Two days after celebrating his 15th birthday, Todd Gilliland strapped into an ARCA Racing Series car on the frontstretch of Toledo Speedway (OH) Sunday afternoon for his first career start in the series.
Leading up to the race, his father, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver David Gilliland was convinced that his son was ready to take his next step up the racing ladder. Meanwhile, David’s wife Michelle was a bit nervous and skeptical about her 15-year-old son getting behind the wheel of an ARCA Racing Series car at such a young age.
With a mother that was more than likely biting her fingernails and a proud dad cheering him on, Gilliland proved that the decision to move him up the racing ladder was the right one.
The second-generation driver from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina took the lead from Tom Hessert on lap 197 of the 200-lap race at Toledo and held on to become the youngest winner (15 years, 2 days old) in the 63 year history of the ARCA Racing Series.
“She was just… I don’t know,” Gilliland said when trying to come up with words to describe Mom’s reaction in victory lane. “It was crazy. The whole thing was crazy and everyone was just kind of amazed I guess. We came in there thinking top-10, maybe top-five. It was crazy to get the win but I’m very thankful.
“That’s going to be a hard record to beat hopefully because I was only to the good for two days.”
As a result of ARCA’s rule requiring drivers to be at least 15 years of age to compete in the series’ short track events, Sunday’s race was the first that the younger Gilliland could compete in. The opportunity to drive the No. 55 for Venturini Motorsports arose when team general manager Billy Venturini contacted the Gilliland’s three weeks before the race to let them know he was interested in having Todd drive the car.
Originally, David Gilliland wasn’t sold on the fact that his son was ready to take that step. But after a test at Motor Mile (VA) a week prior to the race, he was so impressed with his son’s performance that he was convinced he was ready and would have a shot to win.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Do you really think he’s ready?’ My plan was to have him run some K&N stuff at the end of the year, but he had never driven a heavy car,” the 39-year-old Gilliland told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “He did an outstanding job at the Motor Mile test and that gave me more confidence heading into the weekend at Toledo.
“It was just one of them things where I thought he was ready, but at the same time you never do know. The worst thing to do sometimes is to push kids and put them in a situation that they’re not ready for. It hurts their confidence and everything else and can send them multiple steps backwards.”
In addition to giving Dad more confidence that his son was ready, the test at Motor Mile also helped give the younger Gilliland confidence that he needed heading into Toledo. Although there were some differences between the Late Model Stock Cars he is accustomed to driving and the ARCA Racing Series cars, the transition was much easier than he expected it to be.
“I wasn’t too sure before the test at Motor Mile,” Todd stated. “After the test at Motor Mile and my first time in the car I realized it was actually very similar to a Late Model Stock in the way it drives. I got pretty excited because I realized it wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought, but it was still going to be a little difficult working with a new crew chief. It allowed us to work on different stuff instead of having me have to relearn how to drive a car in a couple days.”
As the Gilliland’s made their way to Toledo for this past weekend’s event, they weren’t sure of their expectations. While Dad thought that winning was a possibility, he didn’t really know how things would go once his son took the green flag with 29 experienced ARCA drivers.
“I was joking with a friend of mine in California, it’s one of those deals where you want to call and tell everyone to tune in and watch, but you’re also not quite sure how it’s going to be,” said David. “I’m glad that a lot of people were able to watch because it was kind of perfect timing on a weekend that the Cup guys weren’t racing on and it really got a lot of attention. He did a great job and did everything and even more than you could ask for.
“Our main goal was to finish the race, get 200 laps of experience and we knew that if we were there at the end with four fender on it that we would have a shot. The opportunity was there and he took it. He earned it and he worked for it. He passed a ton of race cars, the most he’s ever passed in a race. It was a good day, not only to get to victory lane but just to continue his learning curve in racing and acquire the skills you need to have to continue climbing up the ladder.”
While the decision to have Todd move up the ladder was a decision that paid off, another decision made by David may have been the one that ultimately put his son in a position to win in his first ARCA start.
“That’s why we’ve been running more Late Model Stock stuff than Super Late Model stuff,” Todd said when asked about transitioning to the heavier stock car. “My dad feels like the heavier (Late Model Stock) car is more similar to a K&N car or an ARCA car, so he felt like it would get me way more ready for one of these opportunities than a straight rail. That’s why we’ve been running that more.”
In addition to the decisions Mom and Dad have made for their son as he continues his journey towards NASCAR’s highest levels, David has also been able to give Todd useful advice while making the transition to the heavier cars with more horsepower.
“He just said to get straight off the corners and make sure the car is pointed so that you can get back to the gas as hard as you want,” Todd stated. “You can actually pass that way and don’t have to be playing with the throttle coming up off the corner.”
At the end of the day, the younger Gilliland says that he is very thankful for all of the help and advice that his entire family has given him up to this point. Ultimately, he doesn’t believe he would have been able to experience this much success early on in his racing career without them.
“They’ve gotten me ready at this point,” he said. “They’ve always done everything they could to have me ready for this opportunity. I’m glad they’ve always been there for me and do whatever they need to do to make me better. We always work together to do the best we can and have our program be the best that it can be.”
For Mom and Dad, all of the hard work, time and money becomes worth it when they are able to share a moment as a family like they did in victory lane on Sunday.
“There is no feeling that compares with that. I’ve never had a felling like that to be honest with you,” said David. “I’ve done some pretty special things and won some special races, but nothing compares to that. The closest that came to that was at Southern National when he won. I was so excited and so happy to be there.
“I’m just super proud as a parent. To see your kid be successful in something they love is a gratifying feeling. It was pretty emotional for sure.”
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor –Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: ARCA Racing Series