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Driving ambition: Morgantown’s Tony Palmer now a NASCAR chief engineer

The ink was barely dry on his WVU diploma when Tony Palmer floored it for Charlotte on that June day 14 years ago.

Well, for the record, he didn’t exactly mash down on the accelerator.

He didn’t speed.

Or break any other traffic laws, either.

Especially in Monongalia County, where his uncle, Sheriff Perry Palmer – family or not – would have pulled him over.

However, the sheriff’s nephew did drive with purpose.

That’s because he was enroute to the North Carolina city that is the epicenter of NASCAR.

Tony Palmer, who stayed in his hometown for his higher education, earned an engineering degree from the state’s flagship institution in June 2009.

By August that same year, he was working one of his first paid gigs in the business – along a dirt track in Jupiter, Fla., waiting for the race trucks to roll in to Pit Road.

He had gotten himself in a NASCAR-related job bank and was a pit crew member for hire, working lower-tier races across the region.

Driving a couple of hundred miles every weekend for a couple of hundred bucks was almost heaven for a wrench-turning kid from Almost Heaven who never got over it. 

Standing amid the dust and beaming just like Richard Petty in an old Goody’s Headache Powder commercial, as he reveled in all the combustion-chaos.

Last month in Arizona, Palmer was standing in a sea of confetti.

This time, he was watching as Ryan Blaney, whose uncle is former WVU basketball standout Dale Blaney, hoisted NASCAR’s championship cup in victory.

Palmer is the chief engineer for the driver who runs the No. 12 Menards car for Penske, one of the top teams in the sport.

“I still don’t think it’s fully registered,” Palmer said of Blaney’s winning season.

Pole position

Like a lot of race enthusiasts, and especially those who go to work in NASCAR, Palmer, 37, made his acquaintance with those fast cars by way of his TV in the living room on Sunday afternoons.

He would watch the races with his dad, Vince, a utility company retiree who follows the sport more than ever, now that his kid is big-time.

Same for his mother, Theresa, a Realtor in the University City who didn’t know a thing about racing until her son, the engineer, started landing full-time jobs with various teams in the sport.

To the ever-amusement of her son, Mrs. Palmer can now quote car specs and cup standings just like Sunday morning.

“She really picked up on it,” he said.

He picked up on it, too, once he got established.

His first serious job in racing had a real West Virginia tie-in: He was a mechanic and pit crew member for Randy Moss Motorsports.

That’s Moss, as in the Marshall and NFL football star who hails from Rand, Kanawha County.

“He didn’t really know my name,” Palmer said, but he always called me, ‘that boy from West Virginia.’”

Palmer, in turn, called Tod Buckhalter his mentor and friend.

Going into the first turn

Buckhalter was the guy who opened that email one morning from an earnest and eager WVU engineering student who told him he’d work for free.

“Yeah, I told him I’d do any job he’d ask me to do,” Palmer said, remembering the inaugural communication with the automobile craftsman who built modified race cars from his Hassy Chassis garage in Star City.

“I told him I was there to learn.”

Palmer swept the shop and cut up old frames on cold days.

The engineering student was shop student, too – watching and making note as Buckhalter, who had an eclectic range of interests and friends who weren’t always car people, went about his day-to-day.

By the time Palmer graduated from WVU, he was a paid employee of Hassy Chassis who was capable of doing every job under the roof.

Buckhalter died in 2015 after a lengthy battle with cancer – but he did get to see Palmer’s success in NASCAR.

“I was inspired by him. I learned from him.”

Bring on Daytona

NASCAR these days is a sport fueled-injected by specialists and kindred spirits alike.

Palmer was known for his work as a mechanic and along Pit Road until drivers and team owners learned about that engineering degree.

Now he’s chief engineer for the Blaney team.

He likens the position to that of an offensive coordinator on a football game day. All the particulars, from tire wear to fuel use – such as when to lay back and when to charge – go through him.

“We’ve really got a good team,” he said. “There are some solid people there.”

He and wife Amanda make up the team at home. The couple, married for six years, live just outside Charlotte in North Carolina. Amanda also works in marketing in NASCAR.

When they aren’t on the road for their jobs or families – she hails from Maine, where her folks still live – they’re above it.

Palmer’s a licensed pilot.

Daytona is going to keep him grounded all through January, he said.

As in, the storied Daytona 500 race in Florida that runs in Feb 18 and is always the first big race of the new year.

“Daytona’s the one every team wants.”

Heartbeat, under the hood

Even with NASCAR’s technological advances, some things are eternal, he said.

Like a certain race-obsessed kid from West Virginia who loaded up his tricked-out, 12-year-old, Chevy Silverado with most of his clothes, his disassembled bed and one lamp.

That was Palmer, who drafted his dream down Interstate 77 to the place where it all started, back in the Tobacco Road-bootleg days.

“Try working for free,” he said, “if you’re able, and if you have the resources.”

“Sweep up the shop. Get that job at the auto parts store, just you so can be around it. And listen, so you can learn.”