Builder of dreams
Troy A. Bruzewski
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Schuler was working on race cars with friend Matt Kenseth before the two graduated from Cambridge High School. Both had aspirations of being professional stock car drivers and would travel to short tracks such as Jefferson Speedway and Madison International while spending their weekdays repairing their cars.
Schuler won the rookie of the year and season titles in the road warrior division at Columbus 151 Speedway in 1988, while Kenseth won the sportsman division title at Madison. Both were 16 years old.
“Neither of us had a whole lot of anything; we were racing on a small budget,” Schuler said. “It was a childhood dream we were trying to live for as long as we could.”
Kenseth was on a more accelerated progression through the local racing ranks than Schuler, who was reluctant to spend high dollars at such a young age.
In 1995, he was becoming competitive in the ARTGO Series—a late model series that was purchased by NASCAR in 1998, and a series where Kenseth earned his first win in 1991.
While both drivers had success, Kenseth chose to move south in hopes of someday landing a NASCAR ride, while Schuler continued to tour Wisconsin.
Schuler stayed in touch with Kenseth while he climbed the ranks in NASCAR. Then a life-changing call—as often happens on the race track—came from the crew chief. In the summer of 1999, Kenseth's former competitor-turned-crew chief Robbie Reiser rang Schuler.
“Robbie asked me if I'd be interested in driving their Busch (now Nationwide Series) car,” Schuler said. “I told him, 'Heck yes,' in an instant. I figured it was my only chance for something like this.”
Schuler signed for a limited schedule for the team Reiser was the listed as owner of, driving the No. 17 Visine Chevrolet and sharing the ride with Kenseth.
“Racing in NASCAR is a 24/7 deal; there is no time,” Schuler said.
Schuler started 11 races in 2000 and failed to qualify for another. His best qualifying effort was sixth at Gateway Motorsports Park, where he also matched his season-high finish of 14th.
But the team never became a full-time operation for Reiser and Kenseth. Schuler said he competed in a few more Busch events the following two years, but his most productive NASCAR season came in 2003.
He ran 27 races for Havill-Spoerl Racing and earned a career-high finish of 13th at Nashville Speedway. The following season was his last in NASCAR, running seven races before returning to Wisconsin.
When the opportunity arose, Schuler took a shot at the top level of stock car racing. But that path was now closed. The next one opened not long after returning to Wisconsin.
Schuler remained active in preparing race cars, and when he was offered a chance to purchase Pathfinder Chassis in Sun Prairie, he called another friend and former competitor, Joe Wood.
“That was a short conversation,” Schuler said. “I asked Joe if he wanted to be partners and buy it. I think within about five minutes, I already was talking to the former owner about specifics.”
Since October 2005, Schuler and Wood have built hundreds of race cars and have worked on hundreds more. Young drivers and veterans alike come through the Pathfinder shop, including Schuler's high-school chum and former boss, Kenseth.
Pathfinder builds race cars for Kenseth and his son, Ross. For Schuler and Wood, it's normal to start from zero and have a race-ready chassis and body in six weeks. That top-to-bottom service often costs between $40,000 and $50,000, without necessities like a motor and transmission.
“It used to be that kids would always say they want to be Michael Jordan or Brett Favre, but now there are many who say they want to be Jeff Gordon or Kasey Kahne,” Wood said. “It's expensive to follow that path, and we try to explain everything that's involved before moving forward with someone just getting involved with racing.”
While drivers like Kenseth have the technical ability but lack the time, others have never been in a situation to learn it. Pathfinder caters to both. Schuler and Wood both said they encourage clients who want to learn to take part.
“We more than welcome any of the drivers to come and help or watch the work that's done on the car,” Schuler said. “That only helps them, and the longer they race, the longer we're in business.”