Last month we took a look at eight critical items that every racing parent should know about, seven of those had directly to do with on-track safety. And while that is the most important aspect of getting your kids started in this sport, it's not the only thing. Often times, young people gravitate to oval track racing because a family member or a friend is already deeply involved in the sport. In these cases, the young racer has, theoretically, a wealth of knowledge to draw from to make their entry into the sport seamless. But there can be a down side.
When 2013 ASA National Champion Dalton Zehr first climbed behind the wheel in 1998 when he was 7 years old, his father, Marty, already had turned thousands of laps in a Super Late Model in their home state of Idaho. Following in his dad's footsteps, Dalton quickly showed he had the mettle to compete in the sport.
After relocating to Florida, Dalton began to regularly compete around the state's paved tracks during the 2000s. The sport was healthy and competition was stiff. Dalton won a ton of races including the FastKids Championship in 2004. But it was really when short track legend Gene Coleman, owner of Coleman Racing Products, took an interest in Dalton five years ago that his racing career matured to the next level.
Zehr (right), 20-year-old racer Reagan May, and Fisher walk the track. Here they discuss t
"Dalton always had the raw talent to be a great racer, but you know it's not always the best to have Dad as the crew chief," says Marty Zehr. "Sometimes an outside voice is just what a young racer needs to get to the next level."
The Zehr boys always had a great father-son relationship, but when Coleman offered assistance to the young Dalton, Marty knew that was just what his son needed to mature as a racer. After all, while he was a successful businessman, Marty didn't have an open checkbook where he could self-fund Dalton to the upper echelon of NASCAR, a practice that has become more common today than many would care to admit.
But at the very heart of it, an open checkbook does not necessarily make a good racer…it's learning from guys like Gene. "I mean who better than Michigan Motorsports Hall of Famer Gene Coleman to learn from," says Dalton.
Spending summers in Coleman's Michigan shop and running his cars in limited schedules around the Midwest, Zehr got to do battle with some of the toughest Super Late Model racers in the country. Those experiences culminated this past season when, at 22, Zehr found himself in the thick of the battle for the ASA Member Track National Championship, a title he would ultimately claim on the strength of 9 feature wins out of 11 races.
There is little doubt that Coleman's tutelage paid big dividends for the young Zehr.
Understanding the importance of this type of mentoring in the development of youth in racing, we decided to do a little experiment and take a couple of young racers, dust off Dalton's old FastKids Championship winning truck and head to a local short track for a little training session.
The now defunct FastKids Series was originally designed as a way to get young racers acclimated to full-bodied race cars, while capitalizing on the popularity of NASCAR's then titled Craftsman Truck Series. It's basically a traditional Super Stock with a truck body on it, a GM metric chassis, a 603 crate motor, a full 'cage, and more.
Backstretch lessons as Zehr shows his two young racers the proper line going down the back
Notice that they all have drinks as they’re walking the track. Zehr favors staying in the
Robert and Dalton pay careful attention to Reagan’s laps, one of which ended in this spin.
With the track walk complete, Dalton piles his pupils into his personal car and heads out
The group looks on as Dalton checks the systems under the hood.
The rookie on the gas down the backstretch.
For years there was a little 1/3-mile racetrack in Clearwater, Florida. Sunshine Speedway, as it was once called, played host to a slew of big name racers over the years before it was unceremoniously closed in 2004 and sold to the State of Florida. The State wanted to build a connector road through the adjoining dragstrip, but when that funding never materialized they turned the oval track into a toll research and test facility for the Florida SunPass system, setting it up as a mock tollbooth.
Fast forward to late 2011 when the state-owned property went up for bid. Robert Yoho, a Late Model racer and auto repair business owner, and his wife, Danielle, won the lease in January 2012. Since then, they have invested a steady stream of cash into cleaning, repairing and upgrading the property, ultimately renaming it Showtime Speedway.
Today, Showtime plays host to a wide range of divisions with some great racing action. Its mildly banked 1/3-mile configuration is perfect for our exercise.
The Professor & His Students
Zehr is first on the track in the truck. This gives him an opportunity to shake the truck
In 2013 Zehr raced against 20-year-old Reagan May almost weekly at Norway Speedway in Michigan. And, in fact, it was Zehr who prevented May from winning her first Super Late Model race. May started racing when she was ten years old in go-karts and raced a number of different cars including one year on dirt, before climbing behind the wheel of a Super Late Model at age 15. While May is an accomplished racer, she is still seeking her first feature win. And Zehr believes that win is just around the corner.
His other student has never turned a single lap in a race car, and in fact doesn't even posses a legal driver's license. But at 15 years old, Robert Fisher is not completely without any racing experience. The nationally ranked BMX racer has been bugging this author to add four wheels to his racing program and after a short meeting at Circle Track's headquarters we thought we could build a valuable story about how to take your child racing for the first time the proper way.
For Reagan, sliding behind the wheel of the truck will help with her car control. While these trucks are obviously significantly slower than her Super Late Model, the metric chassis' roll center location, high center of gravity, and skinny grooved tires will force her to really "drive" it to get some good lap times.
Wisconsin Super Late Model racer Reagan May readies herself for her session.
In Robert's case, the truck is a good starter vehicle for those same reasons. "I'm a better racer now, I believe, because I turned so many laps in that truck back then," explains Dalton. "You develop really solid driving skills by racing these chassis, yet the trucks are still forgiving and plus they're cheap to fix."
All that said, practicing the truck will help our young driver develop good habits behind the wheel before he makes that transition to being a young racer. And that's a key point. One of the ideas we are promoting in this article is that beginning or aspiring racers should spend a good amount of time practicing before they ever turn their first lap of competition.
"You need seat time, a person who has never raced before should get a good familiarity with the car, or in our case truck, that they'll be competing in long before jumping into an actual race," says Zehr. If you take the time to really learn the in and outs of the car, as well as the configuration of the track you'll be better off when the green flag drops. For Robbie, he'll log hundreds of laps in this truck before we actually go race it."
After Robert and Reagan’s first session Dalton discusses, in detail, their individual perf
If at all possible take your newbie racer out onto the track by themselves, all by themselves. Now we realize that not everyone starting out in this sport necessarily has the funds to be able to rent a track for a private test session. However, check with your track owner, some will be willing to open the gates an hour or two early on an open practice day or even a race day to get a new racer onto the track. The promoters are usually there early anyway plus a new racer means more money for the track.
"There's a good reason why the top racers in the world spend so much time testing," says Zehr. "For a new racer like Robert, it will build his confidence behind the wheel without having the pressure of actual competition. That can come later."
Step one before ever cranking the engine over Dalton has Robert sit in the car in full gear. Familiarizing the 15-year-old with where all of the controls are located is critical. This includes everything from the battery switch, starter, and more, but he pays special attention to three items; the on-board fire extinguisher, the window net and the seat belts. Zehr runs over the safety items very carefully making sure his protégé fully understands their function. He then makes Robert get in and out of the car multiple times, always in full gear.
A pad and paper come in handy to explain the finer points of the line.
"It's something that I do myself," explains Zehr. "Let's face it, if you wreck and you're on fire the last thing you are going to do is sit in a burning car and take the time to take your helmet, neck restraint, and gloves off before getting out. So I practice in and out of the car with all of those items on. And I make anybody I work with do the exact same thing for that very reason."
Robert had to perform the task multiple times before Dalton was satisfied enough to go to the next step. And that is something that all young racers need to get used to, repetition. By repeating even the most mundane of tasks you can have your future champion form good habits. You want exiting the car quickly to become second nature so that in the case something bad happens, and we hope it never does, but if it does they can get to safety as fast as possible.
Dalton also had Reagan sit in the truck to allow her to locate those same functions. And while she has raced long enough to know how to get in and out of a car quickly it is still important for her to learn the surroundings of the car. After all, not every car has the fire bottle mounted in the same spot.
Walk the Track, Son
Here’s Robert’s entry into Turn 1.
Part of this exercise is to help demonstrate how to build a well rounded racer and that means developing skills both inside and outside the car. After receiving a complete and thorough explanation of the truck's operation, the trio head out on to the track and walk around the entire circuit. Zehr says it's at this point where he looks for the spots and markers on the track that allow him to get his bearings. During this walk he pays particular attention to the groove, seeking out lift and braking points, checking for uneven spots in the surface that could upset the car and so on.
And here is Dalton’s. Notice how similar the two are.
"I do this regardless of where I am, even if it's my home track," says Zehr. "When you walk a track you want to pay close attention to the curvature of the turns. A lot of times you can pick out the trouble spots before ever turning a single lap."
While you're walking the track you also want to scan the surface for any debris that could cause a flat tire or worse. This is especially true if, as in our case, you are testing the day following a race. Most short tracks in the country don't have the blowers that NASCAR has to clean the track surface.
With the track walk complete, Dalton piles his pupils into his personal car and heads out onto the track. Making laps around the track, he shows the young racers the proper line to take. By making the initial laps in the car it also allows the three to have a conversation about the track's individual idiosyncrasies. Each driver gets a chance behind the wheel of the street car, allowing Zehr the opportunity to critique their line and correct it in real time.
And the fun begins
The smile says it all.
Dalton and Reagan each take turns wheeling the truck around the 1/3-mile before Robert climbs in for his first laps. When it's Robert's turn, Dalton gets in the street car and makes Robert follow him around the track for several laps before turning him loose. This allows the young driver to focus on the line, see in real time where the braking points are and where to pick up the throttle. Zehr believes this is an essential step in the process of acclimating a new driver to the track and car.
"A little follow-the-leader can really be beneficial. When mentoring a new driver you really want to take a walk before you run approach," says Zehr. "It's about baby steps...walk the track, drive the track, follow in the race car then run solo."
Talk About It
After each session, Dalton spent time debriefing both Reagan and Robert. He critiqued their lines, the way they handled the truck and more.
"When teaching a young racer, it's very important to be clear and specific and give reasons why something is happening. What they are doing and feeling inside the car should be easily relateable to the car's suspension, drivetrain, and more. Plus sharing information is critical to avoiding future mistakes. "
We outfitted the truck with cameras both inside and out. The original intention was to gather footage for a video which you can watch on www.circletrack.com,as well as our You Tube channel. But academy award winning performances from the trio notwithstanding this turned out to be an exceptionally good idea. Robert looked smooth and consistent, getting progressively faster with each lap. As he got more and more comfortable behind the wheel his lap times dropped a total of 3 seconds from the first lap to his best lap, which came in his final session. But when we reviewed the video back at the shop we discovered the he was lifting sooner than he needed to and not using enough brake as he should. Plus he was shuffling the wheel through his hands as opposed to keeping that nice firm grip Dalton explained to him earlier in the day. Correcting these three issues will definitely yield much quicker lap times.
This lesson can also be translated to your own racing program regardless of whether or not you're a brand new racer, like Robert, an up and comer like Reagan or a Champ like Dalton. What you think you are doing behind the wheel may not be exactly what is happening. So the next time you head out for some testing or even in a race, take that GoPro and train it on the driver. What you see may turn out to be the key to getting that win.
Prior to the young racers taking their turns behind the wheel, Zehr intentionally spun the truck to find the limit of its adhesion.
So, How'd They Do?
Dalton set a benchmark time of 15.80. Reagan was a few tenths off of Daltons' time with a 16.40 while Robert's best lap was a 16.73. Obviously, both our young racers will benefit from more time in the truck, and as of this writing they have each made a return trip to Showtime where Reagan and Dalton both raced and Robert (not quite ready for full competition) worked on the truck in the pits. With the benefit of the video, Robert will be able to correct his mistakes and lower those lap times so that when he does compete for the first time he can do so with the confidence and skill required to drive a good, clean race.
Stay tuned for more articles on getting your kids involved in racing in future issues of Circle Track.