The start of the highly-anticipated CARS Late Model Stock Tour attracted 36 cars to Southern National Motorsports Park in late March, a number that indicated much potential for the series in a region saturated with Late Model Stock machines.
But it’s been years since a Late Model Stock tour has found much success in the Mid-Atlantic region. UARA had been on the decline for a handful of years before closing up shop following the 2013 season while, with the exception of the big NASCAR Whelen All-American Series shows at Martinsville and Myrtle Beach, car counts for big-money races had been disappointing.
While it’s hard to fairly summarize all of the reasons why this was the case, it boils down to two main factors: Purse and rules. The more you can earn in a race while the less you have to spend in confirming to a rulebook, the more attractive running an event becomes.
CARS has very publically taken care of the purse side of the equation. $4,500 to win is on the line for drivers, a much better number than was on display for the UARA drivers in the last few years of that series.
But the rulebook quietly has attracted teams to try CARS at the start of 2015. While many competitors found the UARA rulebook too narrow to cost-justify making changes to their race machines, CARS has offered a lot of flexibility in their rules package, especially in the suspension area. Meanwhile, many drivers used to running the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series package don’t have to make many variations to their cars.
Drivers at Southern National were very pleased with this aspect of the rule book, seeing it as a nice variation from the strict NASCAR shock and spring packages. Some were taking advantage of the flexibility to try bump stop shock packages for the first time while others preferred to keep it traditional, sticking to what they knew. Three of the best drivers at the track took three very different approaches to the inaugural CARS Late Model Stock Tour event, but all found themselves in the thick of the battle for the win by the time the checkered flag flew.
“If it weren’t for all the bump stop stuff, I feel like we haven’t honestly changed a whole lot,” said defending track champion Tommy Lemons. Lemons plans on running the full tour in 2015 not just as a driver but car owner for Blake Stallard.
“We came and tested without bump stops and felt like we were pretty decent. Then we decided to go ahead and try the bump stops for this race and didn’t get all the testing in we would have liked [rain washed out much of the week prior to the race at Southern National]. I feel like once we figure that out, we’ll be strong as ever. I think it’s the better way to go because it’ll keep the tires on the car.
“There’s not really a whole lot of difference between the CARS package and the usual [NASCAR] package. Once you get outside of the shocks, you can do pretty much anything you want to suspension wise.”
Another former track champion, Deac McCaskill, rearranged a lot of the geometry on his suspension. It paid off for him Saturday as he led 147 of the 150 before being passed on the last restart for the win. Still, he called his mount the “best race car I’ve ever had here”.
“For us, it was a pretty big change,” McCaskill commented pre-race. “We came down here twice with this CARS package and tested. The Tour has this optional deal where you can run different packages with bump stops or coil binding. It really opens up the rulebook a lot. I think it’s pretty neat. It gives a variety of options to choose from. We’re not in a box and I like that.”
McCaskill said both pre- and post-race that he found no difference in his driving style on the CARS machine versus his normal NASCAR machine.
Then there was Brayton Haws. The youngster has only been racing Late Model Stock Cars for just over a year, all on the NASCAR rules package. He used that package to win the 2014 Southern National finale, the Autumn Classic. Deciding not to mess with success, Haws and crew stuck with what they knew.
“We’re keeping it traditional, we decided to not play around with the bump stops and stick with the set up we used last year to win the Autumn Classic,” said Haws on the grid before strapping in. “We tried a little coil bind, but we’re keeping it minimal. So other than the usual getting the car ready for racing during the offseason, we didn’t really do much anything different for this [CARS].”
CARS made the decision to allow coil bind and bump stops at the end of 2014, citing that, while the more modern shock packages do take some monetary and time investment, custom springs and shocks were beginning to make the “traditional” route expensive.
Traditional shock packages put more force distributions on the suspension travel while coil binding and bump stops tend to distribute the weight more onto the tire, maximizing grip. Coil binding tends to be done on softer, widely available springs while bump stops tend to be a bit more customizable.
The next test of the rulebook will come at Orange County Speedway on April 18. The track has been running as independently sanctioned for the last few seasons, so its local late model teams will have to scour over the rulebook and see if the series is a good fit for them.
However, with other races at similar NASCAR-sanctioned tracks like Motor Mile, Hickory and Myrtle Beach still to come, the Tour may have found its own magic setup to guarantee series success in 2015.
-By Tim Quievryn, 51’s Third Turn & Speed51.com Southeast Editor. Twitter: @thethirdturn
-Photo credit: Speed51.com