Our Late Model stock car project has been an opportunity to apply much of the technology that we preach in the pages of Circle Track to a real race car. The culmination of that effort is to actually race the car. So we put together a plan to travel to North Carolina and race the car to see if all of our hard work has paid off. The results were amazing.
We had been planning our trip since we tested the car in Orlando at the SpeedWorld track. My idea had always been to have Dalton Zehr drive the car at tracks around Mooresville, North Carolina, and also to find a local driver from that neighborhood to drive it, too. I had been talking to my longtime friend Brian Wheeler, who is from the Daytona Beach area and now a part of the Evernham Motorsports Nextel Cup group. He hooked us up with Willy Evernham Jr. The pairing of these two young drivers was perfect.
To start out, Dalton and Willy are both young, up-and-coming drivers who are about the same age and identical in size, which helps a lot when switching back and forth in testing and between races. Neither one had a lot of experience in these cars. Dalton had never raced one nor even been to the racetrack where he would race.
The two teams hit it off from the very start. Both crews worked together on the car at the Late Model shop run by Evernham Motorsports. We had to remove about a hundred pounds of weight from the car and then set the ride heights and weight distribution on the surface plate. Willy and crew had all of the necessary equipment and the operation went very smoothly. Willy's crew chief, Sebastian "Ski" Skierski, took charge and made short work of preparing the car to our specs.
Dalton jokes with Willy about...
Dalton jokes with Willy about the two fresh tire donuts he found on the car after the Hickory race. Both drivers ran extremely well given their lack of experience in this car.
Willy and crew prepare to...
Willy and crew prepare to weigh the car. We were fortunate to combine our team with theirs. We arrived the day before so we could go over the car, adjust ride heights, and so forth in preparation for a Friday night race at Tri-County Motor Speedway.
The crew works to remove 100...
The crew works to remove 100 pounds of lead and re-weigh the car in Willy's Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop. The level Cup-style surface plate made the job quick and accurate. I was happy about the work habits exhibited by the Evernham crew. Ski had a routine for every part of the setup and was very meticulous.
The two tracks we chose were Tri-County Motor Speedway in Hudson, North Carolina, just outside Hickory, and Hickory Speedway in Hickory. Both provide great racing action and the competition level is very high. We had a NASCAR-legal Late Model stock car that is indigenous to the mid-Atlantic region, which draws drivers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee.
These two tracks are legendary in their history of operation. Hickory is a very early NASCAR track where the legends who helped make NASCAR such a success competed. We were thrilled to be in this neighborhood to say the least. We found, to our liking, that outside teams are readily accepted.
Tim Southers runs the program at Tri-County while Sherry Clifton operates Hickory. Both were very hospitable in welcoming the CT crews to their tracks. We have to say that you will definitely find straight-up tech and mostly caution-free racing at these tracks because the tech officials uphold the rules and the drivers respect one another. It was somewhat different from the racing we usually see in some other parts of the country, where a 50-lap race can take over an hour due to numerous cautions for overzealous driving. Anyway, here's how it went.
TRI-COUNTY MOTOR SPEEDWAY
We all decided it was probably best to let Dalton run the car Friday night at Tri-County, which was offering twin 50-lap races, and let Willy run Saturday night at Hickory, where he has a lot of past experience. The Tri-County track offers an early practice session from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the day of the race and then a regular practice at around 6 p.m.
Both drivers ran the car in the early session and liked what they felt. The track was obviously hot and slick, a common occurrence in the summer there, and we had to drop the Panhard bar half an inch to reduce wheelspin off the corners. We would raise it back up for the later practice and the race.
The cars that would eventually qualify first and second for the races were there at the early practice. So we could compare our times to theirs. We were within less than half a second in lap times on old tires, so we felt good about our chances of running well once Dalton had a chance to settle in and get some practice laps under his belt.
Dalton qualified cautiously and wound up 11th for the first race. For comparison purposes as to the level of competition, the top five cars that run here week to week are only separated by 20 points for the championship. On top of that, two cars from the Swaim racing family with Travis and Mike Jr. showed up. They are always very competitive, having won many races in and around North Carolina. Tim told me that they had a different winner every week, so we had lots of serious competition to deal with.
In the first 50-lapper, we noticed that the engine was off and Dalton finally came in to have it checked. After going a few laps down, we found a plug wire that had burned through the insulation on a header pipe and was shorting out. We replaced it and went back out to resume running. The car had much better acceleration and we closed out that first race to prepare for the final 50-lapper.
Dalton started 10th in the final race and quickly began to move up. The car was very competitive and we were able to catch cars ahead of us and make passes, although several took a few laps of running side by side. Dalton worked the car as though he had been running this track for years, and we made it all the way to sixth place by the end. The car was untouched and we all felt a huge measure of success. In the end we could run the same lap times as the leader and the setup stayed exactly the same throughout the race.
Tri-County is a somewhat difficult track to learn, so we had to watch how the regulars ran the line through the turns and consult with Dalton to perfect our racing line. He was a trooper and adjusted very well. In the end, he looked like he had been running there for years. I know the other drivers not only respected how he ran them clean, but also how darn fast he was as a rookie in a brand-new car.
I have to say that in that moment after the race was over, I was so proud of Dalton. He showed veteran patience, skill, and determination and in the end looked like he had been racing these cars for years. The NASCAR Late Model stock division was where I started my racing career, and I have seen hundreds of these same cars and drivers run thousands of laps. None looked any better than Dalton and this car. We were all stoked. With that effort having been a great success, it was now off to Hickory.
Our project car sits on the...
Our project car sits on the grid at Tri-County Motor Speedway on Friday night ready to go. We experienced plug wire problems in the first 50-lap race of the twin-50 event. The second 50-lapper went very well with the car being very competitive.
The 25th Anniversary car rolls...
The 25th Anniversary car rolls onto the starting grid for the first race of its life. The body was professionally hung by master shaper Chuck Gafrarar, located in Mooresville, North Carolina. We got quite a few positive comments on the build and the look of this car. It fit in very well with the local entries.
Dalton learned the track very...
Dalton learned the track very quickly and moved up through the field from 10th to finish sixth in the second 50-lapper. Here he shows how the CT car hugs the bottom while motoring past the No. 32 car for position. The handling was very good and stayed consistent all night.
HICKORY MOTOR SPEEDWAY
Sherry runs a tight program at Hickory and those who come to compete can be sure that they will be treated like everyone else. She welcomed us for sure, but we were expected to adhere to the track's rules and we knew the competitors were made to follow those very same rules. This was refreshing after what we've seen at some tracks down south (you know who you are).
Willy was very excited to be here with us and to compete in this car. Many teams greeted us and made comments about what a nice car we had. We again want to thank Billy Hess for offering us his chassis. We couldn't be happier with that choice.
We ran practice to shake the car down and everything felt great. We had to live with the tires we were given and the rear stagger was a little short of what we needed here. But the car handled perfectly and we were ready to race. Willy's own Late Model stock car had suffered an unfortunate incident a month earlier and was still under repair. After sitting out for a while, he was understandably very anxious to get going.
We started 10th in the race, again after a cautious qualifying effort. Willy wasn't about to risk damage to this car before he had a chance to race it, and we all thought that was a very good plan. We didn't come up to North Carolina to necessarily win these races. We wanted to race the car to see what it would do and to get a good feel for how the setup was for both speed and consistency. Getting mixed up with the top 10 cars that were hotly contesting for points wouldn't be a good idea and would probably get us punted into the wall early.
The 50-lap race started and, after a few laps of settling in, Willy began his march up through the field. Every lap was faster than the last as he ran down each car ahead. A few passes were made over the course of two or three laps with side-by-side action. I have to say, the car was a rocket ship those last 10 laps as he pushed hard. We were challenging for fifth when the checkered flag fell and ended up sixth.
The lack of sufficient stagger caused the car to be a little tight off, but we had great speed through the middle and the car turned well due to the proper front-end geometry we had designed. It all worked out as planned. Our first trip to these racetracks was a huge success if you look at the fact that this was a brand-new car and the drivers were not regular competitors at these racetracks, although both could, and did, drive the wheels off the car.
We want to thank Dalton Zehr Racing, with Dalton, Marty, Sonya, Mary Ann, Kenny Hellyer, and Mark Jones, for all of their help in making this happen. We couldn't have done this without their help and dedication.
We also need to say thanks to Evernham Motorsports with Willy, Willie (his dad), mom Barb, along with crew chief Sebastian "Ski" Skierski, Pete Daus, and Jacob Davis, who crewed the car and helped us set it up. They are a very good group to work with and we all had so much fun. Thanks to all of you for helping to make this happen. And thanks, too, to one of our very own, Jeff Huneycutt, for coming to the track to take photos.
Now that we have completed our mission and raced this car, we feel it only fitting that we turn over the "title" to Zehr Racing in recognition of all of their investment in time and money to get this car completed and to the racetrack. We will follow them as they continue to race the car and compete at different tracks around the southeastern United States.
If you have any questions about the car or how we set it up, write to us either by e-mail or USPS and we will be glad to answer. Read past and future issues of CT to learn the technology we used to prepare our own car. What we did was no different from what we have preached over the past four years in the pages of Circle Track. Good luck, and we hope to see you at the track sometime soon.
Willy gets ready to practice...
Willy gets ready to practice for the very first time at Tri-County Motor Speedway. His suit colors match our car perfectly. This talented 17-year-old gets needed encouragement from his dad, Willie, as well as his uncle Ray (you know who).
Willy passes one of the cars...
Willy passes one of the cars coming off of Turn 4 at Hickory. Although our car was tight off due to insufficient stagger in the rear with the tires we had to run, we could turn against it and complete the pass off the turns. Most of our passing was accomplished with fast entry and midturn speeds that got the job done very well.
Here is our combined race...
Here is our combined race crew. From the left is Sebastian "Ski" Skierski, Willie (Sr.), Willy, myself, Dalton, and Marty Zehr. This team really came together to provide us with a great first experience. This car will end up in the winner's circle very soon.