If you are an avid race fan, you may very well remember the first time you pulled into a racetrack. You possibly remember what it looked like and the rumble of the engines the first time they started up. Most drivers also usually have fond memories of their first experiences in a racecar or the first time they wheeled a car on a certain track.
But when it comes to a monster superspeedway like Talladega (AL), only someone with memory loss would forget the first time they set foot or wheels on its treacherous banks. Talladega is the largest, widest and highest banked speedway in America.
out of the car. As a driver, it's really a relieving thing to come to a place like this because your job here is to hold it wide open. Part of that is a little easier for a young driver. But at the same time I know what it is like the first time. You are excited and your knees are shaking.
"I had to go to Daytona the first time I ran a superspeedway. Everyone knows you have to run wide open there too. They were telling me ‘run wide open, run wide open’ and I was like 'oh, I don't know about that!' My knees were shaking and I had to put my left foot over on top of my right foot to make sure it was down. But after a while you realize that's what it’s supposed to be about. I'm sure it is pretty exciting for those guys but it's still pretty fun for me."
Russell's knees may not have been shaking while turning his first laps at ‘Dega, but he admitted to the excitement that came with hitting the track.
"I was pretty excited but not nervous," said Russell. "It was pretty intense going off into turn one for the first time wide open. With all the prestige that this place has and all the Cup races. I can't imagine how great it will be when we come back here and the stands are filled and that brings the excitement up even more.
The famed Alabama track welcomed some new faces along with some familiar ones to a private ARCA test session recently. Five teams unloaded their massaged speedway racers and took to the track in search of the best lap times possible.
In one garage stall, Frank Kimmel and his seven-time championship team prepared their racecar. Directly to the right of the 46-car, young Florida Late Model racer Tim Russell and his team were tuning their new ARCA car. Within feet of one another was a driver with countless laps of experience and a one who had yet to turn a single lap at Talladega.
"I was talking to him (Tim) before," said Kimmel. "They are working real hard at trying things to get some speed
"It's a lot different from the short tracks of Florida. I kind of got a little bit of experience running some big tracks in ASA. Then we tested one of Andy Hillenburg's cars in Daytona a few weeks ago, which kind of prepared me for this. It's fun. It is the biggest thing that I have been on."
A few stalls to Kimmel's left, another driver was about to tackle Talladega for the first time. Hagans Racing development driver Donny Lia, a NASCAR Whelen Modified Series driver with very little full-fendered experience, had a huge smile on his face after his first laps around a superspeedway.
"It was a lot of fun man," said an excited Lia. "There haven't been that many experiences so far in my career
that have been so unique. Maybe Bristol can be one of those but this one is definitely tops. There aren't that many days when you get a chance to have a new experience like this, it just feels great. I was blown away.
"When I got there it was pretty intimidating at first. I wasn't nervous and I wasn't afraid. I had never seen a track that big before, not even Daytona. It's big and ugly and a monster. You go out there and it wore off. I was a little in awe when I first pulled out but it was just awesome. "
Although Lia had never set foot on the grounds at Talladega, he does have experience on the track. He is an avid online racer, and believes that the realism in the computer games helped his comfort level at the test.
Frank Kimmel and his brother/crew chief Bill sit in the garage area at Talladega during last week's test. (51 Photos)
Tim Russell took to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway in his own #36.
"Want to talk about close? I feel like I can close my eyes and run that place," said Lia. "I have driven thousands of laps around that place in simulation form with the NASCAR PC games. I have been through all the different versions of those games and they have all evolved and the driver models have changed and the computer systems have gotten more powerful. The mapping of the tracks with the bumps and the way that the cars rotate and move around with the wind is very real. It is unbelievable how realistic it was. I came off pit road, hit the racetrack and just went. Once I got going it was weird because it felt like I had been doing it for so long. Not trying to brag or anything but it felt like I had been there before. It was just really cool."
Donny Lia had been to Talladega before.. but only on the computer games.
But with the initial awe factor fading, it was time for the new drivers to focus on the technical side of speedway testing; something that may have been foreign to some of them but an understood aspect of job.
"It's definitely a different mindset testing here from anything else I have ever done, said Lia, a driver who has never raced on a track larger than one mile in length before. "A driver here is basically just a wheel-turner. You really don't have any more input than just being as smooth and consistent as possible so you can back up your runs. It's important to run the same laps so you can figure out if what you changed is what worked. The consistency seems to be the most important part.
"It's different from testing on a short track but it does have its own set of challenges. It's not easy running the same exact line around a 2.66-mile track every time. Inches count. Working with the telemetry and looking at steering wheel input and shock travel was a great experience. You can see the distance you travel around the track and try and learn how to try and run the same line each time."
"As a driver," says Kimmel, "Our job in a test is to be as consistent as we can because we are looking for tenths. You aren't going to pick up a second like you want to. You have to run every single lap as close as you can. I go as far as when I leave pit road I focus on leaving the same exact way every time and shifting in the same exact spots. Run the first and second lap in the same exact spot. It helps you know that it was a legitimate run. Then you pull in and the guys work their asses off!”
Running with the foot down and a wide sweeping track can be a cradle of comfort for a young racer, but veterans caution that it can also trigger boredom. Veteran driver Matt Hagans admitted that he has to give himself things to do, such as looking at the gauges at a specific point every lap, so he can develop a ritualistic approach to keeping focus.
On the other hand, Russell was more worried about getting his new car up to speed, he did admit that it was tough and important to stay focused.
"You go out there and you make your two or three lap run and make your changes," said the ARCA rookie. "Then you go back out there again. In the morning I was really having fun. But after lunch it started getting boring after a while. I guess it is always fun in a racecar though. You just have to go out there and hit all your marks so they can make the right adjustments to get the car going faster."
Frank Kimmel says that testing at Talladega is "frustrating" and "monotonous" but knows its overall
importance. And although it isn't his first time at the track like the others around him, he still gets excited coming back to the track.
"I guess it is kind of goofy, said a relaxed Kimmel while eating a banana in his garage stall. "I love coming back to the racetrack. We've been off all winter. I get goose chills just when I hear the motor crank up for the first time. I am ready to go. I am 43 and I am not dead yet. If you aren't excited about being at Talladega and driving a car or working on one there is something wrong."
ARCA TESTING NOTES
PRO CUPPER A NEW COMER TO SPEEDWAY TESTING
While ARCA Driver AJ Hendrickson was working hard on his racecar turning wrenches, he had a friend from the Pro Cup Series working along side of him. Shane Wallace, a regular in the Hooters Pro Cup ranks was getting to experience life in the pits at a superspeedway test for the first time.
"I'm just down here trying to learn a little bit and find out what this superspeedway stuff is all about," said Wallace. "I came down here to help my buddy out. It was my birthday so I was going to take the day off anyway so I figured I would come down here and help out.
"It's different. It's exciting. It's also frustrating that you can't pick up more speed and you think that the changes you make would be a lot more effective on the racecar. I'm down here figuring out what is good and bad so if I ever get a chance to do this I will know what to do."
DEGA PUTS DENT IN HAGANS SPEED
Matt Hagans had two cars at the Talladega test but unfortunately left with only one race-ready car. Hagans' primary Dodge was up to speed and the driver was extremely happy with the car's performance. But late in the day, the number-nine blew a right front tire and slammed hard into the turn-four retaining wall. Luckily Matt was running high on the speedway when the blowout happened so the car wasn't totaled. But the team quickly loaded up and knew they had a lot of work to do to get the car race-ready for Daytona Speedweeks.
New Hagans Racing Crew Chief Bobby Blount kept the spirits of the team up by telling them "this will prove what this team is made of."
Matt Hagans' car was hurt pretty bad.
BEAN IS JUMPING AT HIS SECOND CHANCE IN ALABAMA
Dexter Bean was turning some fast laps while testing at Talladega. The young driver is chomping at the bit to return to the site of his best ARCA finish, a 10th in the October race.
“We’re looking at the full (ARCA) schedule this year," said Bean. "Last year we had four starts, and two top-10s out of that, one of which was here. We didn’t test here before that race, we just came and got in 20 or 30 laps of practice and got to be first out of the box in qualifying. We qualified 21st, stayed out of trouble all day and ran anywhere from eighth to fourteenth and finished tenth.
"We’re doing well, said Bean of the test. "We’ve gotten out about eight or ten times now, and we’ve got a good set up. We got in a good, fast lap that I know a lot of these are looking at. Right away we weren’t fastest on the sheet because we had kind of a Daytona setup in it, but we’ve made a few changes, and Spraker Racing and this bunch are getting some good results."
DEGA TEST NOTES
- Five teams tested at Talladega. Dexter Bean, AJ Hendrickson, Frank Kimmel, Tim Russell, Donny Lia and Matt Hagans with Hagans Racing.
- The test session on Wednesday was cancelled due to rain.
- Talladega will be re-surfaced between the April and October NASCAR Nextel Cup Races. So many of the teams were actually testing with Daytona Speedweeks in mind since the surface when they come back to Talladega, the track will be completely different.