FEATURE: Mark Billington More Than a Top ExecJune 20, 2012 · 0 Comments
Mark Billington is a top executive for one of the biggest companies in America and looks the part. Clean-cut, well-spoken, the consummate professional, he goes to work each morning in a suit and tie, but unlike other “suits” across the vast spectrum of Corporate America, who golf or go boating on weekends, he gets his hands dirty racing one of the most competitive Top Alcohol Funny Cars in the country.
“I’ve loved these cars since the first time I ever saw one, at Empire Dragway, when I was a teenager,” says Billington, the 2011 Division 2 Top Alcohol Funny Car champ. “My jaw hit the ground the first time one of them fired up. The firesuits, the power, the noise the engines made – I knew I had to have one someday.”
Billington, 48, got his first one when he was 30 – not a brand-new, top-of-the-line car built just for him, but a used one he picked up from veteran racer Bobby Baucom. By then, he was several rungs up the corporate ladder in a career that has taken him to Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta, and, last year, to Dallas. For him, business always comes first.
“I can’t run every race that I’d like to because of my job,” says Billington, Frito-Lay’s Senior Director For Sales Operations. “I can’t have a bunch of spare engines under the bench or a full-time crew chief or a professional truck driver to get my rig from race to race. I learned how to build my own engines and I drive my own truck to the track and run the car on about $30,000 a year. Some guys spend $300,000 – some spend more – but even if I had $3 million a year to spend, I’d still want to run this class.”
Racing when his schedule allows, Billington has grown increasingly competitive in nearly 20 years of Alcohol Funny Car competition and earned his first win at the 2003 Division 2 event at Darlington, taking out Jay Payne in the final. Billington is a six-time winner on the Lucas Oil Series tour and last year accomplished a lifetime goal when he edged Mickey Ferro and Melinda Green-King for the Division 2 title.
It’s been a long climb for Billington, who has always raced out of the South but actually is a native of upstate New York. “Growing up on a dairy farm, I always liked working on tractors, trucks, and cars, and just being outside and working on something is still one of my favorite things about racing,” he says. “When I was a teenager, my dad could see what direction my friends and I were headed, and he told me, ‘If you’re going to race, you’re going to do it my way,’ and took me to the track. He didn’t want any of us getting hurt out on the roads.”
Billington ran an old ’70 Camaro with a 350 that ran in the 12s, and one day the track brought in a match-race show that featured Alcohol Funny Cars. To say the least, it made an impression on him. “Then, when I was 17, my dad took me to the  Summernationals at Englishtown, and that was the first time I ever saw a national event, nitro cars, all that,” he says. “I remember this guy, Frank Manzo, was there…” Naturally, Manzo wasn’t just “there.” He got to the final that weekend and eventually won the championship that year, the first year after Pro Comp was split up into Top Alcohol Funny Car and Top Alcohol Dragster.
“Sometimes, I’ll tell one of my guys, when Manzo’s running a lot better than us, ‘Hey, he was kicking people’s butts way back when I was a teenager,’ ” Billington says. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started – I just did it. I got a short-block from Bob Newberry, bought a set of heads, and put it all together in my garage. To be honest, I was a little surprised when it started right up the first time. I’ve just kind of learned as I’ve gone along. When I first started running my hunk of junk, it seemed like I’d always run Tony Bartone in the first round, and he’d just drill me into the dirt every time. I don’t know if I’ve ever beat him, but I’ve won my share against Jay Payne, and Jay’s about as tough as they come. Sometimes, I think I should have won more races than I have, but I do the best I can with what I have. Every once in a while, I’ll reach for a wrench and realize that it’s one my dad gave me when I was a kid, and it reminds me of why I started doing this in the first place and how far I’ve come.”