Last week, Eau Claire, Wisconsin was buried under a blanket of snow. At 4:40 am one morning, Charlie Menard had to get up, go out, and clear his driveway, just to be able to make it to the airport and his flight to Florida, where he would be competing in SpeedFest 2005, a revised and revamped version of the big “preseason” Super Late Model race at USA International Speedway in Lakeland, FL, which this year, brought together five of the nation's biggest Super Late Model touring series (CRA SS, FASCAR, PASS, Southern All Stars & USRA).
As action got underway on Wednesday with an open practice session, Menard and his brightly-colored #13 looked to struggle a bit against his competition, competition that some people were saying was one of the best gathering of Super Late Model drivers in quite some years.
The 2004 NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Midwest Regional Champion was just 31st quickest.
On Thursday, Menard fared a little better, although not through the eyes of some of his competitors. Charlie made the top-16 in qualifying and finished 11th in the 100-lap feature, one lap off the pace. However, a couple of
drivers thought Menard was a little overly aggressive during the race. Menard said he was nowhere around his accusers and hoped there was no hard feelings his way. His sincerity made it hard to believe he was at fault during a couple of the many Thursday night incidents.
Friday's practice brought good things to the whole Menards team. They were in the top 10 in practice and had high hopes. Then, during qualifying, a light mist began to fall and Menard was one of the unfortunate few to go out early. His time showed it, as he timed in just 34th of the 35 cars to take time. Mother Nature then washed out any chance Menard had of proving his qualifying a fluke.
Then came Saturday night. It was “Menard's Night at the Races,” without the sponsorship pun of course.
As the eyes of the Short Track world focused on Lakeland, FL and 38 of the best Super Late Model drivers in the country on one of the country's nicest tracks, Charlie Menard stepped it up and proved himself the tops, at least this night.
Menard led a Northern-driver 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in Saturday night's 200-lapper (more on the Northern dominance later this week here on Speed51.com) after he took the lead on lap 135 over Bubba Pollard and never looked back, holding off Eddie Hoffman and Pat Kelly en route to one of the biggest wins of his young career.
“Thinking back on it, it is pretty cool to win this race,” said Menard last night, a couple hours after his victory. “With the level of competition here, it really means a lot. It really does. I've probably not fully realized it just yet.
“I got to know a lot of these guys from the Snowball (Derby, at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, FL) and they really impress me.”
Charlie Menard's #13 at speed on Saturday night. (Bob Milner Photo)
After Saturday night, they were probably pretty impressed with Charlie as well.
Menard and his team used a one-stop strategy, something that seemed unheard of after watching the race unfold on Saturday night. As many drivers made multiple pit stops, Menard made just one, coming in just after halfway, changing just two right side tires. Even more impressive was the quick stop performed by his team, getting him out in front of a handful of other great cars into the top-five.
From there, Menard just worked at picking his competitors off one-by-one as their equipment fell off and his didn't.
“We started in the good spot, but we got shuffled back at the start, which was cool. We just cruised then. These other guys started using up their stuff. I don't know if anyone watched us close, but we weren't sideways all night. At the end of the night, I just started driving underneath guys. We saved our equipment and that helped.
Charlie Menard was feeling gokod following Saturday night's big SpeedFest win. (51 Photo)
“Our pit strategy was perfect. (Crew Chief) Toby (Nuttleman) and I talked about it earlier. We were a little worried about the tires, just taking rights, but it just came out perfect. The pits stop was perfect. When we came back out after the stop in fourth or fifth, I had a pretty good feeling then.”
That feeling paid off. Menard coasted to a five-plus second lead at one point before having to get up on the wheel and drive a little harder to hold off Hoffman.
Menard was not only impressed with the win, but that he was able to hold off the quality of guys he did. He was also impressed with the North's dominance following a week filled with Florida bias toward the top of the speed and qualifying charts
“I can't believe how much these guys get up on the wheel and race,” said Menard of his competitors. “Not saying that us Northerners don't do that, but these guys down here get right up on the wheel and get going. So it just gives you goose bumps that we have a team that is on the same level as these guys.
“We put in a lot of effort and a lot of nights of blood, sweet and tears as you would say, putting this team together, to build something that is really special. So that is why this means a lot. To be able to race with these guys and be able to beat them on their turf means a lot. I just wish they would come up north sometime, because we'd have a lot of fun with them up there too.”
It was the perfect way for this “working man” to end his vacation. You see, Menard is not a full-time racer. He is merely a hobby racer. His full time job? Menard is the COO of Menards Home Improvement Stores.
Charlie (cent) led the Northern sweep of the top-three, which included Pat Kelly (left, third-place) and Eddie Hoffman (right, second-place)
“Its been nice down here away from the snow and cold. But I 'm actually looking forward to going back, home though. We've been down here all week. It was a nice little vacation, but I'll be back to work on Monday.”
So with such a promising start to his 2005 season, you might think that Menard has a lot of big plans for 2005. But, you'd be wrong.
“We are going to race around Wisconsin again. I gotta make sure I don't do anything silly to jeopardize my job. I've spent a lot of time and worked hard on that and a big time is coming up here for Menards. I'm going to do some racing, try to do the Wisconsin Challenge Series
and race at LaCrosse (Fairgrounds Speedway) when I can. We'll do what we can do on the weekend and just not travel too far or too much. I'm going to have a good time racing. Racing is not our job, it is our passion and our hobby, so because of that, we want to make sure we have fun doing it.”
So Monday morning, Menard will likely be back in Wisconsin, snowblowing his driveway again, hoping this time, just to get to work.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Speed51.com will have more from Saturday night's action this coming week, including more photo galleries and a huge edition of Leftovers, so stay tuned.