Mark Story

The Kentucky college that launched a NASCAR icon to the Hall of Fame

Born in Covington and a 1964 alumnus of Berea College, iconic car owner Jack Roush will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Feb. 1, 2019.
Born in Covington and a 1964 alumnus of Berea College, iconic car owner Jack Roush will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Feb. 1, 2019. Associated Press

Around the Berea College campus in the first years of the 1960s, there was no question where to go if you had a broken bicycle or a blown car engine.

Jack Roush was your guy.

“Jack could fix anything,” says Don Hudson. “When we were in college, he was always fixing something for somebody.”

In May, Roush, now 76, was elected to the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. No car owner in history has won more races in the three NASCAR national touring series than Roush (325).

On Saturday night, Roush Fenway Racing will field cars for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth in the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart. Roush has yet to win a NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway.

That fact carries a certain poignance because the road that led Roush to election to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame began in the commonwealth.

World War II was raging when Roush was born in 1942 in Covington.

“I was born just about a year before the war caught up with my family,” Roush said. “My dad went off to the South Pacific and my mother and I went back to the homestead in Adams County (Ohio).”

Roush grew up just across the Ohio River from Maysville in Manchester, Ohio. “We shopped in Maysville,” he said. “Did our shopping for school clothes there in the fall and for Christmas in the winter time.”

From the time he was a boy, Roush was fascinated with how things worked. His dream was to be an engineer.

“The superintendent of the school system in Manchester looked at what my prospects were,” Roush says. “I didn’t have enough money to be able to go to an engineering school. He said he thought, maybe, he could get me admitted to Berea (College).”

Until that conversation, Roush had never heard of Berea, the small private college in Kentucky whose mission is to provide the opportunity for a college education to students, especially from Appalachia, who exhibit promise but lack financial means.

Says Roush: “I figured out (Berea) was for kids who didn’t have a lot of money behind them to go and work their way through school. And I was ready to do that.”

Life at Berea

A math major, Roush started out working on the cafeteria line. He spent a year supervising the student union building. Another year, he did janitorial work, cleaning bathrooms on campus.

His last year at Berea, Roush served as “freight clerk” in the office of a college vice president. “It was my job, justifying the freight bills that came in (for) things received by the college,” he says.

Team owner Jack Roush walked through the garage area during practice for the 2018 Daytona 500. The Kentucky native has won the Daytona 500 twice as a car owner, with driver Matt Kenseth in 2009 and 2012. Phelan M. Ebenhack Associated Press

One Thursday afternoon, at a campus chapel service, Roush found himself talking with a fellow student.

Pauline Correll was a Kentuckian, from Monticello, and a year ahead of Roush in college.

“We struck up a conversation and, next thing I know, we are on a movie date, had a little meal before,” Roush said. “We dated continuously (from then) and, a year later, we were married.”

The newlywed couple moved into a Berea mobile home.

Those who lived off campus, Roush says, were exempt from what was then a Berea College prohibition on students owning cars.

That was important for Roush because, even then, cars were important in his life. Throughout college, he had an ongoing side business as a Mr. Fix-It.

NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, right, was congratulated by former driver Mark Martin, left, after being named to the 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Chuck Burton AP

Hudson, who attended Berea and spent his subsequent career as a professor at the college, said the young Roush was “very, very smart” and “so focused on work.”

Yet it was Roush’s passion for cars that put some excitement into his years at Berea.

“Occasionally (Roush) would find time on weekends to race an old Dodge over at the Richmond Raceway drag strip,” Hudson said. “That was a lot of fun.”

Hall of Fame career

After Berea, Roush moved to Detroit and made a life in autos.

He started out working for Ford, but eventually built his own company that, in layman’s terms, did research and development for the automotive industry.

Across the decades, Roush developed an acumen for building winning race teams. His teams won championships in drag racing and road racing before he transitioned to NASCAR in 1988.

On the suggestion of Bobby Allison, Roush hired Mark Martin as his first Cup Series driver. Together, the duo won 35 Cup races and the team that was built became something enduring.

In 2003, Matt Kenseth gave Roush his first Cup Series championship. The following year, Kurt Busch made it back-to-back championships.

Kenseth produced Roush’s first Daytona 500 win in 2009, then a second in 2012.

Along the way, Roush has also survived two airplane crashes (in 2002 and 2010) in which he was the pilot.

Some might take living through two plane crashes as a sign it was time to leave the flying to others.

“Oh, no,” Roush said Tuesday. “I flew down from Michigan to North Carolina today. ... I will fly home tonight. I still enjoy flying. I haven’t really slowed down much.”

In spite of a career filled with auto racing success, Roush says he never saw himself as a cinch to make the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Jack Roush Hall of Fame announcement.JPG
The 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, from left, Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. Chuck Burton Associated Press

“I had not counted on it,” he says. “I did not think my popularity was enough to get it through.”

This fall, Roush plans to return to Berea College. He says the college has informed him he will be honored.

“Berea was a great place to learn to work and balance things in your life,” Roush said. “My Berea training was very vital to me.”

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory