Once Don Droud Jr. got the hang of winning in a 360 sprint car, predictably, he began exploring the world of 410 sprint car racing.
An early opportunity came with Osage City, Kan., mechanic, promoter, and owner Gary Mussatto. By this time in his career, when Droud hit the road, he was often joined by fellow Lincoln native Mark Burch.
Burch would follow his father as the proprietor of a successful tax accounting firm, but while he was making his way through the University of Nebraska he did a number of odd jobs to stay afloat.
True to his state’s heritage, he spent time de-tasseling corn, but he also toiled in an auto parts store. However, the job that changed at least a slice of his life came when he took a position at a full-service gasoline station owned by Roger Pearson.
Burch had already been indoctrinated into racing by attending events at Midwest Speedway on Sunday nights. He admitted that one of the attractions of the speedway was “they didn’t card you, and they sold Budweiser beer in a horse trough full of ice.”
Then he got even deeper into the sport when he started helping on an enduro car that Pearson’s son was racing. Pearson could see that Burch was having fun going to the track, and he suggested that he lend a hand to his pal Don Droud Sr., who needed some help with his sprint car.
While Droud Sr. may not have been clear how a budding accountant could be of service, he knew full well that Roger Pearson was always welcome in his pit.
“’Pearson was a good friend of mine,” Droud Sr. said. “In fact, he was my main man. I hit a guy one night and tipped him over and his crew came down and were going to pound dirt into my butt. Roger was up by the truck and I said, ‘Hey, I might need some help back here.’ So he came up and was standing by me, and those guys took one look at him and walked away. He was over six-foot tall and weighed about 275. He was tough. We took the motor out of the car one time, because we had to change the front motor mounts.
“Roger just reached in there and picked that block up by himself and set it on the floor. He was quite a guy.”
Perhaps it was a conversation that began on a long road trip, but Droud Jr. began broaching the idea that Burch should get a car of his own. The more time Mark spent mulling it over, the more attractive the notion became.
“I worked on his dad’s car,” Burch said. “And so when Don Jr. raced for other people, like Gary Mussatto and Tony Porto, if his dad wasn’t racing, I would work for him. We became really good friends from racing and traveling together. In 1994 he had been driving some 410 stuff, and was having some success, but the Nebraska Sprint Car Ass’n was thriving back then. We had a lot of really good races that paid well, and had a good point fund too. In fact, some of the races we had then paid more than they do now, which is crazy.
“So, we talked about putting a 360 car together so we could go do that. He said he would do it if we had a good motor. So, I bought a used car from Don’s brother Rodney. It was a 1989 Schnee which probably had 300 races on it, but it was a good car. Wayne Lewis helped us build our first motors. We got our heads, cams, and injectors from Earl Gaerte, because back then that was the thing to have. I couldn’t afford a new Gaerte, but I could afford to put one together with my mentor Wayne Lewis. So, we got our own thing going and we had success right away.
“I think we won five races the first year.”
It was great to win in his home state and region but, like many who have tasted success in sprint cars, the urge to race with the World of Outlaws on a regular basis was strong. When an opportunity arose to drive for owner Craig Cormack, it was just too good to pass up.
While he would fall short of his ultimate goal, the record shows that he had some fine years in the Burger King-sponsored car. He would race with the NCRA series in 1996, and only Gary Wright was better when all the points were tallied.
In 1997 he scored his first win at Knoxville Raceway, in mid-June, and would finish second in the season standings to Skip Jackson. In 1998 it was the same story with a twist.
Once again Droud fell one position shy of Jackson in the championship chase, but on Aug. 24 he turned a lap of 14.934 seconds, becoming the first driver under the 15-second mark in qualifications. It was a standard that stood for seven years.
It would be natural to assume that Droud knew he had absolutely nailed it when he streaked under the checkered flag. The truth is, at that very moment, he was far from pleased.
“I didn’t think our car was that fast,” he says. “But our cars were that good. This time the sun, the moon, and the stars were aligned. I remember going down the back straightaway to pull in the pits and I was pissed because I thought I was slow. I was so mad I didn’t even look up at the scoreboard, and I usually did that. But everything was just perfect. The thing never slipped a tire, and I never cut the wheel. It was a new track record.”
The plan had always been to move Droud Jr. to the World of Outlaws tour. Unfortunately, it never happened. Droud Jr. was fired, and Cormack ultimately decided to hit the road with a new hired hand.
This tale is not a simple recounting of wins and losses. More than anything, the Don Droud Jr. story is about desire and doing whatever it takes to keep a foot in the game.