Norm Benning contemplates his car at the May 2005 Toledo (Ohio) Speedwayevent. When you're
You can read stories about many things that encompass a complicatedracing world. This story is not a feel-sorry story. It's not a put-downstory. It's definitely not anything of a negative vein. Actually, it istwo stories in one: the story of Norm Benning and how he has gotten themost out of his racing dollars.
Benning is more than qualified to speak on the subject of squeezingracing dollars. It hasn't always been that way for him. As Norm likes tosay, "I've been to the mountain." Quite obviously, he'd like to go backthere. In the meantime, he's in the savings mode that got him the shotat that mountain--and that keeps him racing.
Norm does his racing in the ARCA RE/MAX Series, arguably the mostversatile oval track series in the world. They race big tracks such asDaytona and Talladega, intermediates such as Michigan, Chicago, KansasCity, and short tracks. They also race their NASCAR-clone, 3,400-poundcars on dirt. The biggest difference between NASCAR and ARCA is that theteams that run ARCA on a regular basis are, for the most part, muchsmaller operations.
Norm climbs into his car before a practice session. The track time onrace day becomes vita
It's always been tough in ARCA, with one of the most grueling weekendshappening a number of years ago. Picture this scenario: Teams would raceat Michigan International's 2-mile superspeedway on a Saturday and racethe next day in Illinois on a 1-mile dirt track. That meant teams likeNorm's (that had only one race car) had to turn a superspeedway car intoa dirt car while inside the transporters on the road from Michigan toIllinois. The dirt events that ARCA runs are not your average dirtraces, either. They race at what former ARCA champ Bob Keselowski called"The Superspeedways of Dirt." They are 1-mile flat dirt horse tracksthat are in Springfield and DuQuoin, both in Illinois. How's that forversatility?
That brings us to Norm. Essentially, he and his crewchief Linda Nicholasare the team. Linda does the organizational stuff such as gatheringparts or administrative duties. As she says, "I do whatever it takes atthe time, what we need. I spot, I run the pit, I work on a car if I haveto. I go over the wall if I have to--whatever it takes. I do it all."
With that small number of full-time team members comes a car inventorythat is just as small. Unlike the upper end teams in ARCA, Norm doesn'thave the $500,000 to $1 million-plus sponsorship pool of funds to workwith. His sponsorship money works more on a race-to-race basis, pickingup local and regional corporate partners. Again, there's no pity partygoing on here. Norm wouldn't allow that. It's the story of Norm andLinda, running essentially two cars where other teams have four, six, ormore. Two cars may not sound too awfully bad to a Saturday night racerwho only has one. Keep in mind that in any given ARCA race, there are anumber of specialists with purpose-built cars just for that track.
Benning stands at the front of the car, wrench in hand. He's fine-tuningthe chassis adjust
Running a national series--even if it's only working on as little as twocars--has to require some help, and Norm has got that covered. Ask Normabout keeping a crew on the road and he laughs, "I know people all overthe country. We have four or five people that are pretty much at everyrace. The rest of them we pick up. Out at DuQuoin, I have Jack Greenwoodand family and friends that just can't wait for me to get there. Theyknow how to work on the race car, and they're there. When we go toDaytona, we have people who work for Caterpillar down there that can'twait for us to get there and race. I have people all over the country,and they just call me and make sure I'm coming because they're going tobe there. When I had SoBe, which was a major sponsorship, we had half adozen full-time people. Now we have full-time people, but they'revolunteers."
The hands-on experience comes in handy. Norm has many friends that hepicks up on race day,
While looking at the racing endeavors on Norm Benning's resume, onemight be surprised. After all, we're talking about a race car that willoccasionally show a few rust spots, some different color matches onrepairs, and has a mighty small crew. His results, however, are nothingless than stellar. He comes from good stock. His father, Norm BenningSr., is a Hall of Famer who has given his son plenty of help. Norm Jr.has finished in the Top 10 in ARCA points seven out of the last eightyears. Six of those years were consecutive, too. The year he didn't makethe Top 10, he was only as far back as Thirteenth in points. He's rankedas high as Fifth in points, has scored five Top 5s, 28 Top 10s, and hasled some races. If that isn't a stout enough resume for you, considerthis: Norm has 18-20 NASCAR Cup races under his belt, too. In fact,there were times he would go to Daytona in February with two cars, onefor the ARCA race and one for NASCAR. That's right, a low-buck guy wentNASCAR. That in and of itself shows it can still happen.
The condensed version of Norm's NASCAR experience is that Norm hooked upwith SoBe Drinks and went racing. Norm remembers it fondly. One of manyhighlights was trying to break into a NASCAR race. "Richard Childresscame over to me at Dover after I qualified. I had a pretty good car, andI got the thing sideways going into Turn 1. I saved it and qualified forthe Dover race. It was my first [Winston] Cup race. He came over andshook my hand. I don't know that he'd even remember this, I hope hewould, but he shook my hand and said, 'One other guy, I think, mighthave been able to do that. And he's driving my car.' That was theultimate compliment of my life."
Linda Nicholas serves as crewchief. It would take a whole page to list the job duties she
Today, Norm's ARCA schedule features consecutive races at totallydifferent racetracks, making chassis setup a virtual nightmare. What ifyou had to race Toledo, a high-banked pavement short track, only twodays prior to racing the flat dirt at DuQuoin? Then, what if you had torace at Chicagoland, a 11/2-mile superspeedway, less than a week later,and you only had two cars to work with? That's Norm's current status,but he has a plan. "I actually have a friend that lives up nearDuQuoin," Norm says. "He has a big farm, and it's like a holiday when Iget there. All the neighbors come over and everything. It's great. Theycook fresh corn and steaks and look forward to it every year. They havea big barn where they keep all their tractors. We back the cars in thereand change 'em and get them ready for the dirt. We have more people thanwe really know what to do with in his shop. We go to DuQuoin and then wego back to his house, change the car back again, and head for Chicago."
Other than the obvious types of tracks, there are tire issues, too. "Werun bias tires at Toledo and run dirt tires at DuQuoin," Norm says."Then, we run the radial tires in Chicago. So that's three tracks andthree totally different tires. Obviously, all suspension is different ateach track. It's semi-banked at Toledo, so you need a spring that is alittle heavier. At DuQuoin, it's flat; it's an old horse track. Youspring the car pretty soft there. In Chicago, you're probably in betweenthose two setups. We had shocks specially built for Toledo and Chicago.We have specially built dirt shocks, also."
With ARCA being a regular event on the Illinois dirt miles, does Normuse a playbook? "We have a playbook, and I very seldom follow it [helaughs]. We go out there and we practice and adjust accordingly becausedirt is never ever the same. It depends on how much water and calciumthey put on and how much sun or shade there is. That affects all tracks,not just dirt, but it affects dirt a lot more. As the race goes on, thedirt track will start picking up rubber. It'll get black and get realslick, and you have to keep up with the racetrack. We're pretty goodwith that," Norm says.
Pit stops seldom result in seven men over the wall. Norm has to gatherwilling friends and
We can learn from Norm just what is involved with changing over a car.In the ARCA life, it happens pretty often. "[It happens] every race,"Norm says. "We make adjustments like everybody else during the race. Youvery seldom ever have a car that stays perfect all day. From track totrack, aerodynamics (which we don't have a lot of) is a big part of it.The bigger the track, the more important the aero package is. We don'thave any wind tunnel time."
He's a commercial pilot with a degree in aerodynamics, so he knows whatto look for. "From looking at other cars that do have that wind tunneltime, we can adjust the body, fenders, and quarter-panels, and we canraise and lower the car," Norm says. "That's how we handle aerodynamics.At just about every track you run, there is a different spring and shocksetup. Obviously, there are different tire compounds, and you have toadjust for that--sway bars, too. Again, that's all affected byaerodynamic downforce. If you have a lot of downforce in the car,sometimes it requires more sway bar or less sway bar. You kind of adjustyour chassis around your aerodynamic package."
But what happens when Norm hits a new track on the schedule? "We wentinto Memphis for the first time, and nobody tested. When we go to a newtrack, it's kind of an advantage for me because we don't have the budgetright now to go test at these places. When we go to a new venue, I'musually pretty good." Logic would dictate that is based on a lot ofexperience, but there's more. "I take care of equipment. I haven'twrecked a race car to the point of bending the frame in over two years.I'm starting my third year now. That's probably unheard of in thissport. We finish in the Top 10; it's not like I'm riding around."
At speed in an ARCA RE/MAX competition. Benning takes good care of theequipment, and the c
What does Norm want the average fan in the stands to know about hisoperation? "Like the saying, 'We've done so much with so little for solong, we can do anything with nothing,' it would be great for somebodyto notice that we're capable of winning races and try to help us outfinancially with some sort of sponsorship," Norm says. "We keep knockin'on the door, but we can't keep up with the amount of tires the sponsorsand teams put on their cars. A set of tires is $1,800, and some of theseteams today will go through five or six sets of [radial] tires. Theshort-track tires, I believe, are $800 a set. Our chassis are as good asanybody's. We've proven that, but we just can't keep up with the tirebill. We've got to run our tires longer. As a result, we don't go asfast because these tires give up."
Despite the somewhat day-to-day thing, Norm still has plans. ". . . I'mgoing to go to Daytona next February with a Cup car and try and makethat 500 . . . I love Daytona; it's my favorite place."
What would he say to young and upcoming drivers? "If these young guyshad to go race the way I go racing, they'd quit--it's as simple as that.They would not do what we have to do to go racing."
Maybe not, but we can learn from Norm.