Autor: Holly Cain
Date: March 20, 2015
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- The Bakersfield Kart Raceway sits up the hill and across the street from the Fern River Field of oil derricks -- acres and acres as far as the eye can see of these black machines pumping oil from the brown, dusty earth and sustaining the economy of this rural town a couple hours inland and over the Sierra Mountain range from the flashy hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.
Although Kevin Harvick, 39, visits his hometown several times a year, he figured it had been a good two decades since he last stopped by the well-kept winding half-mile go-kart course which, looking back, ultimately launched his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship career and helped define the way he would approach racing forever after.
And, as Harvick took great pleasure in recounting, it's the place that made him a master of racing's great victory celebration: spinning "donuts" -- something he's been demonstrating at a historic pace recently.
"My dad would bet people in the pits how many donuts his 9-year-old son could do and we'd usually win enough money to buy a new set of tires,'' Harvick recalled Wednesday with that wide, cat-ate-the-canary grin that helped earn him his "Happy" nickname.
"We had a 1981 side-step, rear-wheel drive pick-up that my dad had put huge racing exhaust pipes on and that truck made us a lot of money. I'd go up to the top of the hill [beside] the go-kart track and I'd spin donut after donut after donut after donut in that truck then they'd go back to the pits and work on go-karts. Then it would be time for me to go make another run in the go-kart.''
As Harvick visited with old friends and walked the track this week during a visit to his hometown before Sunday's NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana -- a three-hour drive southwest from here -- he was sentimental about what this humble venue meant to his early career.
It is fitting that this place where Harvick spent so much time overlooks the expanse of oil derricks, which quietly work and work and work.
It's a theme in Harvick's life and the way of life in Bakersfield.
Harvick grew up about a 15-minute drive away from the go-kart track -- everything is a 15-minute drive away in Bakersfield -- in a modest neighborhood in the blue-collar community of Oildale. The area's residents are known locally as "08-ers" in reference to the zip code: 93308.
If you Google "Oildale, California" one of the first entries directs you to you an "Oildale jokes" page, including one page titled "You might be from Oildale if ..."
There are bars on the windows and doors on many of the homes and businesses along the main thoroughfare, Chester Avenue. And the residential area is mostly made up of small, block houses -- miles and tax brackets away from Bakersfield's walled subdivisions with lofty names like "Palisades."
On the Oildale side of the Fern River Bridge, Chester Avenue is lined with small, mom-and-pop businesses such as taco restaurants, hair salons and tire stores. Down the road from one of Harvick's favorite old stops, "Donut Star" is a shuttered old-style movie theater, its marquee completely empty. Each corner seems to have an empty, fenced parking lot with overgrown grass and weeds.
When you cross the mostly-dried up Kern River into Bakersfield proper, things change before your eyes. Manicured lawns, new modern buildings and chain stores take over the landscape.
Harvick's family still lives in Oildale. His mom still works as a secretary at the local elementary school and still lives in the same, small modest home where Harvick grew up and recently updated for her. The large letter "H" on the gate outside is the only clue this is the champ's house.
His younger sister, Amber Reece, lives nearby and works as a special education teacher's aid at a junior high school. She jokes that often when she introduces herself in town as "Amber," she is quickly but affectionately corrected, "You're Kevin Harvick's sister."
Brother and sister remain as close today as they were during the days traveling in the family's box van, sharing a mattress in the back while their parents took turns driving to Kevin's next race.
She fondly remembers the afternoons when she and Kevin used to put together sponsorship opportunity "portfolios" and sell his racing like Girl Scout cookies around the neighborhood and to local businesses.
"We didn't come from anything, we worked for everything, but it was fun,'' Reece said. "Everyone was so supportive [of Harvick] because it is a racing town and growing up that's all we ever did. So everyone that was a part of this when we were little, to see him succeed now, it's amazing.''
And that's evident wherever you go in Bakersfield.
Harvick's presence is felt from the posters all over town celebrating their NASCAR champion as "Bakersfield's own" to the water cooler talk with guys back at Bob's Auto Glass Repair shop -- where the Harvicks used to house their race cars -- to the vast dirt field outside of town where Mesa Marin Raceway used to stand and groom NASCAR champions weekly for 30 years.
People here prefer to think of Bakersfield as "a big town that acts like a small town."
And when it came to Harvick's racing career, "it took a village," as they say.
Local businessman Terry Harron remembers inviting a teenage Harvick to take parts from the massive Advanced Distribution warehouse he owns, eager to help offset the promising young racer's costs.
The only thing Harron asked was that Harvick make lists of the parts he took so Harron could keep up with inventory.
"Kevin was actually very bashful back then, but he'd take these pieces of paper and go through the warehouse with a cart and a box and get anything from nuts and bolts, to spray paint or brake cleaner,'' Harron recalled. "He'd just leave me lists with the parts numbers of what he got and I would just throw the lists in a drawer.
"It was probably five or six years ago I was going through some old stuff and I found all these lists of what Kevin got. It was pretty funny. He could never write his name in cursive, it was always printed so his name was written at the bottom "KEVIN HARVICK" in block letters. We were laughing at that the other day."
"When you hear them call Kevin 'The Closer' there's something about that tenacity that Kevin has. It's the very same thing we'd see when he raced at the local tracks. That guy never ever gave up and it's the same thing you see from him in NASCAR today.''
Having the support of people such as Harron and the other local businesses and even residents who would contribute to the cause were not luxuries for Harvick. They were essential.
Harvick figures he paid for one full season by recycling air conditioning cores as scrap metal.
"The struggles really weren't struggles because we were having fun,'' Harvick said. "That's how we survived. We recycled all the cans in the shop. Literally $100 meant one tire and that's how you thought about things.
"You had to think about everything you could to save money and put money toward the race car and didn't want to wreck it because the $600 at the pay window didn't go a long ways.
"That bled over into what we did on daily basis and how we ran our race teams and how you think about approaching a race. You can still race really hard but you have to take care of your stuff because you used to not be able to afford it. The way I was brought up, the way I raced, a lot of that bleeds over into today."
And now, Harvick has the fortunate and hard-earned chance to give back.
He brought news of that this week, proudly announcing Wednesday that his Kevin HarvickFoundation -- in partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation -- would be financing a major renovation and redevelopment project for the largest branch of the Boys and Girls Club of Fern County.
Giving back to the youth in the community has been a priority for Harvick and his wife DeLana from the beginning. Quite often, Harvick's donations to various Bakersfield organizations and families is purposely kept low-profile.
In the past eight years, his foundation has given college scholarships to Bakersfield students, built a wrestling room for his former North High School and outfitted the golf team with new equipment including putters that weren't even for sale to the public yet.
The school welcomed him this week on their marquee: "Way to go #4. Two in a row," referring to his wins in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Chevrolet in Las Vegas and Phoenix the past two weeks.
"Kevin has been to several rallies here and shared that if you get involved with school you can accomplish your goals and dreams and that anything's possible with hard work,'' North High School Principal Alan Paradise said.
"That's the message Kevin has been sending to our students. It's a lot more than financial support and athletic equipment, it's also that message that he has given."
On Wednesday, Harvick sat on stage at the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium surrounded by community leaders and high-ranking state politicians, who offered presentations and praise for his work.
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, who remembers watching a 5-year-old Harvick pick up nuts and bolts in his dad's race shop and even helped sponsor his early racing career, proclaimed this past Wednesday "Kevin Harvick Day."
The other leaders followed with words of sincere gratitude for Harvick's long-standing charity work and for his unwavering support of his hometown youth.
And when the public -- some who stood in line for four hours -- was given a chance to ask questions of Harvick after the formal presentations, instead, they stood up and made declarations. One-by-one they passionately told him how much he has meant to this community. His community.
Ironically, it's Harvick who has been trying to thank the community for most of the last decade. Investing with his heart is as important as writing a check. And that matters a lot to people around here.
No matter where Harvick went this week, people shouted out congratulations, wanted to pose for photos or get an autograph -- so proud of Harvick for his championship and the streak of seven straight races finishing first or second, a mark that hasn't been seen since Richard Petty did it 40 years ago.
And yet as good as winning races and titles has been, Harvick is quite sure, the support is unwavering.
"Honestly, I come back here all the time and it would be the same type of event, same turnout whether I'm winning or losing,'' Harvick said. "These people have supported me through the years, win, lose or draw. It's just the type of community it is."
It did, however, take great pride when after winning the 2007 Daytona 500 and then again in November after hoisting the 2014 Sprint Cup championship trophy, Harvick offered them an inside message, proclaiming his work, "Not bad for an 08-er."
Actually, around here, they think it's pretty darn great.
To view this article as it appears on NASCAR.com, click here.