By Greg Klein
---- — At Jackie’s Restaurant in Milford, the decor still favors baseball, but the talk has shifted toward NASCAR.
“I don’t see how you can not talk about it,” waitress/cook Sue Sisson said. “Everybody here knows about Paul Wolfe’s success, and when you get out in the community, people know him and his family.
“Fans are fans; they know,” she continued. “I’m not what you would call a racing fan, but even I am talking about it.”
Wolfe, a 1995 graduate of Milford Central School, won the auto racing equivalent of the Super Bowl last November as the crew chief for 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
With the Daytona 500 on Sunday signaling the green flag for the 2013 season, Milford residents are still excited.
“He’s a local boy-made-good, how can you not love that?” said Art Kiser, owner of Kiser Sand and Gravel. “The thing is, he was a good kid and a well-liked kid. Personally, I thought it was really great to see him rewarded for his diligence.”
Kiser runs his own racing team locally in the Capitol Region Sprint Association. His son Mike, who grew up with Wolfe and graduated from Milford the same year, drives the team’s 305 sprint cars.
“Mike and Paul, they were neck-and-neck growing up when it comes to racing,” Kiser said. “A lot of people don’t know, but Paul was a great driver, too. He probably could have been a driver in NASCAR, but a lot of politics goes into it, and a lot of money goes into it. You can be a great driver, but if you don’t have the money, you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
Kiser said he gives Wolfe credit for finding a way into NASCAR.
“He went to the top very quickly,” Kiser said. “He earned it, too. He worked at a lot of small tracks, making not much money. He went out to school in Ohio to learn welding. He went down to Carolina because that’s where the NASCAR teams are.
“He made the best of it,” he continued. “If (team owner) Roger Penske likes you, you must be doing something right. And he likes Paul.”
At Wolfe’s old school, a recent article about him hangs on the gym bulletin board. His former coach and teacher, Frank Spurchise, said Wolfe’s success is an inspiration to his current players.
“As children, we all have dreams,” Spurchise said, “but to attain that dream is something special and takes an unbelievable work ethic and dedication. Paul’s accomplishments are living proof of that and are a tribute to his character and commitment to fulfilling a life-long goal.”
Wolfe stopped playing high school sports at the junior varsity level because he wanted to concentrate on his racing, according to Spurchise.
“Seeing that Paul has reached the highest level of NASCAR racing comes as no surprise,” Spurchise said. “Even when Paul was a kid driving go carts you could see the passion and love he had for the sport of racing.”
That love of racing came from Paul’s father, Charles Wolfe, according to Kiser.
“Charlie, he was day one of the racing,” Kiser said. “He used to work on my pit crew way back in the day. He and I used to go down to Morris, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it was really popular at the fair. That’s how it all started. Paul got hooked in from birth.”
Kiser said Wolfe’s parents now live near their son in Charlotte, with Charles working as the driver of Paul’s bus. With much of his family gone, and a year-round work season for Penske Racing, Wolfe doesn’t get back home very often, but Kiser said he was upstate last month.
“He’ll come up and go snowmobiling with Michael for three or four days every winter,” Kiser said. “They went up to Old Forge last month. But he doesn’t have much time. Racing is a year-round sport if you want to be successful at it.”
With the 2013 NASCAR season starting on Sunday, Keselowski and Wolfe will try to show the racing world that their championship was not a fluke. Chances are the patrons at Jackie’s will be talking about Daytona on Monday.
“It has piqued people’s interests,” Sisson said.