So you’re sitting there in your shop looking at a brand new race car and you think to yourself, “Let’s go racing.” Well, not so fast! There’s plenty of stuff to be done to the car before you go racing, and that’s what Ryan and Rudy Zeck experienced with our Circle Track Southern Force Late Model Stock Car.

Setup Basics

Sure, the car looks fast just sitting in the shop, but there’s still plenty that needs to be done before it gets to the racetrack, and most of it is just the basics.

“You need to set everything up with the weight actually in the car,” explained project crew chief and former racer Rudy Zeck. “You need to set your ride heights and your caster/camber. A good starting point for a short-track setup is 3-½- to four-degrees negative camber in the right front and a small amount of positive camber in the left front. As far as caster split, you run more positive caster in the right front. Usually you start out at 3-½ to four degrees versus the left front where you’ll set it up at one degree. That way you’ll have a two- to three-degree split from right to left. That helps the car turn in the center of the corner. If the driver lets go of the wheel with that split in the car, it (the car) will want to go left. That’s exactly what we did with this car to prepare for the first race.”

Race Day

The crew arrived at Zeck’s shop in Concord, N.C. at 7 a.m. That left plenty of time to do a final check of the car, load up and get to the track, which, on this day, happened to be the famed Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. That’s where the American Racing Association held a 125-lap event for its Southern All-Stars Late Model Stock Car Touring Series.

The 90-minute drive from the Charlotte area, plus a brief stop at McDonalds for breakfast, forced the team to arrive at the track later than anticipated. “We have a volunteer crew (Jacob Lyon, Bob Dillner, Matthew Dillner and Amy Calello), so we want to make sure they eat on the way to the track,” said driver Ryan Zeck, who is also a team engineer for Robert Yates Racing (working on both Dale Jarrett’s and Ricky Rudd’s teams). “If we don’t get them something to eat on the way to the track, they’ll be unhappy. You don’t want your crew mad at you. That’s a big factor a lot of people don’t think of. Taking care of your crew is just as important as taking care of the car.”

The new car itself concerned Ryan and Rudy. “We didn’t go test, and that was a mistake,” said a worried Rudy. “We’re coming up here feeling confident. We know everything was done right on that car, and it’s one of the best looking Late Models here. It’s clean and simple. But because of time and our jobs, we did not get to shake-down the car, and you should always do that before you race a car the first time.

“Plus, we have a different-style car than we are used to racing with. We are used to running a three-link car. This chassis has a Winston Cup-style truck-arm rear suspension. It has different characteristics, but we don’t know what they are yet.”

Getting Ready

“When you get to a track, you’re not immediately focused on going fast,” commented Ryan. “What I have going through my mind is we’ve got to get tires, we’ve got to make sure we go through tech, get the carburetor checked and everything else.”

Well, the Leicht chassis racer rolled through the ARA tech line with no problems. Jacob and Bob sized and mounted the spec Goodyear tires the ARA uses and Matthew and Amy set up the pit area.

Finally, it was time for the Circle Track Southern Force ARA Late Model to hit the track for the first time.

On the Track

The First Time The theme to this edition of the Circle Track Southern Force project seems to be “Not So Fast.” Unfortunately, that theme also applied when the race car hit the track for the very first time.

“The first thing you have to do is bed the brakes,” commented Ryan. “You go out there and take 20 jabs at the brakes, come in and let them cool off. And when you are in, the crew needs to check the entire car, make sure everything is tight and nothing is leaking. Thankfully, everything is OK with the car.”

“OK” in the sense that everything was lock-tight. The problem was, Ryan was not comfortable in the cockpit. “The seat is mounted the wrong way, and the steering column needs to be adjusted,” he told the crew. “It felt good at the race shop, but once I got that lateral force against me (through the turns), it just felt completely different.”

And who better to fix that problem than the driver himself. “This is something nobody else can do,” Ryan said from inside the cockpit of his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. “The crew gave me a couple of wrenches, and I’m readjusting the belts and the steering column. We have an adjustable steering column, and I’m both for and against that. In this instance it is good because I am able to adjust it sitting right inside the car.”

Precious practice time was ticking away, but there were more things to be adjusted before Ryan put the hammer down.

“Because we didn’t test, we had to take care of a lot of little things when we got here,” said Rudy during practice. “The driver wasn’t comfortable with the steering-wheel position, we had a flat spot in the carburetor and we had some radio issues that needed to be fixed. These are all things we would have caught if we tested with our brand-new car. We have fixed them, but they take time to remedy, and we’ve lost a lot of time.”

When you’re at a short track, especially on a touring series, you need all the practice time you can get to dial the car in to the conditions.

The Push

The radio problem was fixed, the carburetor was adjusted and Ryan was now comfortable in the cockpit, but the car was not comfortable on the racetrack. Ryan’s Late Model had a significant push (the car did not want to turn in the corners), and the team and driver tried to adapt to the tendencies of the truck-arm suspension.

“A lot of what I am going through is trying to learn what this car wants,” said the 24-year-old driver. “It’s two completely different feels from a three-link car to a truck-arm car. That is a lot to think about. You have to consider that when you make any change to the car.”

“The biggest problem is we can’t get the car to turn in the center of the corner,” pointed out Rudy. “And, because of that, Ryan’s corner speeds are down, his straightaway speeds are down, and we are just a tick off the pace. If you can’t get through the center of the corner, you’re not going to have a good lap. And now we’re running out of practice time. We spent so much time with the little things, like getting the driver comfortable, that we don’t have the time to try many things with the car.”

Hence, our theme for this story: “Not So Fast.”

“We changed the right-rear spring immediately, but I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” Ryan said after practice. “Making it stiffer in the right rear is really to help the car turn better on the exit of the corner, but most of our problem was on the apex. That’s probably why we missed the boat a little bit.”

“With our old car, we made certain spring changes and diagonal changes, and it helped the car immediately,” Rudy said. “But with this car, we don’t have a database of experience to work from and know how different changes affect the car.”


Both Ryan and Rudy knew they needed to do something to make the car turn better for qualifying, because a bad time could spell disaster for the rest of the evening.

“Qualifying is really important in these ARA races because you start straight up according to time trials,” explained Ryan. “So we changed both front springs and took some diagonal out of the car to try and loosen it up.” And it works! Ryan qualified 15th for the 35-car starting field. Not as good as he and the team had hoped, but it was nearly a half-second better than the No. 9 car had run all day long.

“Kenny Wallace once told me this about qualifying,” Ryan said of his run, “‘You’re going to go out and try to do something you can’t do. You go out there and pick up the gas later than you think you can, drive it into the corner deeper and be easy on the brakes,’ and that’s what I did. And for the first time all day, the car was loose. Of course, that was because I was over-driving it.”

Pre-Race Jitters

“Qualifying can give you a false sense of security, because you are on new tires, the car is loose and it feels fast,” Rudy said. “And because of that, we don’t know what we’ll have for the main event. In about 10 or 20 laps those tires will be hot and worn, and the car will be back to where it was. Since we didn’t get the car the way we wanted during practice on the older tires, we don’t know what to expect.”

“You need to have confidence in your car,” said Ryan. “I know it’s a good piece, but we weren’t fast in practice, and that’s hurt my confidence level. Every driver battles that, but it’s definitely chipped away at my confidence tonight.”

“It was loose in qualifying so we are putting a half-round of diagonal back in the car,” explained Rudy. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do for a night race, but right now we’re just experimenting.”

The Race

Almost immediately Ryan knew the car was not right. With each lap, the car pushed even more, and Ryan was losing positions.

“Twenty-five to 30 laps into the race, we were back to where we were earlier in the day. I was trying to conserve my right front, because I knew if I burned it up the car would get even worse. And I knew there were guys behind me who were faster, so I was trying to be respectful of them. I knew we couldn’t survive the entire race like that.”

And so, 40 laps into the 125-lap affair, a decision was made. “Let’s bring the car in and use this race as a giant practice session,” Rudy radioed to Ryan and the crew.

“That race turned into our test session, but under stressful conditions,” explained Rudy later. “We knew we weren’t competitive, so we brought the car in and changed some more things. First, we took more diagonal out of the car. Then we came in and changed springs because we wanted to stop the car rolling over on the right front. Nothing really seemed to work.”

In the end, Ryan finished 26th. It was certainly a disappointing evening after a day that began with so much anticipation.

Lessons Learned

“It’s the golden rule, go test before you go to the track with a brand new car,” said Rudy. “Don’t go to the track and expect the car to be on the pole, like we did. We were wrong for that.”

“We really struggled just trying to do too much,” said Ryan. “There was too much to be done when you’re trying to race that same night. It’s definitely the most frustrated and disappointed I’ve ever been at a racetrack.”

“The car did not react to changes the same way our previous car did,” added Rudy. “We still need to spend a day at the track to learn this car. We know it’s going to be fast because everything is top-notch, from the chassis (Leicht) to the engine (Charlie Long), it’s just learning what it needs. I know there’s nothing wrong with the chassis because a Gene Leicht chassis won the night we were there. We certainly have some bruised egos.”

Leicht Race Cars
NC  28704
328 FM 306
New Braunfels
TX  78130