by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR commentary and driver pictures, 2012 NASCAR schedule, video, Bench Racing With Steve and Charlie
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.June 25, 2010 11:50 pm UTC No Comments
Back in the not-so-distant past, the Busch North Series was a strictly northeast affair, a series of New Englanders and Pennsylvanians who stepped up from the Featherlite Modified Tour to handle stock cars very similar to what the Busch Series had. Names like Kelly Moore, Dave Dion, and Brad Leighton dominated the series. Mike Stefanik won both its championship and the modified title in 1997 and 1998, cementing himself as a local hero and one of the best either series ever had to offer.
That series has become the K&N East Series, a different product with a vastly different racing landscape. After the success of Busch North product Martin Truex Jr., and as a product of the development driver boom of the past decade, many of the best-funded teams in the series are now designed to either produce drivers for big teams’ Nationwide programs, or further NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative.
Most of the old names are gone. Moore, Dion, and Leighton were nowhere to be found in today’s event, at least as drivers or team owners. Andy Santerre, the ex-Busch race winner who went on to win championships and run his own cars, was bought out by Max Siegel. The top six cars in today’s finishing order were owned by current or former Sprint Cup power players.
Yet if you were to show up today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and wander the East Series “garage,” or lack thereof, you’d notice an environment not unlike your local short track. Crew members work on the cars right out of the haulers. Pit crew members wear custom-produced T-shirts, not fancy button-downs with lots of sponsors. It’s easy to get a hold of just about whoever you want if you have a little patience.
Despite the high-powered nature of some of these development teams, not everybody has enough backing to comfortably contend for a championship. Some of these drivers, if they ever hope to see the big time, have to earn it with an underfunded family team against much stiffer competition than products like Truex ever did.
If you’re looking for a prime example of the driver I’m talking about, look no further than Eddie MacDonald.
Against some of the series’ stiffest competition ever, MacDonald and his locally-grown team finished a close second in points to eventual champion Ryan Truex and Michael Waltrip’s deep pockets. They completed all but three laps, finished no worse than 12th all season, and won from the pole at Loudon last fall. Not only that, he won the ACT race at Loudon in September, and the Oxford 250, one of the country’s biggest late model races, last July. 90 cars, and usually at least one or two Sprint Cup drivers, attempt to qualify for that race every year. Simply put, last year was a dream season for MacDonald, one worthy of consideration by the bigs.
But today, instead of reaping the rewards with a solid and well-funded ride in the Nationwide Series, MacDonald and his Robert Grimm Racing team soldier on in the East. Some bad luck at Martinsville has helped to mire them 11th in the standings, although today’s New England 125 yielded a top-10 finish.
Talking to folks around the garage, it’s hard to find anybody with a single bad thing to say about MacDonald, as a person or a race car driver. He’s approachable, he’s a talented race car driver, and he helps work on his own cars. In other words, he’s a throwback to a different era of stock car racing, the kind of guy that old-school fans would really get behind if they had a chance to see him race.
One of the folks in his pit told a story about last year’s Loudon race. MacDonald had led early, but Matt Kobyluck and Kevin Swindell had established themselves in the middle and latter parts of the race as the drivers to beat. MacDonald was in about eighth place with under ten laps to go in a darkness-shortened event, but still had a fast car.
From where his No. 71 crew was stationed on pit row, nobody could see the racing action from the entrance of turn one to about the exit of turn two. MacDonald took the first corner hard, but none of his crewmembers heard a word over the in-car radio. None of them had a clue what had happened into that corner.
Sure enough, MacDonald came out of turns one and two in second place. He made quick work of Swindell for his first victory of the season, his third in the past four Loudon races, and put himself only 30 points behind Ryan Truex in points heading to the season finale in Dover. It also secured him his second consecutive NHMS track championship.
Once again, MacDonald will attempt both the East and ACT races at Loudon in the fall, but with an added wrinkle. His team would like to get a Camping World Truck Series program together and attempt to do triple duty. Thus far, the biggest issue has been sponsorship. It’s hard for a little team to mobilize in one of NASCAR’s top three series and run the program successfully, regardless of how strong their team is in the feeder series, though that’s not at all to say that their performance hasn’t earned them the shot.
These are the drivers and teams that deserve our attention – the little guys that are trying to make it to the top against all odds, armed with little more than elbow grease and a will to win. Eddie MacDonald and Robert Grimm Racing fit that description. Dozens of other drivers and teams do. No matter who they are, where they’re racing, these local heroes have done just as much to earn their place on the track as anyone lucky enough to make it to Sprint Cup.
So the next time you decide to tune into a big race on TNT or ESPN, or buy a Cup driver’s souvenir at the track or online, remember that they had to start somewhere. Don’t forget to support your local racers.
Photo credit: EddieMacDonald.com