head Down, Working Hard After All These Years

CHARLOTTE, NC (January 28, 2013) – There were a lot of great stories to come out of last week’s Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. Everything from widespread praise for NASCAR’s new ‘Gen 6’ car to unbridled enthusiasm about each team’s 2013 championship chances were evident at every stop on the tour.

One bit of news – that Robbie Reiser promoted from general manager to vice president of competition at Roush Fenway Racing – probably didn’t even rate a blip on most media member’s radar. We’re thinking that even those who did notice gave the announcement little more than a cursory line or two.

Not here, where Reiser’s promotion rekindled fond memories of times gone by.

It’s been a long time since I wrote a story about Reiser. It also seems like just yesterday, I wrote about him a lot. It’s hard to believe it’s 20 years ago – 1993 – that Reiser was notching his third-straight Super Late Model championship at Slinger Speedway – and I was there to cover it.

A top driver in the ultra-competitive Wisconsin short-track ranks rivaling the likes of Matt Kenseth, Rich Bickle and Ted Musgrave, Reiser was a hammer down, no nonsense racer. By the late 1980’s, he was winning consistently. As such, I got to know Reiser very well – first as a Wisconsin newspaper sportswriter – and later as a public relations person at Slinger.

Those were heady times. I was among the first to report the now well-documented rivalry between Reiser and Kenseth. Heck, one night at Madison International Speedway, I was in the middle of their feud trying to break up a fight in the pits between their dads – John Reiser and Roy Kenseth.

Interestingly, while the young phenom Kenseth was getting all the raves as ‘Matt The Brat,’ it was Reiser who first made his way to NASCAR. Fielding a Chevrolet out of their family shop, John and Robbie Reiser made their NASCAR debut on July 4, 1993 starting 17th and finishing 21st in the Havoline 250 Nationwide (then Busch Grand National) Series at The Milwaukee Mile.

A year later – while finishing second to Kenseth in a volatile Super Late Model championship battle at Madison – Reiser also competed in nine Busch Series events posting a season-best finish on 21st at Myrtle Beach, SC.

The Reiser’s were all in – or as much as they had – in 1995 hitting the Busch Series trail in earnest. The final 1995 season stats show Reiser started 17 events and failed to qualify for four others. A ninth at Nashville Fairgrounds Raceway was the best result of the year. A wild, tumbling end-over-end violent crash at Talladega was the low point.

Meanwhile, money – which is always an issue in racing regardless of who you are – started to tighten up for Reiser. The 1995 Nashville season-best effort paid Reiser a whopping $3,100. That was hardly enough money to pay the tire bill back then and for a family team like Reiser’s that was personally funding the effort, it was a drop in the bucket.

As such, the 1996 season looked like the end of Reiser’s NASCAR career as he cut back to just three Busch Series attempts. While Milwaukee produced another modest finish of 17th, Reiser missed the show in his two other outings at Charlotte and Dover.

Reiser’s NASCAR driving career seemed to be over when they put Tim Bender in their family racecar for the 1997 season. Bender wasn’t a better driver than Reiser, but he had sponsorship money from Kraft. That got him the seat.

With Reiser now calling the shots from on top of the pit box, the team fared little better with Bender doing the steering. After eight races, the only positive had been a pole at Atlanta. Things took a turn for the worse when Bender was injured in a crash forcing Reiser back in the seat at Bristol where he started 40th – ran just 24 laps before his engine failed – and finished 41st in the 1997 spring race at Bristol.

It would be Reiser’s last race as a NASCAR driver.

Desperate, Reiser called his old Wisconsin rival Kenseth to fill the seat at the next race on the 1997 Busch tour at Nashville. Kenseth agreed and promptly qualified third and finished 11th. A week later, Kenseth finished seventh at Talladega behind winner Mark Martin – who immediately took an interest in the two Wisconsin racers.

The Reiser-Kenseth combo got better and better throughout 1997 and the team hit full stride with a pair of third-place finishes (Dover, California) and a sixth (Homestead) in the final five races of the year.

Any doubt they were for real came when Kenseth muscled his way by Tony Stewart to score his – and Reiser’s – first Busch Series win in the second race of the 1998 season at Rockingham. Eventually, they won twice more (Pikes Peak, Dover) and finished second in the 1998 BGN championship standings.

Four more wins and a third-place finish in the Busch Series points chase followed in 1999. Meanwhile, Jack Roush put the pair in one of his potent Winston Cup cars for five events that season – the best finish a fourth at Dover.

All the years of hard work, drive and determination paid off in 2000 when Roush purchased Reiser’s Busch team to run full time in Winston Cup. Kenseth was also hired as the driver.

Again, the combination produced instant results as Kenseth won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and captured NASCAR Winston Cup rookie of the year honors in 2000.

After a winless 2001, the door swung wide open for Reiser and Kenseth as they won five events in 2002. The 2003 season produced just one win, but the consistency of 25 top-10 finishes in 36 events earned Reiser, Kenseth and Roush the Winston Cup title.

The road to success for Reiser was complete. The kid from Allenton, WI – who grew up chasing his dad’s Modified and Late Model Stock Cars around dusty ovals like Cedarburg, Hales Corners, Slinger and Beaver Dam – was at the top of the NASCAR world.

Of course, Reiser wasn’t done.

More involved in the day-to-day operation of all of Roush’s Cup teams, Reiser and Kenseth continued to be a potent combination never finishing out of the top-10 in points from 2002-2007. Just before the final race of the 2007 season at Homestead, Roush announced that Reiser would graduate from crew chief to general manager of all five Roush Cup teams in 2008.

Kenseth promptly went out and won the Homestead event – their last race together. Let the record show their final Cup stats together were 291 starts, 16 victories and one championship.

For the last five years, Reiser has helped steer Roush Fenway Cup entries to 28 victories. We’re not exactly clear as to what his new duties as vice president of competition will be, but we’re sure things won’t change much.

Reiser will still be head down, working hard to win. It’s the way his father John taught him and it’s the way we remember him when we first crossed paths back in Wisconsin now a full 25 years ago.

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