There is little doubt that from the day he was born, Ken Schrader was destined to be a race car driver.
As a baby, his parents would keep a watchful eye on him in his father Bill’s combination auto repair and race shop, or take him with them when Bill would compete in short track races in his native Missouri and around the Midwest.
Then, almost as soon as he learned to walk, the younger Schrader learned to drive. To keep track of her son, his mother used to tie Kenny’s go-kart to a tree, which he’d go round and round.
And Schrader has been going round and round ever since.
Having recently turned 66, Schrader is as busy as ever and has no intention of slowing down any time soon. He’s still racing, with plans to compete in 70 races across several different classes by the end of this year.
RELATED: Ken Schrader’s career stats
He also owns the 1/3-mile Federated Auto Parts Speedway at I-55 dirt track in Pevely, Missouri, is part-owner in Macon Speedway in Illinois with fellow racers Tony Stewart and Kenny Wallace, and is part-owner of a dormant track in Kentucky with Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As if that wasn’t enough, Schrader has also spent the last six months as the lead test driver for the upstart Camping World Superstar Racing Experience, which concluded its inaugural season last weekend in Nashville.
So what about retirement? No way, Schrader chuckles. He’s still having too much fun to even consider it.
“Most guys retire from a job in normal life,” Schrader told NASCAR.com. “I never really had a job. I got to play my whole life. So why in the hell, when you’re doing something you want to do, would you want to quit and retire?”
Ever since he began racing competitively in the 1960s, Schrader has driven everything from stock cars to late models, trucks to midgets, sprint cars to modifieds and so much more.
He’s lost count of the number of races he’s taken part in during his career. Just in NASCAR and ARCA alone, he has over 1,060 starts. Add several thousand more starts in other series, most notably in the grassroots ranks.
While he only has 45 combined wins across NASCAR and ARCA competition, Schrader is only 10 wins away from earning the 375th overall triumph in his storied career.
And he has the paperwork to prove it, having compiled scrapbooks from every season he’s ever raced in, dating back to the late 1960s.
Be it on asphalt, clay, dirt and every other imaginable racing surface in-between, Schrader is one of the most competitive drivers to ever strap in behind the wheel.
But he also has a very philosophical look at his career.
“I’ve never added up the number of races, but whatever that number is, we should have won more than we did,” Schrader quipped, agreeing with one of Richard Petty’s most famous lines.
“I love Richard Petty, he won 200 races. But he also said, ‘Do you realize how many of those damn things I lost?’ ”
From 1984 through 2013, Schrader spent nearly 30 years — 22 full-time — competing in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The most notable part of that tenure came between 1988 and 1996, when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports, including earning all four of his career Cup wins, and achieving a rare trifecta by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 three years in a row (1988 to 1990).
His best overall season came in 1994, when he finished fourth in the standings behind Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Schrader’s fellow Missourian, Rusty Wallace.
But even with all the success he enjoyed driving for Team Hendrick, Schrader said his career highlight was driving for team owner Junie Donlavey.
There’s a good reason for that. Donlavey gave Schrader his first full-time ride in the then-Winston Cup Series. Schrader spent three seasons driving for Donlavey before moving to HMS in 1988. But even to this day, more than seven years since Donlavey passed away, Schrader still shows the immense respect and gratitude he had for his former boss and friend, referring to him several times in conversation not as Junie, but rather as “Mr. Donlavey.”
“To really get nailed down on (the favorite moment of his career) was in 1987 when we won the Daytona 500 qualifying race for Mr. Donlavey,” Schrader said. “That day was the best, not because I pulled into a NASCAR Victory Lane for the first time, even though it wasn’t a points race, but because I was driving for Mr. Donlavey.
“All the competitors in the series had so much respect for Mr. Donlavey, knew what he worked with and just what a good man he was. Just to be part of that day was probably the neatest thing. It was pretty cool. We won the (qualifying) race the next year with Mr. Hendrick’s car and it was great, but it wasn’t like pulling into Victory Lane in Mr. Donlavey’s car. We were supposed to pull into Victory Lane with Rick’s car.”
Donlavey was among NASCAR’s first Cup-level owners, logging 863 starts from 1950 through 2002 with more than four dozen different drivers (many made just one- or two-race fill-in starts).
“(Donlavey) did a lot with a little but he did it with just the utmost class and just the way he carried himself,” Schrader said. “Even now talking about him, I still get goosebumps. He was just a tremendous man. Him, Bud Moore, Junior Johnson, along with the Frances, what they did to build that sport. It wouldn’t be there (without) them guys.”
Schrader’s final Cup season was a part-time effort in 2013, racing for Frank Stoddard’s Go Fas Racing.
“We still had the option to run a limited schedule again in 2014,” Schrader said. “But by the end of 2013, I was taking a walk around the garage area and I didn’t really see any other 58-year-old drivers. It was a lot of fun over the years, but it was time (to call it quits).”
But that didn’t mean it was an end to Schrader’s overall racing career, it just meant an end to his NASCAR career. There was — and continues to be — still a lot left in his personal gas tank, so to speak.
“There was just a bunch of other stuff I wanted to do, a bunch of other races I wanted to go do and (staying in NASCAR) was standing in my way,” Schrader said.
In a sense, a strong comparison can be made between Schrader and current Cup star Kyle Larson. Throughout both of their careers, they raced as often as they could not just in NASCAR, but also other series such as sprint cars and such.
Larson is known for oftentimes competing in 60 or more races in a season, both in Cup and other series, primarily sprint cars. Schrader was in a sense the Larson of his day. While Cup racing was his bread and butter, he added a lot of extra jam by oftentimes competing in well over 100 total races per year.
He’s somewhat tapered off, with 35 races already in the record books thus far this season, with another 35 or so still to go before the end of the year.
“When I go to Randolph County Speedway in Moberly, Missouri, this Sunday, that’ll be my 35th race so far this year,” Schrader said last week. “And if you add in all the testing and shaking down the cars we’ve done for SRX, we’ll have been in a car 100 days this year.”
Heck, Schrader’s just getting warmed up this season — and still getting a kick out of it all.
“I just got a ride for a couple of races in Springfield and Du Quoin (Illinois) this year in a kick-ass silver crown car, I mean a good one,” Schrader said.
He then added with a laugh, “I reminded them when they hired me for those two races just how old I was and maybe they might really want to think about this now.
“They said, ‘No, it’s OK, we want you, we know.’ So I said, ‘Man, if you decide to fire me after Springfield, you’re not going to piss me off. I’ll still come over to Du Quoin and drink a beer out of your cooler. We’re still having a lot of fun doing all these different races.”
While a never quenching thirst for competition has been what’s fueled Schrader’s racing career for more than five decades, it’s fans who have been the wheels that he’s ridden upon, so to speak.
He loves interacting with those who’ve watched him at all levels of his career, including some who are second- and even third-generation supporters.
“I don’t know if I 100 percent agree with you if we’re really a fan favorite,” Schrader said, before adding yet another zinger, “We might not have near as many fans as a lot of those guys, but we haven’t pissed near as many people off, either.”
And the zingers just keep on coming …
“It’s great, it makes it all worthwhile,” Schrader added. “But the part I am starting to struggle with more than a little bit is I’m getting 30-year-old or older guys or girls coming up and they want me to sign this photo of when they were sitting on my lap 30 years ago — and they want to duplicate (the original pose), which we do. We have fun with it.
“And then we get some middle-aged ladies who come up and smile and tell me ‘my grandmother loves you.’ ”
When asked what has kept him racing for all these years, Schrader couldn’t help but good-naturedly make fun of himself.
“Probably being brain dead and not doing anything else,” he laughed, adding yet another zinger, “My wife (Ann) will tell you real quick, she says ‘he’s not that good of a driver, but it’s the best skills he’s got.’ ”
But there’s a serious side to Schrader, as well.
“I just love being around racing, I love driving the car,” he said. “And it’s not just driving the car. It’s being around, being in the shop, it’s everything. I just love all the different parts about it.
“To me, the next race is the most important one. When someone asks me what’s been my favorite race or something like that, my standard answer is ‘I hope it hasn’t happened yet.’
“Right now, I’m just worried about this weekend. I’ll get to that stuff (retirement) later. I was at a race earlier this year with (NASCAR Hall of Famer) Red Farmer (who is still racing at 88 years old) and, I tell you what, he made me feel pretty young.”
The Ken Schrader file:
* Age: 66
* Hometown: Fenton, Mo.
* Notable: 1980 USAC Stock Car Rookie of the year, 1982 USAC Silver Crown champion, 1983 USAC Sprint Car champion, 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the year, 1989 and 1990 Busch Clash winner, 1988 through 1990 Daytona 500 pole winner, 2009 National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame Sportsman Award 2009.
* NASCAR Cup career: 763 starts, 4 wins, 64 top-five and 184 top-10 finishes. Also earned 23 poles. Best season finish: 4th (1994).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 116 starts, 2 wins, 18 top-five and 39 top-10 finishes. Also five poles.
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 105 starts, 1 wins, 12 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes. Also two poles.
* ARCA Menards Series career: 84 starts, 18 wins, 52 top-five and 66 top-10 finishes. Also 22 poles.
* NASCAR K&N Pro Series West: 28 starts, 11 wins, 18 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes. Also six poles.
* NASCAR Southwest Series: 33 starts, 7 wins, 17 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes. Also four poles.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski and @TheRacingBeat, as well as The Racing Beat podcast, available on most podcast platforms.