Setting the Truck Series Standard: Ron Hornaday Jr.
by Tom Jensen November 25, 2020
During a career that earned him induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Ron Hornaday Jr. was the man to beat in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
On and off the track, second-generation Southern California racer Ron Hornaday Jr. more than earned his spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018.
Hornaday was the only driver to win four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championships, and he set what was then a record with 51 race victories in 360 starts. Hornaday led 9,689 laps and also amassed 27 poles, 158 top fives and 234 top 10s in the Truck Series. Big numbers, for sure.
The accomplishments of Hornaday and his fellow competitors are chronicled at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the featured Great Hall Exhibit called “Haulin’: 25 Years of NASCAR Trucks.”
Prior to joining the Truck Series, Hornaday won back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour series in 1992 and ’93.
Soon after came the first of two major career breaks. In 1994, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (2010) was watching a NASCAR Winter Heat Series race from Tucson, Arizona, on television and noticed Hornaday. “The Intimidator” tracked Hornaday down and offered him a ride for 1995 in the NASCAR SuperTruck Series by Craftsman (now Camping World Truck Series) .
“To race for Dale Earnhardt, to be in a national series, that’s something you always dreamed about,” Hornaday said. “But then to get paid to do it? That was a no-brainer to me.”
To race for Dale Earnhardt, to be in a national series, that’s something you always dreamed about.
— Ron Hornaday Jr.
The first official Truck Series race took place as part of the Copper World Classic, a weekend-long series of races at Phoenix International Raceway (now Phoenix Raceway).
Earnhardt, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick (2017), Geoffrey Bodine and Ken Schrader were among the NASCAR premier series competitors who fielded trucks at that event. Mike Skinner won that first race on Feb. 5, 1995, while Hornaday qualified on the pole and finished ninth. The competition was fierce, which would become a Truck Series hallmark.
“In the Truck Series, we’d rip each other’s throats out for a win, because we felt like we had to,” said Skinner, who went on to become the first series champion. “We didn’t realize how ruthless we were to win a race. And we would do anything, because we felt like we had to. We felt like our life depended on our next race.”
“Looking back and seeing how young we were, and the competition was just unbelievable,” he said. “Jimmy Hensley and Joe Ruttman and Jack Sprague and Mike Skinner, Tony Raines. You name it. You start naming people, and they were all showing up there.”
In the Truck Series, we’d rip each other’s throats out for a win, because we felt like we had to.
— Mike Skinner
Hornaday and Skinner raced the way the NASCAR premier series guys did in the 1960s—bitter rivals on the track but loyal friends off it. “We were kind of like the coyote and the sheepdog,” Skinner said. “We hated each other while we were at work, but as soon as work was over, it was ‘OK, hey, want a beer?’
“It was just that kind of relationship,” Skinner said. “There were times when we got out of the trucks and called each other everything but whatever, and the next thing you know, ‘Ah, hell, let’s try it again next week. We’ll get over it.’ And we were both able to get over it when we had problems. And that never changed through our whole careers. It never changed.”
One thing that also never changed was Hornaday’s aggression on the track.
“When you saw him in the mirror, you knew trouble was coming,” said Todd Bodine, who, like Hornaday and Skinner, is a past Truck Series champion with a truck on display in the Great Hall. “You didn’t want to mess with him. He never took it from anybody. If you wanted to dish it out to Ron, you better be willing to take it back, because he’s going to make sure you get it back.”
For Bodine, it was years later before he and Hornaday became friends. But when it happened, Bodine began to understand that Hornaday was very different on and off of the track.
“Most drivers’ personalities carry over to the race track. And that’s the one thing that’s kind of a misconception with Ron among the fans because if you watch him drive, you think he’s a hard-nosed S.O.B., gonna-punch-you-in-the-face kind of guy, where he’s not,” Bodine said. “He’s a very compassionate and caring person. If you’re a friend of Ron’s, you’re a friend for life, and he would do absolutely anything he could to try and help you. That’s a part of Ron that doesn’t get to be seen by the fans.”
He’s a very compassionate and caring person. If you’re a friend of Ron’s, you’re a friend for life.
— Todd Bodine
Make no mistake about it, though, Hornaday was a wheelman and a damn fine one at that. Driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) from 1995 to 1999, Hornaday won 25 times, scoring top-five finishes in 57 of 97 races. He won Truck Series championships for DEI in 1996 and 1998 and never finished worse than seventh in points.
Not a big talker, Hornaday let his driving speak for him. When asked what made him so good, he said, “Putting food on the table. You gotta run good. You don’t get paid unless you run good, and I got a percentage of how we finished. And you know you at least get new shoes on Monday morning if you won the race.”
Hornaday’s success led to a stint in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he enjoyed some success before returning to the Truck Series, this time driving for Kevin Harvick Inc., the team owned by Harvick and his wife, DeLana Harvick, co-owned.
Hornaday won his first Truck Series championship with KHI (and his third overall) in 2007 and earned his fourth and final title two years later.
“[Hornaday] made our company legitimate from a racing standpoint,” Harvick said. “Because we brought in a champion, a winner, and he continued to win. We won a couple of championships with Ron there. I think we won 40 or 50 Truck Series races. I think as you look at what he brought, he brought that instant approval of a winner and a proven champion and proven winner in himself. We knew we just had to get our stuff right, and we were able to be successful together. It was fun to see him be successful at the end of his career.”
There’s a less publicly known part of the Hornaday story that makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame, too. He and Lindy live in Mooresville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, and for more than a decade they have made their home available to racers.
Before he was a seven-time champion in the NASCAR premier series, Jimmie Johnson spent six months sleeping on the Hornadays’ couch. So did Harvick and many others.
“He and Lindy just had open arms and told me, ‘If you are ever in North Carolina, we will give you a place to stay. Come stay with us.” Johnson said. Two or three months after their offer, Johnson had the opportunity to come to the East Cast for a late-model test with Hendrick Motorsports.
“I needed a couch to sleep on. I moved in,” Johnson said. “They wouldn’t let me move out. I stayed there for six months until Ron, on one of his Harley rides, found a home that he thought I could afford and seemed like a good buy, and I bought my first house. They have been amazing to me and to many others in the sport, not just drivers. There are officials walking up and down pit road that have all bunked at his home, crew members from all over the place. Ron’s contribution to our sport not only includes the amazing things he did on the track but so many things off the track.”
I needed a couch to sleep on. I moved in. They wouldn't let me move out.
— Jimmie Johnson
“I just enjoy people,” Hornaday said. “I work hard for what I have. When Jimmie Johnson came out and said he was going to race for Chevrolet, he was in off-road racing, and he was coming out to North Carolina and looking for a place to rent. I said, ‘Just stay at my house. We’ll save up a couple of months of your paycheck and you can put a down payment on a house. Don’t waste your money on rent.’ I did the same thing with Kevin (Harvick). Instead of wasting money renting a house, you can put some equity into a house by putting a couple thousand dollars down.
“But we’ve had Ross Chastain stay here, four or five guys stayed here. We still have part of the couch,” Hornaday says. “Built a little trophy room and a shed by the pool. It’s kind of like our poolroom. I’ve got the couch still, the jukebox we used to listen to. A lot of good times.”
And a lot of good friendships along the way.
“Our generation, we grew up building race cars, working on race cars, working all night on race cars,” Bodine says. “We understood what it meant to be a real racer. And when these kids came along and wanted to have a career in the sport, doing what they loved, Ron understood that passion and had his own compassion for them. That’s Ron’s hidden trait among the racing community and his fans—his compassion for helping people, whether it be letting them sleep on his couch or letting them bring their race car to the shop and work on it. Or if something happens at the track, he’s there to help. He’s a very compassionate guy. That’s the one thing I don’t think people get to see enough of him.”
“I might be getting a little grumpy in my old age, but I still enjoy life,” Hornaday says. “I still have a lot of fun. I just enjoy people. It’s cool.”