Over the course of its 104 previous ARCA Menards Series races, Salem Speedway has earned a reputation as being unforgiving to even the most seasoned veterans.
One only needs to harken back to 1999 when Frank Kimmel, then the defending series champion, led the field to a green flag restart with only two laps to go. Even at that early point in his ARCA career, Kimmel was money in the bank.
Kimmel, from nearby Jeffersonville, Indiana, had already won 14 times in the ARCA Menards Series, including nine the previous season on his way to his first of ten series titles. The buzz in the grandstands was palpable. The Salem faithful thought they were going to see their favorite son score his second consecutive spring race victory at the legendary half-mile. When he passed under the green flag with just over a mile to go in the race, many assumed it was a foregone conclusion that the hometown favorite would end up celebrating in victory lane.
But the track, never one to play favorites, threw Kimmel a curveball.
As he dove off into turn one just after taking the green flag the right front tire blew out, sending Kimmel hard into the outside wall and allowing the defending Bounty Rookie of the Year Bill Baird to sneak by and score the second win of his career. That win would also help propel Baird to his only ARCA Menards Series championship. Kimmel, meanwhile, would limp home with a wounded racecar to finish fourth as the final car on the lead lap. He led a race-high 145 laps of the 205 contested that afternoon.
“We had them all covered that day,” Kimmel said. “We led a ton of laps and then there was a caution late and we went to a green-white-checkered at the end. We went down into turn one and knocked the wall down. A tire went down and there wasn’t anything I could do. It was just a whole snapshot of our entire season. We just couldn’t recover from a crash in qualifying at Daytona and it seemed like we spent the rest of the season trying to catch up to Bill Baird and we never could.”
The history books are filled with similar stories of good days gone bad. And to further illustrate the point, Salem’s trash bins are routinely filled with dented and broken sheet metal and assorted other car parts and components, reminders of the broken dreams of the drivers whose days have ended against Salem’s unforgiving walls.
Things got considerably better for Kimmel at Salem Speedway. He ended his driving career with nine wins and 35 top-ten finishes in 44 career starts at his home track. Retired from the driver’s seat, Kimmel now works as a crew chief for Venturini Motorsports.
It might be easy to assume, based on Salem’s well-earned reputation, that newcomers would give the venerable old speed plant the respect it obviously deserves and not tempt fate by pushing too hard too soon when they make their first laps on the track.
The respect is there. But the assumption that young drivers would take it easy at Salem would, of course, be wrong.
In a recent test for the April 14 Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 at Salem, Ty Gibbs (No. 18 Monster Energy/ORCA Coolers/Terrible Herbst/Advance Auto Parts Toyota) wasted no time getting his car as close to Salem’s concrete walls as he could.
Even at just 16 years of age, and with only one previous ARCA Menards Series start to his credit, Gibbs has plenty of racing experience. The grandson of legendary NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, Ty spent last season racing late model stock cars up and down the eastern seaboard. He started 2019 off with a big late model win at Myrtle Beach Speedway and followed it with a last lap pass to finish second in his ARCA Menards Series debut at Five Flags Speedway in March.
It was no surprise to anyone, then, when Gibbs planted his racecar in the fast lane at Salem right off the bat. And the fast lane at Salem is just six to twelve inches off the concrete wall that rings the track’s 33-degree banked turns. Gibbs reeled off lap after lap to get his car where he and crew chief Mark McFarland both think it will best be able to compete to win when the series returns to race at Salem.
Gibbs will be making his first start at Salem Speedway in the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200. He has a car capable of racing to win, but he knows the driver and his willingness to be patiently aggressive, the ability keep the car and in good shape, and the ability to conserve tires will play a big role in who goes to victory lane.
”The Salem test went really good last week,” Gibbs said. “I was surprised on how fast and close you run to the wall in turns three and four. There’s not a lot of margin for error at all. It is also going to be a tire management race and I feel we have the set up and car to challenge for the win.”
After dabbling as a team owner for a couple of seasons, McFarland made the move to JGR to work with Gibbs and teammate Riley Herbst in 2019. McFarland’s 2018 season wasn’t too shabby by any means. As one of three co-owners alongside Matthew Miller and Doug Fuller, the MDM Motorsports juggernaut won ten times last year with four different drivers. One of their drivers – Sheldon Creed – punctuated the season by celebrating as the series champion.
McFarland’s biggest challenge at Salem is adapting his proven setups to the track’s two vastly different corners.
“The toughest part of Salem is dealing with two different corners,” McFarland said, referencing the forty-plus-year-old pavement in turns one and two and the pavement in turns three and four which was laid in 2014. “Turns three and four are really fast with grip and one and two are slower with no grip. Getting the balance right to be good in both is really tough. The driver has to be easy on tires and have tire left at the end of the run.”
As for Kimmel, the methodology the young drivers use at intimidating places like Salem impresses him.
“I can’t believe they get out there and run as fast and hard as they do right away,” he said. “It took me a while to get comfortable enough with the banking and the walls to go out and run hard. Even though a guy like Ty Gibbs is only 16 years old, he’s coming in with a lot of experience at a lot of different racetracks. But it’s still impressive to see what these kids are able to do these days.”
Practice for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 is set for 11 am ET on Saturday, April 13 with General Tire Pole Qualifying scheduled for 3 pm ET that afternoon. The green flag on round three of the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season will drop shortly after 2 pm ET on Sunday, April 14. Discounted tickets are available at selected Menards locations in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. The race will be televised live on MAVTV and ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free at ARCARacing.com/login.
- ARCA Menards Series Press Release