A champion’s champion.

The great thing about going to the local short track is that you’re never really sure who is going to show up, and especially so when it’s a special event. Here in Pennsylvania, my local track, Selinsgrove Speedway, hosted their annual 358/360 Sprint Car National Open last week, drawing several touring drivers as well as some from Canada, Michigan, and New York. However, the biggest surprise of all came from Indiana.

Tony Stewart decided to fly up to the track from Martinsville, Virginia, to have some fun and race against the Pennsylvania sprint car drivers around a moderately banked and wide surface that is considered the fastest on the East Coast. With qualifying speeds expected to be around 17.5 seconds on a cold April night, everyone was excited about the influx of talent, and especially one with so much sprint-car credential.

What was obvious from my Turn Four bleacher seat was in turn apparent to everyone: “Smoke” had never seen this little gem in his life, so the obvious advantage went to the veterans and locals who had won here before: Mark Smith, Jessica Zemken, and Pat Cannon. Every seasoned driver knows that tracks may be built the same and look the same, but they don’t evolve or drive the same throughout the night. Patrons of Selinsgrove, from the driver’s seat or the grandstand seat, know several key things:

1. The only access gate to the infield off Turn Four means the track always has a big depression from the vehicles and haulers.
2. The “cushion” in Turn Two is extra-soft and can drag a car to the outside wall quickly.
3. There are several big ripples on the bottom of Turn Three that can wash a car up the track.
4. The start-finish line is only a few feet from Turn One.

It was interesting to see how quickly a veteran newcomer could adapt to the track, and of course how the cushion would evolve as the night went on. Tune-up laps were soon underway, and the black/white #14 from Indiana slowly paced around the circuit, taking different lines through corners, obviously trying to figure out where the bumps were and how much they would affect the quality of racing.

Once the other car classes (Late Models and entry-level classes) had their tune-ups, qualifying began. It became apparent that the 40-degree night would lead to fast lap times, and soon the pole sitter had nearly broke the track record at 17.2 seconds. Not two cars after, true to form, Tony Stewart worked the inside rail to set his first lap near 17.3, and then adjusted his line in the second lap to miss the bumps to a new track record at 17.168 seconds! Several cars later, “PA Posse” member Pat Cannon used his experience to set a track record right above Stewart at 17.216, although Stewart’s time would be entered in the record books.

In accordance with the event rules, the top four in each heat would be inverted: this meant Stewart would start fourth in his heat race. After watching the first heat qualifier from atop his pit box, Stewart then ran his heat where he trailed the leaders until the restart with two laps left, which he took the lead on the restart and barely won his race.

By the time the feature for the 358/360 sprints was under grid, the track had lost moisture, the cushion was pushed to the top, and the weather had changed from 60 to 45 degrees at nightfall. Stewart had drawn the eighth starting spot on the grid, and was going to be led by some of the best local sprint car drivers. The first few laps of the main event saw the top drivers using the cushion, to which Stewart was able to pass on corner entries. At halfway, he had worked his way up to fourth, and with the benefit of a restart, had caught up to the leader who had pulled out to a big lead.

Stewart then pounced and moved into second in two short laps, and was setting his sights on race leader Pat Cannon, who, from his fifth starting spot, had the dominant car. Another late restart with 12 laps to go put Cannon and Stewart nose to tail, and on the restart, Stewart again attempted to pass low by hugging the inside rail. Cannon was in top form, and realizing that Stewart was slightly faster, began running the middle lane of the track on corner entry to disrupt the classic “slide job” pass that sprint cars often use. Stewart then waited (im)patiently for two laps on Cannon’s tail before moving to the rail again and with a Cannon bobble, executed the pass and quickly rode away. However, lap traffic proved to be exciting in the last five laps, and Cannon once again closed within a few car lengths, but couldn’t catch Stewart in the closing laps.

So yes, one might expect that a top-shelf, three-time NASCAR champion would be competitive at a local small-time track in central Pennsylvania.  However, there were several things working against Stewart:

1.  He had never seen the track before.
2.  The sprint car competition in Pennsylvania is considered to be one of the best hotspots in the world.
3.  By luck of the draw, Stewart was inverted twice that night and started both heat and feature mid-pack.

So how did Stewart overcome all three to win?
Yes, it was due in part that Stewart had a top-of-the-line engine, chassis, and crew, but so did the top-5 finishers that evening. From what I saw atop my front-stretch seat, Stewart did the following things that night that helped him win:

1.  He learned the idiosyncrasies of the track, from watching others and in his own warm-up laps.
2.  He watched every race, learning how to drive the track and how the track evolved.
3.  He learned the driving styles of the drivers he would be racing against the most.
4.  His crew anticipated the track changes the best of all the front-runners.

When I left the track at 11:30pm, I took a final picture of the infield to see that every sprint car hauler was loaded and in line for the track gate to open…except the #14. When I left the parking lot, the machine was still on the infield dirt with the hauler ramp down.

So how can you, as an iRacer, learn from a true racing champion? Spectate. Observe in practices. There’s even a chance to “ghost race” that will help you learn how faster guys are getting around a track or a particular corner. You can learn braking zones, shift points, everything you might need to know to get that edge and bring down your average lap times.

Tony did it and won at the fastest dirt track on the East Coast against competition that had an edge on him for both car setup and track knowledge. Learn from a champion how to learn quickly, and you’ll be faster than ever before.

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