Living the dream takes sacrifice

From diapers to Daytona, these dads have seen it all.

They're three common men with uncommon sons: Tom Busch, a tool salesman from Nevada; Greg Newman, an Indiana automotive shop owner; and Gary Johnson, a California heavy equipment operator.

What do all three fathers have in common? They raised their boys to be men -- men of speed.

Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson each came from average households and have become household names. Their success is a product of preparation, talent and fatherly guidance.

At the tender age of 4, Ryan Newman turned his first laps in a racecar. Greg Newman, a lifelong race fan who himself never had an opportunity to drive, bought a half-built quarter midget and with his dad's help, completed the car for Ryan.

"He was just a little kid," Greg recalled. "He didn't know any better, he just went around in circles."

The Johnsons took a similar approach. Only it wasn't just circles. It was lefts and rights with a couple jumps thrown in, all done on two wheels. Jimmie was just 4 when his father Gary introduced him to motocross racing.

The mere thought of putting a pre-schooler in or on a motorized vehicle is enough for most parents to gasp, but not these guys.

"The convincing part was that quarter midget racing was probably as safe as riding a bicycle down the sidewalk or the street," Greg Newman said. "(Ryan) had a cage around him and a seatbelt on him. On a bicycle you can get smashed and everything else."

For Johnson though, the sense of security he felt when he first put Jimmie on a motorcycle began to fade when his son's friends began to get injured. Jimmie himself had reconstructive knee surgery at the age of 8.

"I couldn't take it anymore," Johnson told ESPN the Magazine in 2002. "I told (Jimmie), 'The next thing you're racing is going to have a roll cage."

By the time Jimmie was a teenager Gary redirected his son's focus toward off-road racing in the California dessert.

Nervous mothers were another common obstacle for these NASCAR dads. "She was (nervous) then and is today," said Greg Newman, of his wife Diane. "(She) never changed."

Tom Busch was a professional salesman but even he had a tough time closing the deal with his wife. "She thought Go-Karts were a problem," explained Tom, who was a hobby late model racer himself. "She'd seen too many Go-Kart exhibition guys land on their helmet and get tossed out of the kart."

No sale.

Kurt had to wait until he was old -- 15 and a half, to be precise. It was then that Tom unselfishly put his own late model career on hold to focus his efforts on Kurt. Together they refurbished two used dwarf cars (similar to Legend cars), one for each of them.

"I wouldn't have gone anywhere in racing if it wasn't for my father," stressed Kurt Busch, reflecting back on those formative years. "He's the one who geared me up to enjoy the whole realm of racing."

In Kurt's debut he was relegated to a last row starting position (about 25th), largely due to his rookie status. Meanwhile Tom started on the front row, won the race and never saw Kurt.

"When we stopped he was beaming and happy, there wasn't a mark on the car and when he told me he finished fifth I was absolutely dumbfounded," said Tom Busch. "I was thinking this kid has done nothing except like go to birthday parties and run go karts."

Over the course of the 1994 summer it became father-son night every Saturday night at the ΒΌ-mile Pahrump Valley Speedway.

"I was just a kid in an adult's world just trying to gain experience," Kurt Busch remembered. "I was able to beat him in my second race. But it probably took another 10 races after that before I beat him again."

Tom's recollection is a little different.

"By July, not only did I see (Kurt) all the time I usually saw his rear bumper," recollected Tom Busch. "By the end of that year, I physically flat never ran with him."

The Newman, Busch and Johnson families have fond memories of those early days. That's not to say, however, that there weren't hard times. After all, as young racers progress, parents can't simply buy them a new baseball glove and a larger pair of cleats. They need new tires, chassis, motors and cars. It's an expensive endeavor to say the least.

"We never had a nice fancy home because we spent all our money on toys to go racing," Gary Johnson explained to ESPN the Magazine.

Tom Busch can sympathize. "(My wife's) car was approaching 18 years old. My pickup was like 10. And it was like, well if we keep going like we're going instead of running out and getting new cars or new furniture, then heck we can come up with four or six thousand (dollars) to get junior in a car," explained Tom Busch. "Then it was up to Kurt to see how little he can wreck. He could have put us out of business right away."

The travel also took its toll.

"There were tons of sacrifices," said Greg Newman, "Family-wise, money-wise, business-wise. We gave up a lot of family functions that we would have normally done. We spent every other weekend on the road somewhere traveling somewhere to a different racetrack with the quarter midget."

Arguably, the ends justify the means and the sacrifices were well worth it. Combined these three young NASCAR hotshots have 27 Nextel Cup Series victories, and have won over 8 million dollars.

But for these fathers the greatest reward is pride. Their sons have taken their dreams and made them reality.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.