Chasing your dreams isn’t easy. There will be bumps in the road. It can be hard to stay on track. It takes confidence, independence, commitment, focus and the wherewithal to keep on going, no matter what. Ham Morrison ’98 is a case study of that chase – of what it’s like to go after a dream with such vigor, such velocity, that you can’t be stopped.
by Alicia Lutz ’98
Photos by Sully Sullivan
The dry, brown veil of kicked-up dirt and shredded-up asphalt clouds everything – coating the drivers and all they touch, caking into the creases in the crewmembers’ weathered skin, softening the bright air underneath the floodlights.
The incessant, deafening blare of the cars whipping around the track forces the bustling crowds into the silence of their own thoughts, creating a strange, somehow soundless scene. It’s surreal, really: like an ear-splitting silent movie, filmed with a sepia-toned filter that makes the characters look slightly older, slightly more subdued and rough around the edges, than they really are.
But one character stands out from the noisy haze: Easy in his bright blue jumpsuit and his confident grin, Ham Morrison ’98 is the clear protagonist here. This is his dream.
And he’s chasing after it at 200 miles per hour.
If Ham Morrison doesn’t fit in among the seasoned competitors and the skilled mechanics hard at work in the pits, he doesn’t know it – and doesn’t much care. As he makes his way through the rows of garages and trailers, his stride is long and self-assured – the gait of a man who is comfortable wherever he is, in command of every situation and confident in everything he does. Even flying around a racetrack at dangerously high speeds with 20+ drivers who have double the experience.
“I can do it. I can race with the big boys. I know I can,” shrugs Morrison, who first got behind the wheel of a race car in the summer of 1998. He’d just earned his degree in sociology from the College, and – for the occasion – his mother had given him a ticket to the racing school of his choice.
“It was a very badass graduation present,” concedes Morrison, who ended up taking the three-day Advanced Formula Car Racing course at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Prescott, Ariz. “I was hooked immediately. The sensation while you’re out there on the track is incomparable. There is something so refreshing and liberating about relying on your instincts. That first time lit a fire in me, no question about it.”
To further fuel that fire: He beat out the rest of his classmates at the end-of-course race.
“They were no longer offering the advertised prize of sponsoring the race winner in a racing series, but I got to shake hands with Bob Bondurant, which was an inspiring and powerful moment for me,” says Morrison. “That really just made it even more real. That’s what led me to believe that this was something I could do.”
And so, like the true go-getter that he is, he’s been doing it ever since. Is he where he wants to be – where he knows he can be? No. But for the past 14 years, Morrison has kept the dream alive. And that alone says a lot.
It takes a certain kind of confidence to go after your dreams. It also takes a certain kind of ignorance. From the onset, Ham “Hambone” Morrison unabashedly had both: He believed in himself and his dreams. And he didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into.
“I had no idea what I was doing or where to start, so I knew there’d be a learning curve,” says Morrison, who – upon returning to Folly Beach from the Bob Bondurant School – reached out to the owner of the Summerville Speedway to see what kind of odd jobs he could do there. “All I really wanted to do was break into racing, but you have to start somewhere, so that’s what I did.”
And, in this case, that meant renewing signage, getting new advertisers and hustling sponsorships for the speedway – something that paid off down the road.
“That’s how I first learned about sports marketing,” says Morrison, who took it upon himself to study up on the subject, reading books on motorsports marketing and taking online training through IEG, a global sponsorship consulting firm.
“I didn’t have a choice! I’d just bought my first race car, and I was starting to realize how much money it was going to take,” says Morrison. “My passion isn’t cheap: For a 20-race season at this level, you’re looking at upwards of $100,000 – or $200,000, if you really want to compete in the top five. That’s one thing I hadn’t bargained for.”
It didn’t take long for him to get up to speed, though – and, in 2009, he established his own full-service sports marketing company, Ham Morrison Racing (HMR).
It is – in essence – the life support for his racing dreams.
“My racing career needs to support itself,” he says, adding, “I’m at the point in life that I can’t get away with spending a bunch of money on a hobby, and I don’t want to take time out of my family time to be raising money. So, I thought, Why not make it my job?”
It’s a job that suits Morrison well: He knows just about every business owner in Charleston, his confidence is contagious and he’s nothing if not resourceful.
“I look for a win-win in every marketing relationship I pursue. If I don’t see a win-win, I try to create one. If I can’t, then it just doesn’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense to them, I’m not interested,” he says, noting that his business model is largely about mutual exposure. Whether he’s holding fundraisers for local charities, driving his race truck in holiday parades or throwing out the first pitch at a RiverDogs game, Morrison and his sponsors are getting out there in the community together.
“My sponsors are like family to me. So are my charity partners. We’re all part of the same team,” says Morrison, whose commitment to his business and charity partners directly translates to their commitment to his cause. “We’re all a part of Charleston’s one and only NASCAR team. We’re going to do what it takes to make this thing happen.”
It’s something of a grassroots movement committed to making Morrison’s racing dream come true.
And yet Morrison himself is in the driver’s seat.
There’s no room for anyone else when Ham Morrison takes the wheel. His team of support can only take him so far. This is his dream, and his alone. Ultimately, it’s all up to him.
He knows this as he pulls into the Myrtle Beach Speedway alone, as he unloads the trailer alone, jacks up the truck, makes sure that it’s right, secures the tires and fills the tank alone. All around him are crews of six or more, doing the heavy lifting, taking care of the cars so the drivers can concentrate on their strategy, their confidence. But as a self-made race car driver, Morrison can only rely on himself. That’s all he’s got.
“I’ve been competing on a shoestring all along, and money equals good equipment and crew in this sport,” he says, noting that he typically does have a small crew to help out – although most of them are old friends with minimal mechanical experience. “It’s challenging to compete with teams that have new equipment, parts and well-trained personnel. It is rewarding in a way to know that with limited resources we can run with some of those guys – but just think how we could do on a level playing field.”
The field has never quite been level for Morrison, who started off with not only no money but no experience and no mechanics. He remembers his first race, back in 1998, when he was jeered by the track announcer for driving his 1976 Chevy Nova, held together by duct tape and chicken wire, to the Summerville Speedway for the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing Series. And not because he had a funny-looking car.
“I had no idea you weren’t supposed to drive your race car to and from the track. My friends and I would pile in and make the drive together from Folly Beach, then make the drive back together with a few extra dings,” he says. “I didn’t know any other way to do it! I realized quickly that most people haul their race cars on trailers. Everybody had a good laugh on me.”
His inexperience also got him into trouble, when – after advancing to the Thunder and Lightning Division in 2000 – he upgraded to a newer Chevy Nova that needed some mechanical work.
“I put my trust in the wrong guys, dishonest hacks who jerked me around and swindled me for two seasons,” Morrison says. “I quickly realized you need to know about engines. Or, at least, you need a good, reliable mechanic.”
Looking back, it seems like common sense. But remember: There’s a certain naiveté in this kind of confidence – especially when there’s a dream obscuring things.
Morrison was starting to open his eyes to the reality of racing cars, though, and he knew he had a lot to learn. He enrolled in five automotive technology night courses at Trident Technical College in North Charleston, all taught by the school’s then–lead technician, Pete Dambaugh, who allowed the class to rebuild Morrison’s engine and transmission.
“I definitely paid my dues,” says Morrison, who credits Dambaugh and the work that was done to his car at Trident Tech for what happened next: He won a race at the Summerville Speedway.
It was his first big break. And, from there, things began to take off full speed ahead.
It’s not easy to stop a 3,000-pound race car going upwards of 200 miles per hour. But it’s even harder to stop Ham Morrison when he’s got some momentum. And, coming off that first victory, he wasn’t slowing down for anything. Not even the driver coming at his winning Pontiac Trans Am with the classic “bump and run” move, where one car intentionally bumps the car in front of it to move it out of the way.
“It was the last lap of the race, and I knew what I had to do,” says Morrison. “I dragged the brake pedal in the middle of the final turn to keep him from moving me up the track and then gunned it to the finish line. That was an awesome race!”
It was just the first of many breakthroughs during his first full season of racing in 2004, when he finished as the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing Series Rookie of the Year and the Summerville Speedway’s Thunder and Lightning Points Champion, his division’s top single title.
“That final-points race was nerve racking,” says Morrison, his eyes widening at the thought of the exciting 35-mile race. “I was right behind my nemesis and fellow points leader, Smoking Pussycat, and I pulled out and finished just ahead of him. It was huge. And a big milestone because that was Summerville Speedway’s last year in business, so I was its last points champion.”
After that speedway closed, Morrison moved on to even higher speeds in the Whelen Late Model Super Truck Series at the Myrtle Beach Speedway, driving his Chevy Silverado super truck off and on throughout 2011.
“Because of the truck’s maintenance costs, we spent the past few years concentrating on marketing research, our sponsorships and participating in community events. But now we’re really ramping up for this next season,” says Morrison, noting that, for the 2012 season, he has moved to the speedway in Dillon, S.C. “This season, I am going to commit like I did in 2004, when I was racing every other weekend. I plan on beating and banging in the truck series top 10!
“If the mojo feels right and the sponsorship opportunities are there after this 2012 season, we’ll gun for racing NASCAR’s elite third tier, the Camping World Truck Series,” he continues. “I’m not going to be satisfied until I’m with the top guys. I’ve always started at the back and climbed toward the front, so I know I can do it. I know I can pull ahead.”
This is the thrill of the chase.
He’s getting closer and closer. And he’s getting there fast, steering carefully as he gains speed with every lap he makes around the track, every turn he takes, every car he passes. It’s dizzying, really. But Ham Morrison is focused on what’s ahead. Nothing else matters. It’s all right here in front of him: the track, the race, the dream.
He takes the wheel. The chase is on.