BEFORE THERE’S SPEEDWEEKS, THERE’S SPEEDFEST by Matt Kentfield
SLM Racers From Across Country Kick Off Season in Lakeland
“It’s always good to go down to Florida in January when you live in Wisconsin,” laughed Menard.
Speed51.com will feature extensive coverage of Speedfest leading up to the race and throughout the race weekend once again this year, so stay tuned.
Speedfest is more than just another race. It’s a new beginning for most racers as well as a way for drivers from the state of Florida to defend their turf against the best racers from Speedfest’s host series, the CRA Super Series, as well as drivers from PASS North and South, ASA Late Models, Wisconsin Challenge Series and more.
Every driver, whether he is from Florida or somewhere else, will all be gunning for one man – Floridian Mike Fritts, the 2006 Speedfest champion. Fritts, a longtime SLM standout from the Sunshine State, knows that the competition will be stiff as more than 40 drivers will be trying to take the crown away from him.
“They call it the battle of the North and South, but no matter where they’re from, you’re always going to have the same group of guys to beat,” said Fritts. “You definitely want to defend your territory here in the South. If you do good in the South race, then you get a good starting spot for the main race on Saturday.
“Then again, we went onto the Northerners’ turf a couple of times last year at Winchester, Nashville, Birmingham and we definitely didn’t go up there and kick everybody’s butt. We got a little reality check. Hopefully if we make trips like that again this year, we’ll have our stuff together a little bit better. Before that, though, we want to go out and start the season off with a good run at Lakeland.”
With Speedfest being the first race of many SLM teams’ seasons, each one starts the season off with a blank slate. No matter how good of a season 2006 turned out to be, Speedfest starts a new season where everyone is jockeying for that trophy and momentum to take through the season.
This weekend, only four professional football teams will be taking to the gridiron. By the end of Sunday, there will only be two. When those two face each other in the Super Bowl, only one will be standing, while the other team joins the rest of the league in hoping hope for better next year.
Take, for instance, Eddie Van Meter. The Indianapolis, Indiana-native bested some of the biggest names in the sport from North of the Mason-Dixon line to win the 100-lap North feature as part of Speedfest weekend last season. Van Meter beat out guys like Ben Rowe, Chuck Barnes, Jr., Eddie Hoffman and Landon Cassill. All of those drivers may have gotten more headlines than Van Meter through the 2006 season, but a repeat performance in the “North 100” and also in the main event, Saturday’s 200-lapper, may make 2007 the year for guys like Van Meter.
“That victory meant a lot to us last year,” said Van Meter. “I was pretty excited just because that was our first Late Model victory. Plus, I’ve always liked that place and we’ve always run pretty good there; we just haven’t had much luck. That was, until last year. Now we’ve got some new stuff that we’ll be bringing there with us, so I’m really looking forward to it.
“We’ve got another new car with a different engine package, so I’m excited to get things going.”
Speedfest can also be a test session of sorts. Take 2005 Speedfest winner Charlie Menard. He’s made some big changes to his race team for the 2007 season and wants to use Speedfest to see how they will work out.
“We’ve got a whole new team all put together,” said Menard. “We have a new crew chief, several new crew members, new cars and a new attitude. We’re starting with everything new and hopefully Lakeland will be a jump start to our new season. We’re running the full ASA Late Model Challenge Series and probably the
North Series too. So we’ll go down there to get our feet wet, hopefully do well, get our team to gel and have fun. We’re really excited to go back to Lakeland. It has always been a good track for us.”
For Menard’s team, getting ready for the first race of the year didn’t happen without some effort.
“This [Having Speedfest coming up] has surely made us work hard during the winter because we’re building cars and the guys have been killing themselves to get that done to go down there. It forces your hand a little bit to get stuff together. We’ll be much more prepared now for the first ASA race.
In addition to challenging each driver with deadlines and stiff competition, Speedfest also is the way that many teams end the winter doldrums by getting back out on the racetrack.
“We get just a little bit of time off, but everyone’s ready to get back going again,” said Fritts. “You spend the whole winter in the shop getting things ready and you just want to go racing. During the season, you’re working on the car every day but at least you can go racing on the weekends.
The action at Speedfest promises to be fast and furious. (51 Photos)
Mike Fritts knows that they will be gunning for him this year at Speedfest.
Eddie Van Meter was a Friday night winner last year at Speedfest.
“In the wintertime, you’re working on them everyday and you can get burnt out because you’re not going racing. Come the first race of the year at Lakeland, everyone’s ready to go.”
It may have been a warm winter in the Northern part of the country, but that does not mean that the drivers from that region won’t be excited about getting to sunny central Florida for Speedfest, according to Van Meter.
“We look forward to going down there to be in some warm weather, but this winter up North has actually been pretty nice. It wasn’t until the last couple of days when it started getting cold. We just look forward to getting away from the shop and taking it easy for a couple days down there before we really get the season started.”
Charlie Menard already knows how it feels to light up his winter with a Speedfest victory.
Racecar drivers are no different than football players in that regard. From the time that they left their final racetrack during the 2006 season, whether they won the race, the championship, or failed to reach either goal, every racecar driver eagerly anticipates a bigger and better season to come.
Luckily for Super Late Model drivers throughout the country, Speedfest at USA International Speedway (FL) is the start to next year, and it can officially start what could potentially be their championship season. Twin 100-lap features on Friday, January 26th, pitting the best of the Northern SLM stars against one another in one race and the Southern racers in the other, set the stage for a 200-lap “civil war” the next night.