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.
Ave and Cummins racing amidst a pack of ARCA regulars along with fellow stock car rookie,
Eddie Sharp is known for his ability to spot young talent, and his signing of McDowell is just another example. "Michael has as much talent as anyone who has ever walked through these doors," Sharp said. "Just look what he's done in such a short time. I keep my eye on a lot of forms of racing, including sports car racing. Remember, I raced in the SCCA for a long time in Florida. When a driver has a background in sports car racing, he has several advantages. He has less things to unlearn about driving the car, since it is new to him. He understands about the apexes of turns and the importance of hitting those apexes correctly, and he is generally easier on equipment.
"What Michael did for us at the end of last season was just tremendous," Sharp went on. Pointing to a white No. 2 Dodge on a lift against the wall, Sharp said, "That is the car he drove at Salem. The only mark on the car is the tire print on the driver's door. If you can run in the Top 10 at Salem and that's the only damage you have, then you are the real deal. That car is going to be converted to a dirt car for the races at Springfield and DuQuoin. I think we have a real chance at the championship with Michael."
Andy Belmont and Andy Lally discussing the finer points of stock car racing.
McDowell is open and honest about why he is running in ARCA. "I want to get into NASCAR and the Nextel Cup Series," he said. "In American racing, NASCAR is where it's at, and I think every driver wants to be there at some point in their career. ARCA is the perfect vehicle for me to start in that direction. We'll be racing on a lot of the same tracks that NASCAR does, and on a lot of the weekends we'll be racing with them. It's a great opportunity to get noticed by some of the top team owners."
Andy Lally is also trying to make the jump into ARCA. While he doesn't have a full-time ride for the season yet, he has tested several times with Andy Belmont's team at Charlotte and Daytona and is expected to be in a seat some time before the season is over. Lally brings an impressive rsum to the table as he pursues the career change. Lally has more podium finishes than any other driver in the history of the Grand-Am Rolex Series, and he is the first and only three-time Rolex Series champion. In fact, in the last seven years, Andy has won professional championships three times and has been runner-up the other four.
Michael McDowell readies himself for action.
For Lally, getting into a stock car is just a continuation of the dream. "I grew up in Georgia. NASCAR has always been part of our family regimen. I started racing go-karts, and that led to a couple of rides in SCCA. It seems that all the rides that I have been offered has been on the sports car side, not stock cars. People forget that I ran in the Goody's Dash Series. The first time I ran Daytona in a Dash car, I was flat out going into the first turn and I was scared to death. I got over that and now it seems silly to me. Right now, it's important for me to get into a stock car. I'm 32 years old, and I am at the top of my game. It's time to take the next step. I would love to run in some ARCA races and some Busch Series races, maybe on the road courses. We're trying to make that happen."
Andy Belmont, whose cars Lally tested in, had nothing but praise for the driver. "A driver who comes out of the sports car arena has several things going for him," Belmont said. "He usually has a better feel of the car right out of the box and is a step ahead with the balance of the car. Plus, he usually displays great patience with the car and on the track. Andy Lally has all of these things. I was impressed with him. He hit his marks right from the start, and his feedback was incredible."
Michael McDowell ran well in ARCA competition in 2006 for Eddie Sharp.
Of course, there can be a language barrier when going from sports cars to stock cars. "Some of our mechanics had a hard time understanding Andy when [he] told them that the car had a bit of understeer," joked Belmont. "He meant that the car was pushing, but that's just the different languages of racing. He's the real deal, and whoever picks him up will be on the road to success."
Eight-time ARCA RE/MAX Champion Frank Kimmel sums it up best when he says, "I'm all for these guys coming in to race with us. I've seem them run on television, and they are very good. I firmly believe that the more good drivers that come into ARCA, the better off we are. It makes all of us drive harder and become more professional."