Andrew Dys

HIS LIFE IS THE PITS...

Gene Cornwell talks at the auto repair shop owned by his father, Mac Cornwell, on Thursday. Gene works on Kyle Busch's Nextel Cup racing team and has his picture on a Kellogg's cereal box with the rest of the team. One of Cornwell's duties is to hold the pole with the team's number on it so Busch will know where to stop on pit row. He also pulls the slack from the front-tire changer's air hose.
Gene Cornwell talks at the auto repair shop owned by his father, Mac Cornwell, on Thursday. Gene works on Kyle Busch's Nextel Cup racing team and has his picture on a Kellogg's cereal box with the rest of the team. One of Cornwell's duties is to hold the pole with the team's number on it so Busch will know where to stop on pit row. He also pulls the slack from the front-tire changer's air hose.

After you pour the milk this morning, not that pale sissy skim either but the thick white stuff with all the fat in it, turn around that box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. The one with Tony the Tiger and NASCAR driver Kyle Busch on the front. The back has a photo of Busch's race team lined up in two rows. In the back row, the last guy on the right is Rock Hill's Gene Cornwell.

"I grew up eating the cereal, and now I'm on the box," the humble 23-year-old said.

Ten million boxes have Cornwell on the back, said Jill Saletta, com- munications director for the cereal giant.

"People call me all the time and say they bought at least one box," said Julie Cornwell, his mother.

Cars are like oxygen

Father Mac Cornwell, an auto mechanic who has spent a life drag racing, dirt-track racing and hard charging on back roads before that, leaves the phone calls and cereal boxes to his wife. But Mac has had his son at his side all the son's life. He taught the son about cars, and the son learned. A son in the big leagues of racing makes the former racer proud.

Cars and racing in the Cornwell house is oxygen. Life.

"He was one-year old, and he'd rather have a steering wheel in his hand than a bottle," Mac Cornwell recalled.

Gene Cornwell's life is the pits. On purpose.

Sunday night, the Coca-Cola 600 from Lowe's Motor Speedway is on Fox television. Busch's No. 5 car will pull onto pit road. The guy holding out a pole with a picture on it that tells Busch where to stop, then pulls the slack from the front tire-changer's air hose, is Gene Cornwell of Turkey Farm Road.

Cornwell graduated high school five years ago, started his dream job on a NASCAR team two weeks later, and never left.

He raced go-carts with a kid whose father had a connection with the Hendrick Motorsports team. He got an interview a few days before graduating from Northwestern High School in 2001. But Cornwell had to show that he could do anything anybody asked. He got the job and started at the bottom. He washed cars and parts. He moved up to assembling suspensions and now is in charge of front and rear suspensions and brakes.

NASCAR is a multibillion dollar industry. More than 80 people are on the crews for just two cars in the huge shop where Cornwell works in Concord, N.C. Hendrick Motor- sports has more than 600 employees for all of its cars.

Every race weekend, Cornwell drives or flies to a speedway along with the other Kyle Busch crew members to do his mechanic and pit work.

Still, Cornwell dreams of being the driver like his daddy dreamed of driving the big time before him. At the Hickory, N.C., track, Gene won a bunch of truck races over the past few years. But he stopped driving to focus on his mechanic job. But he doesn't want to always hold the stop pole or the air hose or turn the wrench for somebody else.

"Almost everybody who works in racing either wants to be a driver or started out wanting to be a driver," he said. "I just had to put it on hold a while."

So for a few more years, Cornwell will master his mechanic job. He works hard and is paying his dues, the old-fashioned way.

NASCAR fans are like Cornwell. Loyal. Cornwell has autographed clothes and even cereal boxes for fans of Kyle Busch's Kellogg's-sponsored team. Cornwell's friends might even find a box of Frosted Flakes around if Cornwell's mother, Julie, hasn't bought every box in York County.

If hard work and loyalty still mean something, maybe soon Gene Cornwell's picture will be on the front of the box.

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