No doubt about it, Robby Sawyer is a polarizing figure.
A win in IMCA Modified competition at Bakersfield Speedway is likely to bring as many jeers as cheers and the veteran racer is good with both.
“I made my bed, I’ll sleep in it,” said Sawyer, who seems to be able to get under a competitor’s skin in a variety of ways — be it a wry smile, an off-the-cuff remark, an on-track incident or the simple act of winning a race.
Sawyer, 33, and in his 18th year of racing, says he has mellowed over the past few years — especially off the track — but admits his past actions (mostly in the pits during heated disputes) have become part of his legacy.
“It’s almost guilt by association,” he said of how other competitors seem to love to hate him. “It’s the fun thing to do. I think a lot of people have changed the way they do things. It’s easy to make a bad reputation. It’s hard to get rid of one.”
Though he is a second generation racer, Sawyer was not led into racing by his father, Kelly. In fact, Kelly Sawyer, who quit racing in 1992, did all he could to discourage his only child from going down that path.
“He wanted nothing to do with (racing), he never even took me out there (to Bakersfield Speedway) after he quit racing,” Sawyer said. “One day I told him I wanted to start racing go karts and he said no.”
But showing a hint of stubbornness that remains to this day, the younger Sawyer would not take no as an answer.
“I had raised money through 4-H and bought my first kart with money I had saved,” he said. “I was 13 and that forced him to take me racing.”
Fast forward to 2001 and Robby Sawyer was ready to get into a race car.
“(Robby Sawyer) got home from work one day and I said I wanted to race Hobby Stocks,” Sawyer said. “He said no.”
Once again, money raised from ag projects came into play.
“I went out and found one,” Sawyer said. “It was $300 race ready. He went with me and said it would do.”
The younger Sawyer has been racing at dirt tracks throughout the state ever since, with the exception of a few years in a pavement car.
Dirt tops pavement
Sawyer competed in Hobby Stocks for a few seasons before, with support from his dad, he tried his hand at Super Late Model racing on pavement.
It was an entirely different discipline and league.
“I did Super Late Models at Irwindale for three years — 2005-2007 — and was no good at it,” he said. “My best finish was a second. It takes so much money to be fast. It was another ball game.”
Sawyer got into an IMCA Modified in 2009 where, with the exception of another pavement experiment, he has been ever since.
“I drove for Steve McGowan and MMI (on pavement) at the end of 2013 and I was still no good at it,” Sawyer said. “I went back to dirt in 2014.”
Dirt is where Sawyer is comfortable and the Mods allow him to compete anywhere, which he likes.
“The fact that I can load that thing up and race anywhere and the rules are the same no matter where you go is really appealing,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer traveled throughout the state last year on the All Star Tour and just missed winning the championship.
“I won four of 11 races, had more wins than anybody, but came up four points short,” he said. “We won at Bakersfield, Petaluma, Hanford and Calistoga. I had never been to Petaluma or Calistoga.”
Sawyer has competed in 21 races thus far this year and has four wins — two at Bakersfield Speedway and two at Perris.
“Out of 21 races, we have 15 top fives,” he said.
But a championship may not be in his cards.
“I run all the races I can at Bakersfield Speedway, I support my local dirt track,” he said. “But I’ve never run a full season in Modifieds at Bakersfield. This year I was leading in points, had a family trip planned, and missed a race.”
Mixing family and racing
Sawyer hopes to get in about 35 races this year, but he’s learned over the years that there is far more to life than just racing.
“If you want to destroy friendships and families racing is a good way to do it,” he said. “I’ve been married (to Ren) 10 years and know what it takes to make a marriage work and find an equal balance. She supports me 100 percent.
“I promised my wife last year that I would do all our vacations this year. We took two weeks off and went to Costa Rica. We’ve been to Hawaii and we have a camping trip in two weeks. When that’s over it’s all racing for the rest of the year.”
As for working on the car, Sawyer tries to make it a one-night affair.
“The guys come over, we work on the car and (Ren) makes dinner for everyone,” he said. “I try to do it early in the week. That way the car is ready to go on Saturday morning.”
Slide job turmoil
A tried and true method of passing when a dirt track has just one fast way around on the high side is the slide job. A driver drives deep into a corner down low and then slides up the the track coming out in front (hopefully) of the other driver.
It is a signature move for Sawyer, and one that has caused him grief at times when the slide job comes up short and he ends up hitting his competitor.
“If it’s a two groove track there’s no reason for it,” Sawyer said. “But when it’s one groove around the top slide jobs come into play. You throw a slide job coming though the field on a guy running 12th and you clear them by several cars. Getting by a fast guy is harder.”
When a slide comes up short cars can be damaged. Tempers can flare.
“If you master it and you’re good at it (the slide job) is a great tool to have,” Sawyer said. “It’s a chess game. If you do it to the wrong person you can tear up some equipment and it can be yours.”
Sawyer won his last race at the Speedway with a slide job on Ricky Childress Jr. that came up a bit short. There was some contact and it would be safe to say Childress and some of his crew/fans were not pleased.
The old Robby Sawyer might have escalated the situation.
The new one smiled in victory lane.
“I just kept my cool,” he said. “I want no confrontation whatsoever. If they are unhappy let them yell at me.”