Wisconsin native Paul Menard strives for success in NASCAR’s top circuit
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
With his family involved in auto racing since before he was born, some might say it was inevitable that Paul Menard, an Eau Claire native, would eventually find himself behind the wheel of a race car. Menard’s first racing memories revolve around traveling to go-kart races when he was a kid to watch family members race.
Menard wasn’t watching for long, as he was only eight years old when he started racing go-karts. He says he raced go-karts throughout the upper Midwest, winning a lot of races and a few championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As a teenager, Menard also did some ice racing on the frozen lakes in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He says he was 15 years old when he started ice racing, but lied about his age because a driver needed to be at least 16 years old to race. He won 10 International Ice Racing Association events during his career.
“The thing with ice racing is you’re not sure where you’re going to race on any given weekend because so much of it depends on the quality of ice,” Menard says.
The next step on the racing ladder for Menard was racing a Legends car. He says he raced a Legends car up to four nights a week at tracks in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, including the tracks in Wausau and Marshfield.
“We ran the Great North Legends Tour which was around a 12 race schedule with one race at every track,” Menard recalls. “We’d follow that and then in between we’d go to the weekly races also.”
Menard says he got his first taste of late model racing when he raced one of Bryan Reffner’s late models at Marshfield Motor Speedway in 1999. Then in 2000 he started racing a late model in the RE/MAX Challenge Series, which was a touring division. He ran a limited schedule that year before competing full-time in 2001 and 2002.
He says the RE/MAX Challenge Series was a competitive series, with some of the top drivers from the Midwest competing in it. It was that competition that Menard says helped him the most to make the move to NASCAR.
“Any type of racing will get you along your way, but the most similar thing to what we run is an asphalt late model,” Menard says. “That’s the best thing I’ve done. And the traveling [helped prepare me for NASCAR also]. The RE/MAX Challenge Series was cool because you run a different track every week or whatever the schedule allowed. It made me adapt to different types of race tracks instead of getting use to the same one every week.”
Menard says Andy Petree, who is well known in the NASCAR ranks, watched him race in Phoenix and the two got to know each other. He says Petree was looking to put together a Busch Series (now known as the Nationwide Series) team at the same time Menards was looking at sponsorship opportunities in NASCAR.
“It was something that Menards was looking at exploring,” he says. “We’ve been involved in Indy Cars for years. My dad was talking about getting involved in NASCAR because of the exposure of it. It all kind of came together.”
With the involvement Menards had with Indy Cars, one may wonder how Menard wound up racing stock cars instead of Indy Cars. After all, as a kid, Menard says he attended Indy Car races, was given odd jobs to do by the race team and even spotted for different drivers in the Indy 500.
Menard credits growing up in Wisconsin as the reason he is racing stock cars instead of Indy Cars. “In Wisconsin, short track racing is where you get your most experience and that’s what we did,” he says. “We raced three, four nights a week.”
Once he made the move to NASCAR Menard says he raced in a couple truck races, but primarily raced in the Nationwide Series. He raced in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y. in 2003. He joined the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2007.
Menard is doing plenty of racing in 2010. He drives full-time for Richard Petty Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He is also driving full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Roush Fenway Racing.
Race fans will have the opportunity to see Menard race in Wisconsin in the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Saturday, June 19 in the Bucyrus 200 presented by Menards at Road America in Elkhart Lake. Menard knows that weekend will be challenging since the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is racing at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. that weekend.
“We’ll sacrifice Friday at Road America and we’ll sacrifice Saturday in Sonoma,” Menard says. “It’s too bad for my team in either place that I won’t be there and we’ll have to put somebody else in the car for practice those days. We knew that coming in that that is going to be the hardest jaunt going from California to Wisconsin in June.”
To Menard it is well worth the travel headaches because he enjoys racing close to home.
“Anytime you get to race close to home it’s a big deal,” Menards says. “Milwaukee was always neat because they typically have a late model race there also. I’d see a lot of people I raced against, familiar faces. Road America will kind of be the same thing.”
(This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)