ARCA Rookie Chase Mattioli gets sideways while battling for the lead with fellow rookie Ri
They say home is where the heart is. I found this saying to be undoubtedly true in early August when I went home to race at my family's track, Pocono International Raceway.
Growing up at the track, I made many wonderful memories. It was at Pocono that I had my first job, (picking up cigarette butts by hand after a Winston Cup race.) It was there that I started my racing career on the dirt at the Lehigh Valley Quarter Midget Club, which rests right outside Turn 3 of the raceway.
My greatest and most early memory of Pocono has to be my first laps around the track at 5 years old, sitting on my grandfather's lap as he rounded the turns in his old Chevy Astro van. Little did I know then that I would one day grow up to take those same turns about 150 mph faster.
By the way, he saved it. Nice piece of driving. Photo by Chris Gardner
Now I'm an eighteen-year-old rookie in the ARCA RE/MAX Series and the NASCAR Camping World Series. I'm trying to balance a racing career with an academic one, starting my freshmen year of college at Fordham University in New York City by the time you read this. I'm also getting a chance to write for the premiere motorsports magazine in the country.
While I enjoy my life away from the track, there is nothing better than strapping in for practice Friday morning, and that's where I'm headed with this story. ARCA made its return trip to Pocono in early August, and Circle Track asked me to chronicle my weekend in the hopes that you may learn something from my experience.
As I stated earlier, there is nothing better than strapping in for practice. Practice is everything to a rookie driver like myself, and something my team and I don't waste. Regardless of the track, I always begin my first practice session the same way. First I go out on the track with a tight setup on scuff tires for three shakedown laps. The scuff tires are usually tires that are worn in from a few laps at a previous race. Since these tires have less grip then a set of new ones, they give me a better idea of how the car will handle during the race. These tires as well as a tight setup help me to drive a track under the worst handling conditions. Experiencing the bad makes it easier for me to drive the car under good handling conditions.
Mattioli uses a set of scuffs like this one during practice to get a better idea of how th
During my shakedown laps, I make sure everything is hooked up and fully functional on the car while going about three-quarter speed. I do this to get a better view of the line and condition of the track (which helps since this season I am seeing all of these tracks for the first time.)
After the shakedown laps, Team Liquid Fence and I go to work on perfecting our car for the race. We don't spend a lot of time on qualifying, other than doing a mock run at the end our session. That may sound a bit odd, but being a rookie team, our focus is on getting the car as good as possible for the race. Qualifying on the pole isn't as important as getting into the race and focusing all of our practice time on race setup.
Even so, as a new driver, qualifying continues to be something that I learn more about every time I get to do it. What I've learned is that to get on the pole you have to drive like a kamikaze, literally. You have to drive the car to the brink of wrecking it-but not. As fun as this might seem (or crazy to some), qualifying on the pole is something that young drivers needn't focus on. As my car owner and mentor Andy Hillenburg would say, "It's more important to race for two hundred laps than to wreck it on one."
As Mattioli is a rookie, car owner Andy Hillenburg opts to have him focus on race setup du
As the sun came down on Pocono Friday evening, I found myself starting a respectable 20th. Partying and/or late nights before a race is something I do not do. I go home straight from the track, start hydrating, and get my carbohydrates by eating some of my grandma's pasta. A good meal the night before the race, as well as a good night's rest, is essential to prepare for a 200-mile event. During the race at Pocono, I ended up sweating off about eight pounds and unfortunately broke my drinking hose about twenty laps into the race. If I had done any kind of partying the night before, no doubt I would have suffered from dehydration. A good tip I learned about staying hydrated on race day is to eat plenty of protein and salt-filled foods such as nuts and beef jerky.
Race day is an event in itself-even before I get in the car. Being at my home track at Pocono, I obviously had a substantial number of appearances to make, as well as sponsors and family members to see. I started out my day at 9 a.m. with an autograph session for the Pocono's kids' day program. I try to spend as much time as I can with the kids before I go to the driver's meeting at 11 a.m.
Mattioli credits his crew with making his entry into ARCA a smooth one. Photo by Rob Fishe
Then I took time to hang out with a very special Make-A-Wish child. People say it takes a lot of courage to drive at the speeds I do, but my courage pales in comparison to that kid. If possible, I would have spent my whole day with him, but sponsorship obligations limited my time with him to about an hour.
This is one of the most important things a young up-and-coming driver can do-spend time with the fans. I think that all too often drivers get caught up in their own program and forget about the fans. Let's face it: Without the fans, we don't get to go racing and that goes for ARCA, NASCAR, and even the local Saturday night show.
Pre-race time is also spent talking with and entertaining my sponsors, all of whom are Pennsylvania-based companies, so we had a large contingent of people to meet at Pocono. When talking with sponsors, I always try to give them insight into what to look for when they watch the race. Unless your sponsor is a company directly involved in racing, you're likely going to have to educate them a little bit on how the track will affect the racecar and how the race will develop. Trust me-taking the time to understand how much or how little a sponsor knows about your sport will go a long way in making their money work for them and you.
Spending time with fans, especially young ones, is critical to building a good reputation,
Sponsor obligations completed, I quickly snuck in a fifteen-minute nap before dressing for driver introductions. It's a good time to relax because driver introductions are perhaps the worst part of a race for me, personally. As you're standing there with a bunch of world-class drivers in front of thousands of fans, the nerves begin to kick in.
When the announcer calls my name, I quickly make a B-line across the stage to my car. Once in the car, I do a once-over of all my safety equipment, check my radio communication with my spotter, and then have a little pre-game talk with my team. The nerves finally go away as I hear those most famous words in racing: "Gentlemen, start your engines."
The race starts off with a few pace laps. As tedious as they seem to the fans, they are extremely important to the driver. During these laps, my spotter and I search the track for any debris, determine our pit road speed by comparing our rpm to the speed set by the pace car, and figure out exactly the location of our pit box. My spotter is essential during this portion of the race, as well as under green-flag conditions. He is my eye in the sky and keeps me from running into trouble on the track.
Mattioli manages a smile while waiting for driver introductions, his self-described "worst
Just like anyone else, I hate backseat drivers, so when my spotter speaks, he uses short, concise phrases. For example, if there's a caution in Turn 1, he'll say "yellow 1." I also try to keep it brief when I talk to him so that I don't lose my concentration on the track. I may say "tight exit 1" or "loose entrance 3."
Spotter talk aside, pace laps-at least, for asphalt cars-are the ideal time to take care of some essential items such as scrubbing the tires to clean off debris and get some heat into them, as well as tapping the brakes to build heat. Just be sure to check your mirror, and don't tap the brakes too hard-unless, of course, you're starting dead last.
When the green flag drops, my car roars past the grandstand, but at the same time, everything goes quiet for me. After the field makes it through the first turn, things calm down quickly. During the early laps of the race, I have my spotter watch the lines of the drivers in front of me, specifically the leader. We literally compare lines with the leader throughout the race to determine if I need to adjust my line to cut down my lap times.
During final preparations, Mattioli and his spotter go over the phrases they'll use during
I'm one of those drivers who only talks on the radio when I have a problem with the car. For instance, in the first part of this race (aptly named the Pennsylvania 200), I fought a tight condition. Obviously I told my crew chief so that the crew could adjust for it on the next pit stop, but I also asked my spotter to help me adjust my line to reduce the impact of the tight condition. He had me turn later into the corner, which allowed me to hit a later apex and gave some additional room to drift coming off the corner. While this was a crutch that essentially masked the problem, it allowed me to maintain my track position while I waited for the pit stop to really fix the tight condition.
As any race progresses, drivers are bound to have to avoid a few accidents. A driver and a spotter will usually establish a way to call out an accident that doesn't fluster the driver and cause him or her to panic. As I mentioned earlier, my spotter will tell me the location of the wreck, for example, "yellow 1 high" or "yellow 3 bottom." That way, I know the spot or area I have to avoid.
Close-quarters racing like this requires a good spotter on the roof. Photo by Bob Costanzo
It's critical that you and your spotter agree on the language long before the race starts-and don't change it. It's difficult for a driver to ascertain what is happening on the track if he hears "middle Turn 2 high" one lap, and then hears "up top of the second corner in the center" 20 laps later. Yes, they mean exactly the same thing, but the different language can confuse even a seasoned racer. If my spotter gives me consistent instructions every time, my job, to slow the car up and avoid any debris that might be littered on the track, is a whole lot easier.
For me, the race at Pocono turned out to be a success as I ended up leading for about five laps and finishing a solid 16th. After the race, I drove the car back to the garage where I celebrated a good day with my crew, family, and friends. That's what makes Pocono the most special stop of my season: getting out of the car and seeing all the kids I grew up with, and enjoying a good race with my team and my family. It's at times like these when I realize you don't have to finish first to be a winner and there's literally no place like home.