Veteran road racers Tony Ave and Skip Cummins turned in their Pontiac Riley in the middle
There is a new wave of drivers sweeping into the ARCA RE/MAX Series this year, and they are not coming from the usual sources. It seems that ARCA has caught the eye of the sports car world, especially the Grand American Road Racing Association.
For the past several seasons, ARCA has been heavily used by the NASCAR Nextel Cup teams as a proving ground for their young drivers who were going through the various teams' driver development programs. Last year, Chip Ganassi used the series to give Formula One star, Juan Pablo Montoya, his first taste of stock car racing on the way to his full-time run in the Nextel Cup Series this year.
Also last year, Michael McDowell, Tony Ave, and Skip Cummins made the switch from the Grand-Am Rolex Series late in the season. In an odd coincidence, all three drivers decided to pursue ARCA rides in late July at Birmingham's Barber Motorsports Park round for the Daytona Prototype Series.
ARCA veteran Andy Belmont schools a young protg.
Ave and Cummins shocked the paddock on race morning when, after qualifying 13th, they withdrew their car from the race and immediately put the Pontiac Riley up for sale. They had decided overnight to go ARCA racing, and the team headed back to Ave's Maiden, North Carolina, shop to start building Chevrolet Monte Carlos for Talladega.
While Skip Cummins is pretty much a raw rookie when it comes to stock car racing, he has plenty of experience on the road courses, driving a wide variety of cars. In his sole ARCA race at Talladega, Cummins started 32nd and brought the Cyberspeed No. 97 home in 18th place, one lap down. Tony Ave, on the other hand, has experience in just about any type of race car that you can name. He was the World Snowmobile champion in 1993. He ran well in races with Trans Am, Formula Atlantic, Toyota Atlantic, and USAC Midgets. In five ARCA races since 2002, Tony has two Top 5's and appeared headed for another top finish at Talladega before a late-race wreck spoiled his chances.
Three-time Rolex Series Champ Andy Lally wheels his Pontiac GTO in sports car competition.
Ave says that the reason for switching from the more exotic Daytona Prototypes to the ARCA RE/MAX series is pretty simple. "We felt that we could get more bang for our bucks in ARCA," he said. "ARCA has more races and most of them are on television, so we felt that there was greater exposure for us there. And when you really think about it, even road racing is quickly becoming a young man's sport. Sure, in the endurance races experience counts, but in the sprint races the kids are taking over. You can extend your career in ARCA. Look at James Hylton." Hylton ran the entire ARCA schedule last season.
"We are not planning to go after the championship," Ave continued. "Skip will drive in races as his schedule permits, and I'll pick and choose the races that I am going to do. But don't be surprised when we put a young driver or two into some of the races."
While Ave and Cummins are making the jump for economic reasons, there is a whole slew of sports car aces who are eyeing the Ohio-based sanction for career development reasons.
Despite not having a full-time ride in stock cars, Andy Lally has impressed in a series of
Michael McDowell left Barber Motorsports Park in July 2006, on top of the world. Not only did he win the Grand Am Cup race on Saturday, he also grabbed a Sixth-Place finish in his Daytona Prototype on Sunday. Later that week he walked into Eddie Sharp's race shop in Denver, North Carolina, hoping to put together a deal to run a few late-season ARCA races. They worked out a deal and Michael paid Eddie Sharp back with two Top 5's and another Top 10 finish in just five races.
But his performance in ARCA shouldn't come as a surprise. The 22-year-old McDowell is no stranger to the winner's circle. He is a two-time National Karting champion, having garnered 84 race wins in karts. He was the 2004 Star Mazda champion and became the youngest podium finisher in Grand-Am history in 2005. Also during that year, McDowell won his first Rolex Series Daytona Prototype race in Mexico City, and then followed that up with an 11th-Place finish in the next day's Champ Car race. Late last year McDowell and Sharp entered into an agreement that will have the team running the full ARCA schedule, and they plan to go after Frank Kimmel's private playground-the championship.