A teenage rookie in NASCAR open-wheel racing has parlayed small-track experience into big track talent.
Matt Galko, 16, of Meriden, Conn., is leading in the NASCAR Finalist Division III standings and leading in the SK Light Modified Division at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway. He is in his first year of racing full-sized cars on fast half-mile asphalt track. He has two wins, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in 13 starts.
The new NASCAR Finalist national recognition program focuses on the divisions outside of the Feature Division at each NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track. Points are kept separately for dirt and asphalt tracks. A NASCAR-licensed driver’s best 14 finishes are counted toward their final points total for the year.
Each track in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series designates its top division as its Feature Division, and assigns its remaining divisions a designation of II, III, IV or V. The Finalist Program was established this season to recognize the drivers in those latter divisions.
In addition to Galko, other NASCAR asphalt division leaders include Division II Derek Stoltz, Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Division IV, Ken Cassidy Jr., Waterford Speedbowl; and Division V, Doug Schmitz, Raceway Park.
Dirt track NASCAR Finalist Division leaders entering this weekend include Division II Jesse Sobbing, I-80 Speedway, Greenwood, Neb.; Division III, Brad Derry, I-80 Speedway; Division IV, Joe Baker, I-80 Speedway; and Division V, Andy Wilkinson, Junction Motor Speedway, McCool Junction, Neb.
COMPLETE DIRT STANDINGS | COMPLETE ASPHALT STANDINGS
Galko developed his open wheel skills for half of his young life. He began racing Quarter Midgets on pavement at age 8, and last year switched to racing in Micro Sprints on dirt. The door to NASCAR racing opened this year when team owner Tim Rowe offered Galko a ride in his SK Light Modified at Stafford.
“Tim had seen me race in Quarter-Midgets, and he needed a driver for his SK Modified when his driver retired,” Galko said. “He and some other guys rented the (Stafford) track two weeks before the season opener. Several guys were testing, but only one car at a time was on the track. We had about two hours of track time.”
As a driver, Galko liked the performance of the SK Light car immediately.
“I really liked it. It was the most fun I ever had driving a race car,” Galko said of his first impression of wheeling a full-size race car on a full-size track. “I liked the power and I liked the speed. The first time I hit the gas, the response was a big surprise.”
While he was comfortable in the race car alone on the track, it took a couple of weeks to get comfortable competing with others.
"I took it easy the first couple of weeks, then I got comfortable enough to work on passing on the outside. That gives us some options. We tried the outside and it worked, surprisingly.
“I think the dirt racing experience helps in learning the feel of the car and car control. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. … I try to be patient and keep the car clean and be there at the end of 20 laps. There’s a fine line between being patient and being aggressive.”
The driver admits his season has progressed much better than he anticipated. He scored his first career SK Light Modified feature win in his fifth start, and his second win in his 10th start.
“I didn’t expect to be doing this good, and I’m definitely surprised to be leading the points. In the ninth race, we started 16th and finished second, and I enjoyed that, too.”
He said the division points leader at Stafford generally starts feature events between 10th and 15th, and feature fields are generally around 20 cars.
"I have a lot of faith in my dad (Dave) for the setup of the car. We get to the track with a base setup, and I tell him what I think the car needs for the feature. The track doesn’t change a lot, but a particular day’s temperature or rubber build-up can bring variations.”
Rowe’s SK Light car uses a Chassis Dynamics chassis and a TA Engines prepared GM factory crate engine. The driver’s father serves as crew chief and team members include his grandfather Dave Galko Sr., mother Debbie and sister Tara. Car sponsors include Davidson & Company and TSI Harley Davidson.
Galko hopes to work his way up to SK Modifieds at Stafford, and then a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour ride. Galko is a fan of up-and-comer Bobby Santos, who has three wins in six starts and is leading the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points standings.
Galko is preparing for an automotive-related career. He will enter his senior year at H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, and is eyeing continuing education at Central Connecticut State University to study automotive engineering.
The NASCAR Finalist points structure is the same as the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series featured division at each track. The feature winner receives two points for every car in the feature up to 20. Second place receives two fewer points and that distribution continues through the field. Race winners receive five additional bonus points. For example, if there were 20 cars in the feature, the winner would receive 45 points, second gets 38 and third 36. If there are 15 cars the winner receives 35 points, second gets 28 and third 26.
At season’s end, the top driver in each of the four asphalt and four dirt NASCAR divisions will receive invitations to the 2010 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series awards banquet December 10 in the Crown Ballroom in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. where they will be recognized.