RONDA — Sitting in the meeting room of the Ronda Volunteer Fire Department, Chris Cheek exudes a calm exterior.
But there’s a fire on the inside — one that’s not likely to be extinguished any time soon.
“I’m a very, very competitive person,” Cheek said. “I like the speed; the work; the adrenaline rush.”
Born and raised in Hamptonville, Cheek is now 34. He’s been racing for 13 years. “As a kid I grew up going to Junior Johnson’s shop,” Cheek said. “I had friends who worked there. My dad had friends who worked there.
“It’s always been in my blood wanting to do it.”
So when he’s not working as a self-employed farmer, growing tobacco, corn, soy beans and wheat, he’s putting that blood and sweat into what he loves.
He doesn’t just own and drive an SeCA Crate Late Model at Friendship Motor Speedway, he’s also a part-time diesel mechanic instructor at Wilkes Community College. Cheek graduated from Wilkes in 2006 with an associate’s degree in race car performance.
The college is at least partly responsible for getting Cheek driving. Rick Smith, a college instructor of his at Wilkes, and Cheek went to the races. Smith was working for Sandy Martin at the races.
One thing led to another and Cheek’s interest turned into car ownership in 2002. Cheek bought a modified four-cylinder from Smith and began racing at Taylorsville Speedway.
“The first couple of weeks was kind of shaky,” Cheek said. “I didn’t know nothing about it.
“After a couple of weeks, we got the hang of it.”
Cheek would win one race and finish second in points in his first season. His first season of racing; his first season on dirt.
He moved to the Super Stock V8 division at Taylorsville in 2004; the Limited Late Models at Antioch in 2005; before competing with his first CRATE motor at Antioch and 311 in 2006.
In 2008, Cheek won his first track championship, winning three races.
Cheek, who spent one year on asphalt when Friendship was asphalt, said he likes dirt. “I like the competition level,” he said. “The excitement. It just seems my driving style is more appealing to dirt than asphalt.”
He wasn’t at Friendship at 2012 or 2013. Last year he ran Super and Limited Late Models at Carolina Speedway. His best finish was a second.
Closer to home
Cheek ordered a new Rocket chassis from Mark Richards Enterprises in West Virginia for 2014.
Steve Blackburn, who now crew chiefs with Cheek’s father Jerry, has helped Cheek get off to a good start with the new Rocket chassis. “We wanted to try something different,” Cheek said. “We brought it home; put the engine in it; put the decals on it; and went racing.
“Steve’s always raced and we’ve always been friends. I asked him to help me.”
Blackburn, formerly of Roaring River, now lives in Greensboro. Cheek met Blackburn at 311 Speedway in Madison in 2006. Despite his schedule competing on the Carolina Clash circuit, Cheek said Blackburn is only a phone call away. “I can call him anytime,” Cheek said. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him, but he’s learned a lot from me, too.
“It’s a win, win for all of us,” Cheek continued. “Dirt late models is a constantly changing world. Both the chassis and the shocks. He’s facing the same thing I am every week.”
Cheek isn’t traveling this year. He has found keeping up with the farm and spending time with his wife (the former Leanna McKinney of Millers Creek) and two children (Joseph, 3-and-a-half, and Wesley, 19 months) is easier when he is not traveling so much.
By the way, Joseph “is very interested” in racing and “loves working on the car,” according to Cheek.
Staying home is paying off. Cheek has two wins at Friendship and leads in the points race. He’s finished fourth the past two Saturdays.
“There’s so much competition over there,” Cheek said. “You’re running against a whole field of cars who can win. You never know who you are going to have to beat.”
Despite the competition, Cheek said many of the drivers he runs against are either neighbors, offer to help, or both. “Most anybody would give anything if they had it,” Cheek said. He counts Justin Hudspeth, Matt Long, Kent Peckham, Charles McCormick, and Brian and Matthew Nance among those neighbors and drivers.
“It’s nice to be able to race against people you call your friends,” he said. “It makes it a lot more enjoyable.”
Even if there’s a problem on the track, Cheek said they all get over it. “We keep the outside world out of it,” he explained. “Everybody can shake hands, smile, load up, and get ready for next week.”
Friends or not, Cheek is there to win and his driving style and ability support that. “Conservative would not be the proper word,” Cheek replied when asked to describe his driving style. “Probably aggressive. Hammer down and wide open.
“I wouldn’t say I’m rough; I don’t like to beat and bang, but I’ll make them earn their position.”
And while he is competitive, it’s not just about the competition or even the money. “It does help,” he said of the money. “It’s the overwhelming feeling — getting your picture taken; and standing there holding that trophy.
“There’s definitely a sense of achievement.”
A lot of help
Cheek is sponsored by Heintz Brothers, who builds his engines, in Statesville; Cheek Farms in Hamptonville; Foothills Construction Services in Hamptonville; Ladd and Son Lawn Care and Landscaping in Elkin; Carl Rose and Sons Asphalt Paving in Elkin; L and A Emergency Equipment in Elkin; Dirtwrap (decals and graphics) in Hickory; Stress Reelief (sport-fishing charters) in Carolina Beach; and Gregory Lawn Care and Landscaping in Hamptonville.
“I thank God for giving me the talent and the opportunity to be able to do it,” Cheek said. “And I thank my wife and family and friends and all my sponsors for their support over the years.
“I’ve made a lot of friends along the way,” Cheek continued. “Steve Heintz — he’s not just a sponsor, we’re best of friends.”
Cheek also gets help from his pit crew: Shane Cheek, Andy Childress, Rodney Wells, Jake Patrick and Josh Mullis. Harvey Gregory, Charles Lee and Preston Ladd aren’t just sponsors either Cheek said, “they come and help at the track.”
Asked what it would take to have a successful season this year, Cheek replied, “I’ve already had one. To unload straight out of the trailer; lead the points; win two races — it’s already been a successful season.”
Jim Fuller may be reached at 336-835-1513 or Twitter @elkinareasports.