SUN PRAIRIE — Racing is the bond that continues to connect Joe Wood and Matt Kenseth.
Wood developed a knack for working on cars with his father, Jerry, a short-track driver. When Joe graduated from Lakeside Lutheran High School and mentioned he wanted to forge a racing career, Jerry turned to Kenseth, a young Cambridge native making a name for himself competing at area tracks.
Kenseth worked at Lefthander Chassis and secured a job for Joe, who moved in with Kenseth’s family and made the commute from Cambridge to Rockford, Ill.
Wood said even back in 1991, Kenseth’s work ethic and ingenuity set him apart from his competitors.
“What I remember is how knowledgeable he was on racecars,” Wood said. “That’s where I think he beat a lot of people is in the shop. He would outsmart them and figure out how to set things up better than the next guy.”
Wood describes the 12-year NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran and 2003 Series champion as being the “whole package” with regard to technical expertise and driving prowess.
“I’ve always thought if (Kenseth) couldn’t drive a racecar, he would be one of the best crew chiefs in the business,” Wood said.
Respect runs both ways for these longtime friends, as Kenseth and Sprint Cup counterpart Tony Stewart race Tuesday night in the All-Star Challenge at Madison International Speedway in the town of Rutland, in cars prepared by Wood’s shop at Pathfinder Chassis.
Wood and Jason Schuler bought the name rights and equipment from former Pathfinder owner Kevin Laatsch in 2005 and set up shop in Sun Prairie. Schuler, who competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for a brief time, grew up in Cambridge and has been friends with Kenseth since preschool.
“They make a pretty good team,” Kenseth said in a telephone interview last week. “Jason is more of a chassis, idea guy in the back and all that, and Joe is very good working with the customers, selling parts, setting cars up and building shocks.
“They’re able to work together at it and they get along really well. There is the challenge of owning a business, but at the same time, owning a business and working on something that you love and you’re passionate about.”
Six drivers will compete in Pathfinder cars in the ASA Midwest Tour event at the half-mile MIS oval, including 2009 All-Star race winner Chris Wimmer and Ross Kenseth, Matt’s son.
According to Wood, Ross’ success has provided exposure and a wider customer base for Pathfinder. Ross runs a car out of Pathfinder’s shop and Matt pays the shop to maintain and take the cars to the track.
The Pathfinder owners also have an added boost of pride from the confidence their friend has instilled in them.
Kenseth has collected four wins and two runner-up finishes at MIS in Pathfinder cars. That seal of approval also is strong considering that 30 to 40 drivers rely on Pathfinder to provide car set-up and on-site track support on an annual basis.
“It’s fortunate that we’re really good friends with Matt, and most of the time he won’t drive a car unless it’s one of ours,” Schuler said. ‘‘He knows that when we show up at the track, we’ve got a chance to win.’’
Besides being a rookie on the ASA Midwest Tour circuit, Ross also is driving in a handful of events throughout the Midwest. He drives cars built by Pathfinder, and Wood and two full-time employees travel to races with the 17-year-old. Ross has collected four wins out of 10 races in 2010 and finished second in the ASA Midwest season opener at MIS.
Wood is impressed with Ross’ performance and said he sees similarities between the Kenseths with regard to relaying feedback as to how a car handles and what changes are needed to run better.
One positive attribute Wood sees in Ross is his ability to acclimate to new tracks. In his first appearance at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway in May, Ross earned a fast qualifying time and won the race.
“Ross can go to a new track and adapt to it in five laps,” Wood said. “Ninety percent of drivers go to a new track and, by the end of the day they still won’t have it figured out. That’s the biggest thing; he catches on and figures it out.”
Matt Kenseth said Ross’ progress has exceeded his expectations and also realizes there has been a change in the dynamic of his relationship with Wood and Schuler now that he is a Pathfinder customer.
But the confidence he has in Pathfinder equipment has never wavered.
“Every once in a while, you have to be a little careful not to cross the line with being a friend and customer, but we have not had any problems,” Kenseth said. “They are good at what they do and work hard at it.
“It’s kind of a bonus that they can provide and build competitive cars for Ross to race in because I wouldn’t put Ross in equipment that wasn’t competitive.”