Winning on track and water

“Big Ed” Watkins ’98 fueled every one of Denny Hamlin’s seven wins in this season’s NASCAR Cup Series. Though the team came up short in the championship race, it was still a year to remember for the former Pirate football player.

“It was crazy,” Watkins said recently. “It goes from winning the Super Bowl of racing (the Daytona 500 in February) — little did we know when we were in Phoenix we’d get put on hold for two months.”

Watkins played offensive line during his days with the Pirates.

Like most professional sports, NASCAR shut down competition in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was the first major sports organization to go back into action, holding races with no fans and plenty of testing and protective gear for participants.

“I applaud NASCAR for what they did to ensure safety,” Watkins said.

He got into the sport in 1997 while still a student, knocking on shop doors in the Charlotte area. Ray Evernham, the Hall-of-Fame crew chief for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, liked what he saw in the offensive lineman and hired him to work the jack on pit stops.

Since then, Watkins has jacked or fueled for several drivers including 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. He’s also crewed for Indycar champion Scott Dixon.

“Give me an opportunity to do an Indy 500,” he said. “I can gas one of those rascals.”

Watkins played four years for the Pirates, including the 1996 team, the last to finish the season ranked in the AP Top 25. The team’s signature win was a 31-6 whipping of No. 12 Miami.

Watkins said coach Steve Logan could accurately visualize each game, including the win at Miami, and also noted his well known intensity.

“I never could understand how many neck veins and forehead veins a human being could produce,” Watkins said of Logan, known for squatting and scowling on the sidelines during games.

Since 2017, Watkins has owned Ed Watkins Marine, in Denver, N.C. Business has been good during the pandemic; the dealership sold its entire 2020 stock by the summer. Fishing, he said, is a great way to social distance.

“If it’s a pontoon boat, center console, deck boat or a bass boat, we have what you need,” Watkins said. “Go on our website, pick out a boat and let me deliver it to you in eastern N.C.”