LAKE NORMAN, N.C. -- The NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is just five days away, and there is work to do. The champion's car isn't anywhere close to being ready.
In the shop filled with the occasional whirring of metal-shaping machinery, the chassis of Brad Keselowski's Dodge sits, exposed. His driver's seat and steering wheel still need to be installed. The body of the Charger is still being emblazoned with the last of its long list of sponsor logos. The key to snapping together this intricate puzzle is held within the endless measurements that are kept, handwritten, in pages and pages of stacks and stacks of notebooks.
"There hasn't been a lot of sleep around here for a while, and there won't be for a while yet," the machinist says. "Now, could you hand me that car?"
Welcome to the shop of Mike Dunlap. More accurately, welcome to his studio. The place where NASCAR's most coveted trophy is crafted from scratch each and every year. Since 1985, Goodyear has awarded NASCAR's Cup Series champ with a 1/12-scale replica of his race car, covered in a 24-karat gold-plate finish.
"With all due respect to the actual Sprint Cup trophy, the Goodyear gold car is the coolest trophy in auto racing," says Tony Stewart, owner of three such awards. "Any race car driver, even the bad ones, have a bunch of trophies stacked up all over the place. But there's only one that I catch myself pulling out and just staring at all day. That's the gold car."
'A model builder, not an artist'
From a distance, it looks like a simple model, the shiny shell of a stock car. But anyone who has ever seen one up close, and certainly the 13 drivers who own one (on Thursday, Keselowski will become the 14th), knows the piece is much more than that.
It's a scale model in the truest sense of the term.
"It includes every single detail, every piece and part, from their car," says Dunlap, sitting at the workbench upstairs in his shop just off North Carolina's Lake Norman. As he talks, he holds two small plastic bags. They hold the nearly microscopic lug nuts and hood pins. "I want them to look at this car and have it feel instantly familiar. To say, 'That's it. That's my car. That's the car I drove when I became a champion.' They deserve that. They have earned an award that represents something they've worked so hard for all season long."
As they worked, so did Dunlap, who is careful to call himself "a model builder, not an artist." The model builder's trophy is awarded in December, during NASCAR Champion's Week. But the process begins at the start of the season. He spends early spring visiting race shops and NASCAR's Research & Development Center, taking photographs and collecting measurements of each make and model. Using hundreds of photos and meticulous notes, he crafts the body of each make, using a plaster model, a mold box of rubber and Plexiglas, and a process called electroforming to create copper body shapes ready for engraving.
That's when the lathe comes to life in his shop, often tuned down to thousandths of an inch, fabricating the first pieces from copper. That includes every roll bar, spring, radio antenna and fire extinguisher. "I can start constructing a chassis of each make fairly early. It's the details of exactly which drivers I need to start really following that you can't get too far out ahead of."
Sitting side-by-side on his bench, the differences in each driver's ride are obvious. The seats are different styles. The rearview mirrors are mounted differently. And the placement of switches and gauges on the dash is completely different. Keselowski's is a more traditional, rudimentary layout, but Jimmie Johnson's gauges are clustered in the center with the switches split up on either side.
As the season takes shape into early summer and the Cup contenders begin to reveal themselves, Dunlap is in constant contact with Stu Grant, Goodyear GM of global race tires. They talk racing just as fans and media do, taking their best crack at predicting what direction the title fight might take. By mid- to late summer, they try to have it narrowed down to a handful of potential winners.
"The Chase has really changed this process for me," Dunlap admits. "Under the old points system, by August you typically would know what you had. It would be a couple of guys, sometimes only one, and you could just focus on them. Now you have no idea what's going to happen until the last weekend. As a race fan, that's great. As a model builder, that's pretty stressful."
Entering this year's second-to-last race, Johnson held a seven-point lead over Keselowski. All week, the chatter among NASCAR fans and media had been Johnson's place in history once he won this seemingly inevitable sixth Cup. And all week, Dunlap worked furiously on Johnson's car. As the Phoenix event roared along that Sunday, Dunlap listened as he crafted. But when the Lowe's Chevy blew a right front tire and plowed into the wall, he put the 48 model up on a shelf and replaced it on the workbench with Keselowski's Dodge.
"But first," he recalls with a frustrated smile, "I went downstairs and had a beer. Maybe two."
One can't help but think Carl Edwards would need a few drinks if he saw what was sitting on a tabletop in Dunlap's shop. It's the body of his 2011 Ford Fusion, engraved with every sponsor sticker but still in its copper form. It still looks ready to be coated in gold. Instead, it waits like a citizen of the Land of Misfit Toys, hoping someone someday finds a use for it.
Have trophy, will travel
Once the champion is crowned, Dunlap has roughly 10 days to complete the project. "My family knows they won't see me at Thanksgiving. I send my wife away to represent me."
The champion's car is sent off to the engraver for any final additions of detail. It comes back to Dunlap to be cleaned and polished, then goes back out for the meticulous gold-plating process. Every single piece and part is covered in 24K gold, then shipped back to Dunlap for the final assembly before being polished once again, photographed, then shipped to Las Vegas.
"It is typically pretty close," he says. "Like really close."
It's always been that way. The first gold car awarded was to Darrell Waltrip in '85. Recalls DW: "When I got it, I was like, 'Wait, this car has Bill Elliott's name on it!' He'd led the points all year, had won all these races, and all the sudden I caught him. They didn't have mine ready yet, but they did pretty quick after that. It was so darn cool, I didn't care whose name was on it."
Then the three-time champ laughs. "I can tell you this, it was a lot cooler than the belt buckle they used to give you."
That's when the awards ceremony was in New York. For many of those years, Dunlap lived in Northern Virginia. The car would be picked up from his house and driven at a high speed to the Waldorf-Astoria, arriving just hours before the banquet. "Now it has to be flown out west," he says. "It cuts a whole day off my preparation time."
That's a lot of miles for a trophy in a short period of time, the kind of travel that can be rough on a delicate piece of artwork. That's why the gold car travels in a crate that looks more like a coffin than a model box. Even then, one of Johnson's cars was delivered in recent years with damage. "You just want to it get there safe," says Dunlap, his brow crossed just discussing the topic. "And you want to see the reaction of the guy who gets it. That makes it all worth it to me."
Undisclosed estimations and locations
That said, Dunlap has been present for only one presentation of his work, when Johnson received his second car in '07. He was taken aback by the way Johnson gushed over the award, as did Jeff Gordon, owner of four gold cars and there as co-owner of Johnson's team. Aside from that moment, Dunlap has had little or no contact with the owners of his handiwork. However, he has heard some of the stories of how protective they are of their gold cars.
Waltrip has his on display at his car dealership in Franklin, Tenn. Elliott, who won his car in '88, keeps his locked up and pulls it out only when friends ask to see it. It seems most are kept in hiding, or in personal collections at home. One of Johnson's five and one of Stewart's three are on display at their race shops. Where are the others? "Where I can look at them myself," Stewart says. "Other than that, I'm not telling you."
When Dale Earnhardt won the first of his six in 1986, he and car owner Richard Childress damn near had a fight over who would get to keep it. Finally, they agreed that Dale got it but that, if they won another, Richard could have that one. The next year, Richard got his. Nearly a decade and half later, when Earnhardt built his sparkling new headquarters of Dale Earnhardt Inc., among the top priorities was building a custom-lit trophy case specifically for his gold cars. He contacted Dunlap and had a replica of his '87 trophy done, one of only two the craftsman has built outside of Goodyear's orders.
The actual worth of the gold car is unknown, as it is considered a work of art. Dunlap is paid by Goodyear for hours of service, which is annually in the thousands. Most of the drivers don't want to know a monetary value. They don't need one.
"The year I won the championship, Goodyear gave me a crystal car instead," Rusty Wallace remembers of his '89 title. "It was cool, but I flat wore them out for the next decade, 'Hey man, when am I getting a gold car?!' When I retired, I finally got one. I don't know how much it's worth, and I don't care, man. It's priceless to me."
It's priceless to anyone who has a Dunlap gold car in his collection. But, this week, it might mean just a little more to the championship car owner than normal.
In 1981, Dunlap was an uninspired salesman. Where he did find inspiration was in model building, a hobby he had taken up because of his father, a former World War II fighter pilot who loved to build models of the planes he had flown. (It's his father's old workbench that he still uses today.)
Over the years, Dunlap had started building his model cars from metal. In an effort to market his skills to the racing market, he befriended a photographer with Championship Auto Racing Teams, the premier open-wheel racing series of the day. One day in the CART garage, a display of his work caught the eye of team owner Roger Penske. Penske was fascinated, and ordered six models of his cars, driven by the likes of Al Unser and Dunlap's favorite driver, Rick Mears. It was Penske who suggested to Goodyear that it start doing business with Dunlap. Now, 30 years later, Goodyear is still his primary client (although he's looking for more).
This week, finally, Penske will have won a Sprint Cup title. And finally earned a Dunlap model without having to pay for it.
"We've kind of come full circle, haven't we?" Dunlap says. "That's a great story."
Better than great. It's gold.