Kevin Lepage may not have been the biggest name or most successful driver in NASCAR, but his blue-collar New England roots and how he treated fans throughout his three-plus decade racing career made him a winner if not on the track, then certainly off it.
Perhaps the best example of Lepage‘s humility and how he always put fans first was back in the mid-1990s, shortly after moving from his home in Shelburne, Vermont to North Carolina to pursue his NASCAR dream in what is now the Xfinity Series.
Lepage was at the Asheboro (N.C.) Zoo, making an appearance for Make-A-Wish. He signed autographs for 50 children and had his primary sponsor at the time, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, send 50 teddy bears to give to each of the youngsters.
As late broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, let‘s let Kevin tell the rest of the story. And spoiler alert, you might want to have a tissue handy:
“We gave a teddy bear to every child there,” Lepage told NASCAR.com. “When we got done, we noticed we still had two teddy bears left. I asked someone about two girls that were in wheelchairs that had been there earlier and they said the girls were getting overheated from being out in the sun, so they put them in an RV.
“So I went to the RV and gave each girl a teddy bear. One of the girls could barely see, just saw shadows, and had limited movement. I picked her arms up and put one of the teddy bears next to her and she had this big smile on her face. I was happy I made that little girl‘s day.”
(Okay, you‘ve been warned: get the tissue ready.)
“It‘s still hard for me to talk about it,” Lepage said, his voice catching with emotion. “Because about two weeks later, I got a letter in the mail and the little girl had passed away.
“The note from her mom said, ‘Thank you for making my little girl‘s last two weeks on Earth the happiest she‘s ever been. She never let go of that bear until the day she died.‘”
Lepage then soberly added, “Those are the kind of things I was able to experience and those are things I‘ll take to the grave, that I made this little girl happy for two weeks.”
That‘s the kind of guy Lepage was as a race car driver and still is today as a successful owner of a landscaping business near Mooresville, N.C. Even though he‘s been out of NASCAR since 2014, his name and reputation as a fan favorite still precede him.
“I get a chance to meet a lot of our customers who either saw me racing or recognize the name from racing,” he said.
In a sense, Lepage has NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott to thank for starting him on the path to the next chapter of his life once racing would finally come to an end.
“I was at Watkins Glen racing one weekend and Bill motioned me over and asked what am I doing after this?” Lepage said. “I said I was getting on the airplane and going back to North Carolina. He said, ‘No, no, what are you doing after you get done driving?‘ I told him I really hadn‘t thought about it.
“He said, ‘Well, this is not a forever job. You really have to think about the future because a lot of my competitors raced until whenever and then when they were done racing, they were like, ‘What do we do now?‘”
When he returned to his Mooresville, N.C. home, Lepage and wife Donna — who ironically was one of his spotters in his early racing days back in New England — mulled over different businesses and felt a landscaping business would be a good choice. His love for the outdoors and indifference towards landscaping spearheaded their search for a company.
Almost as if it was fate or divine intervention, “a few weeks later there was a company that came up for sale and we bought it. From that point on, we just grew it to where it is today.”
Ironically, upon purchasing the business, Lepage moved it into a new location he was quite familiar with: his old race shop.
The Lepages have been the proud owners of Matrix Lawn and Landscaping since 2007, which employs six workers, including Kevin. They intentionally keep their customer base small, roughly 100 customers, because Lepage believes in giving a personal touch that larger firms — like larger race teams — just can‘t offer these days.
“[The landscaping business] keeps me busy,” he said. “I do a lot of the mechanic work, all the billing, all the bidding on new properties, meeting with customers, pretty much a jack of all trades and master of none [he said with another laugh].
“And then when we get some real big landscape jobs, I drive the dump truck or mulch to give the guys a hand. So I keep myself busy during the week doing that.”
Which leaves the weekends for golf, which was a replacement for his love of auto racing. While he occasionally watches a NASCAR race on TV, Lepage admits he hasn‘t been to a race track in person for six years.
But the memories Lepage has will stay with him forever. At the top of the list is his never-ending love for his native Vermont. Even though he‘s now lived nearly 30 years in North Carolina, he never forgets that he‘s from New England.
“Being from Vermont holds a special place in my heart,” Lepage said. “I‘m the only guy from Vermont that’s ever made it to NASCAR. When we left in 1994 to come down [to North Carolina], Las Vegas lost a lot of money against us because a lot of people in Vermont thought we‘d be back in a couple of weeks or months. But we proved them wrong.”
In fact, Lepage is part of a unique triumvirate who raced against each other, and all moved from New England to find fame and fortune in NASCAR. Those others are Ricky Craven from Maine and Randy LaJoie, father of current NASCAR Cup star Corey LaJoie, from Connecticut.
“It was good to come down and represent New England and Vermont,” Lepage said, who then related a story of something NASCAR Hall of Fame broadcaster Ken Squier once told him. “Ken told me when I got a ride down here, ‘Never forget where you came from.‘ That‘s why any time I filled out an entry form [to enter a NASCAR race], it was always Kevin Lepage from Shelburne, Vermont, it wasn‘t Kevin Lepage from Mooresville, North Carolina or wherever. For me to represent the state, we’re very proud of that and are still proud of that.”
Unlike other racers from New England who maybe raced in late models or modifieds early in their career, Lepage started in 1980 in a NASCAR North car.
“I didn‘t run any support divisions, I just went right into stock-car racing,” he said.
Lepage‘s path to racing success was short — very short, that is. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother Rick, who raced primarily at the 0.33-mile Catamount Speedway (now known as Catamount Stadium) in Milton, Vermont.
As Lepage was practicing for his first race in an undercard event at Catamount, a long-time observer tapped Kevin‘s father, who owned the race car, on the shoulder and pointed Lepage out.
“The other guy then said to my dad, ‘I‘ve been timing him for the last 20 laps, and he hasn‘t varied over a tenth [of a second].‘ For never being in a car, that was it. I wound up winning the heat race and finished 10th in the feature.”
Lepage added with a laugh, “the next morning, my dad fired my brother and put me in the car full-time.”
Kevin would go on to significant success at both Catamount as well as throughout Vermont and New England for more than a decade before deciding to chase his NASCAR dream in North Carolina at the age of 32.
Lepage would spend the next 22 years competing in a combined 551 Cup and Busch/Xfinity races, plus seven starts in the Camping World Truck Series. He walked away from the sport following the 2014 season at the age of 52 — but never officially retired.
Well, not until 2017, that is. This leads to another great story from Lepage, which unfortunately did not quite have the ending he hoped it would.
“I went back to Vermont to my old racetrack [Thunder Road International SpeedBowl] to run my last race and to say thank you to all my fans up there, fellow Vermonters and New Englanders,” Lepage said. “I wasn‘t there to win the race, I was just there to say goodbye. They didn‘t give me a past champion‘s [provisional] or promoter‘s option, and we missed [qualifying for the main event] by one spot and I didn‘t get in.
“It was pretty disappointing because the grandstands were packed. As a past winner, I was introduced and told everyone thank you for coming, but I wasn‘t going to race, and I thought we were going to have a damn riot. It was a pretty crappy deal. So, officially, I haven‘t run my last race, but technically, I‘m not going back in a race car. I had a great time.”
Lepage raced for numerous teams, owners and sponsors in his NASCAR career. Unfortunately, many of those operations were underfunded, closed their doors or couldn‘t provide quality, competitive equipment for Lepage to drive.
He did have some high points, though, including racing for two and half seasons in the Cup Series for Jack Roush before the team folded. He had better success in the Xfinity Series, earning his only two NASCAR wins at Homestead in 1996 and Bristol in 1998.
Looking back at his career, Lepage has just one regret.
“That we never won a Cup race,” he said. “But my takeaway from that is there were probably 10 races that we should have won and a freak accident, running over a piece of debris, or cutting a tire down late in the race that took us out. You just can‘t control that.”
In addition to that one regret, Lepage also has one lament, the 1996 Busch Series season where he finished a career-best eighth, including his first win at Homestead.
“We had a car that was going to win at least 10 races,” he said. “Out of those 10, we had at least four that something went wrong in.”
During this interview, Lepage never bragged or touted what he did in his career. Rather, he took the most pride in what he did outside a race car.
“It was just being gracious to the fans,” he said. “The one thing I‘ve always told people, I never liked to perform in front of an empty grandstand, because at the end of the day, we‘re performers and we have fans there that come watch us race.
“I always hated to race on Mondays after a Sunday rainout because there were so few in the grandstands. I used to love signing autographs. If there was a two-hour session, I could have gone two more hours, I liked signing autographs and talking with fans so much.”
And one bit of advice he‘d impart to countless numbers of those fans was, knowing him, vintage Kevin Lepage.
“Regardless of age or profession you want to do, just chase it, follow your dream,” Lepage said. “Before I came down here, one of my customers was sad that he didn‘t chase his dream. He was in his 70s and said he wished he would have, instead of saying ‘I tried and I either made it or didn‘t make it, but at least I tried.‘ Don‘t wish because wishes don‘t come true unless you chase them. And if you make it or don‘t make it, you‘ll never be sorry down the road because at least you tried.”
And Kevin Paul Lepage most certainly embodies that spirit. He chased his dream and he tried for nearly 20 years.
“I had a long career, an awesome career, a lot of great cars, met a lot of great fans, traveled the U.S. and went to Mexico for a race,” Lepage said. “It was just an awesome time in racing.”
The Kevin Lepage File:
* Age: 59 (turns 60 on June 26)
* Hometown: Shelburne, Vermont. Now lives in Mooresville, N.C.
* Wife: Donna. Adult daughters Amity (works and lives in New England) and Roxanne (works and lives in Florida).
* NASCAR Cup career: 201 races, 0 wins, 2 top-five and 9 top-10 finishes. Also 1 pole. Best season finish: 25th (1999).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 350 races, 2 wins, 19 top-five and 51 top-10 finishes. Also 4 poles. Best season finish: 8th in 1996.
* NASCAR Truck Series career: 7 races, 0 wins, 0 top-5, 0 top-10 finishes. Best season finish: never ran a full season in the series.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski specializes in writing Where Are They Now? stories for NASCAR.com. Among those he‘s done to date include Tim Brewer, Steve Grissom, Johnny Benson, Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss, Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.