Trans Am is a series steeped in history since it came into existence more than 50 years ago, bringing into the limelight household legends of road racing who often gave the oval speedways a try at some point in their career with varying degrees of success. Now it is the stock car and short track culture that is making its way into the paddock at road course facilities across the country.
The introduction of multiple classes near the conclusion of 2010 in one of North America’s premier road racing series added a new fold to the competition and in many ways introduced this perhaps unexpected phenomenon. Frequent ARCA competitor A.J. Henriksen was one of the first to express interest and more recently USAC, Sprint Car, and Late Model racer Aaron Pierce decided to attempt giving turning left and right a chance. Even parts suppliers such as Howe Race Cars, Five Star Race Car Bodies and JRi Shocks have invested in the latest trend, predominantly found in the TA2 division, a class restricted to 500 horsepower engines and home to the modern pony wars.
One of the biggest players in the TA2 battle is an influential family from recent decades of short track racing. A two-time NASCAR All Pro Series champion in the 1990s, Mike Cope, and his son Travis, a winner in his own right of major Florida Super Late Model events such as the Florida Governor’s Cup, Red Eye, and Pete Orr Memorial held at New Smyrna Speedway, turned a skill of working on cars and offering to provide support for others into a major opportunity on the road racing side.
The start of it all actually dated back more than a decade ago, preceding the creation of this newer class in Trans Am.
“I had this opportunity when the old ASA National Tour had shut down, we got rid of some cars and Travis and I made them road race cars, prepped them for some people, and that’s kind of what this evolved from,” Mike Cope told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Then it just got bigger and bigger and people wanted us to do it more. We thought, well, we can go racing and make a living doing it while making a plan to go race our own Late Model car.”
In fact, the Late Model sits in their Florida shop ready to go and could be back at a short track to challenge the best in the ranks at any moment; however, the Mike Cope Race Cars business has taken off so much that they have trouble finding the time to devote to their weekend hobby.
With current Late Model tours mostly staying away from road racing on their schedules and the increasing demand for such a skill at higher levels in stock car racing, quite a few notable names that have moved up the racing ladder have utilized their program to gain crucial road racing experience. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Justin Haley, Xfinity Series driver Matt Tifft, and former K&N Pro Series competitor Scott Heckert have each taken their turn behind the wheel of the operation one or multiple times.
“We’ve talked to a lot of different guys about doing this because it’s the least expensive way for them to get road race experience and not spend a million dollars doing it,” Cope described. “It’s very effective. These cars are on radial tires, sports car weight ratio is close, it works well.”
The younger Cope has even had a couple chances at speed in one of the TA2 cars, but carries several different roles during a given race weekend that normally keep him out of the seat.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Travis Cope indicated. “We’ve had up to seven cars at a race and every crew member is assigned to a car. I’m assigned to the 34 of (defending TA champion Tony) Buffomante, but I also kind of oversee the operation as well. All of the guys we have, a majority of them have all raced themselves. It’s a family deal, but any car you get in here with us in, you know you have a good support system.”
The laid back atmosphere experienced during a given Trans Am weekend is something that can also serve as a beneficial break for those young drivers constantly under the pressure to develop week in and week out.
“It’s not the Winchester 400 every weekend, which a lot of those guys are used to now, especially young kids coming out and hitting all the big races,” Travis Cope continued, regarding the 100-mile sprint races that take place. “You can come here and basically have a lot of fun, drive the crap out of the cars, and get familiar with it.”
One of the most interesting aspects is the roots of the TA2 class cars. The bare chassis are built off of the typical perimeter Super Late Model that Mike Cope was so successful driving in the 1990s. Cope’s company and the iconic Howe Race Cars are the only two businesses in the entire country that assemble and finish these cars before they make it on track. Both enjoy the friendly competition, which dates back multiple decades.
“My brother and I raced against Ed Howe back in ‘82 at the Governor’s Cup that was won by my brother (Jimmy Cope),” Mike Cope noted. “I was 21 and I think my brother was 23 or 24 and we outran the best of the best that day and we still continue to do it today, so that’s ‘82 to 2017. That’s a long time that has passed there, but we’re racing against Chas (Howe) now and not Ed, and it’s Travis racing against him, not me and my brother. It’s kind of cool and that’s the fun we have with it.”
One of the drivers in a rival Howe car is Bow, New Hampshire’s Tom Sheehan. However, it is the assistance of someone from the same town who has quite the background of accomplishments that New England short track fans would be most familiar with, three-time NASCAR Busch North (now K&N Pro Series East) champion and two-time Oxford 250 winner Jamie Aube.
“We were running some short track stuff and Tom said ‘Why don’t you come and work for me? I need some help,’” Aube mentioned. “Long story short, I took him up on his offer and it’s been really good. It’s a lot of fun. It’s something totally different than I was used to, but it’s still racing. We’re creeping up on it all the time.”
Aube admittedly did not have the most favorable results in the days when he competed at Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, and even further back to the NASCAR North years at Bryar Motorsports Park where New Hampshire Motor Speedway now sits. Nevertheless, he enjoyed doing it back then and can relate a reasonable amount of what they do to his years racing at a variety of facilities.
“There’s a lot you can take from short track racing to this,” Aube said. “Matter of fact, I have Tom run one of my short track cars at home once in a while. We go out and do some testing and do some racing a little bit, and I want to run him again in the next couple weeks. Seat time is good. Racing is racing. He’s been in this since day one and I see vast improvements in his driving in the last year and a half. It’s rewarding.”
In addition, the close quarters dicing for positions and victories are much more intense than one may envision when they think of racing at a road course facility. The willingness of one or multiple teams to provide advice to the next is yet another similarity to the ambience traditionally sensed in a short track infield.
“This might be some of the hardest preparation I’ve ever had to do to go racing,” Aube added. “These guys run these cars hard. It’s amazing. They’re not out riding around. They’re driving the heck out of them. This series right here is every bit as competitive as anything I’ve ever been near, maybe more. I’ve made a lot of good friends and had help from a lot of great teams. I’m pretty green at this and the (2015 TA2 champion) Robinsons have helped us a lot and even Mike Cope, a direct competitor to a Howe car.”
In keeping the racing as competitive as described, a fair and enforced set of rules are necessary in any series or division. That’s part of the reason why Mike Cope assisted the Trans Am staff, including former series champion and ARCA and handful of times Wisconsin Late Model driver Tony Ave, to enlist in a prominent name in the profession of officiating.
The one and only Ricky Brooks, known mainly for leading the “Room of Doom” at the annual Snowball Derby as well as numerous other major events and touring series, came on board late in 2016.
“We had a Trans Am car in the Five Star booth at PRI,” Mike Cope revealed. “I said ‘There’s a guy right there we need to have teching this stuff’ and Tony Ave, who was on the ownership board at the time, said ‘He’ll never want to be a part of this.’ We asked him, there you go, that made the deal. I just rubbed noses together and did the introduction.”
From his inception, Brooks has already made an impact to keep the cars that race in the division balanced.
“We changed a lot of procedures and the way they did things in the past, like pre-tech,” Brooks clarified. “They had never done a pre-tech and there were some cars that raced for two years and never even saw tech.”
Brooks echoed some differences in the overall pace that a given Trans Am weekend contains compared to the short track, but the inspection process is quite similar.
“There are a lot of similarities with the racers, but most of these guys say this is loud golf,” Brooks quipped. “It’s not a Saturday night short track by any means. Tech-wise, we do tech just like we always have, but the weekends here are three-day weekends and you only get like two 20 minute practice sessions and 20 minute qualifying and the race. At the short track we go in, we do everything in a day or two, and then we get out. This here is more of a relaxed weekend than what we’re normally used to.”
Mike Cope was one of many who commented on how positive the hiring of Brooks has been and what it can dictate for the future.
“Ricky’s a very good guy for this series and has been good for Late Model racing in general,” Cope said. “I don’t care who you are, Kyle Busch, Richie Wauters, or any of those guys, right is right and wrong is wrong and that’s the way he is. He doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn’t go chasing after people. He’ll warn you and try to help you out. He has helped us with these rules and he listens and that’s going to be a great deal.”
The West Coast has even seen an influx both in and out of the race car. Ray Neveau, a veteran racer with nearly 50 starts over 15 seasons in the old NASCAR Southwest Tour, began fielding a two-car team in the TA2 class. One car he drives himself and the other for two-time division champion Cameron Lawrence.
But even on the tech side, Brooks recruited Spears SRL Southwest Tour official and flagman Noel Dawson to come lend Trans Am a hand.
“(Ricky Brooks) had been working the Winter Showdown for the last couple years and that’s where we met,” Dawson explained. “I told him I was interested and it kind of went from there. This is the first road racing series I’ve ever worked. I came in knowing nothing other than from the fan side, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Mike Cope additionally applauded Dawson’s involvement and continued about how much he and Brooks have brought to the series.
“Noel is a great guy and him coming from California to do this stuff is pretty cool,” Cope observed. “It’s really awesome to me to have that influence here. They get these cars. Again, these cars aren’t some works of art or exotic race car. They’re a stock car. That’s what they are. They rub fenders, they bang doors, and they’re a lot of fun, but they are inexpensive to operate.”
Brooks added more about how close the overall anatomy of these machines is to what many who race weekly at the bullrings are already used to.
“I would say the biggest difference between these and the old All Pro cars would be the engine and the transmission,” Brooks pointed out. “It’s a road racing transmission and a fuel injected motor. Other than that, it’s pretty much identical. It’s very similar to the perimeter chassis they run back on the West Coast.”
Dawson offered to the racers out there to come test the waters of Trans Am if they have the interest or free time to spare.
“If anybody has an old perimeter Tour car laying around bring them out,” Dawson said. “It’s a good deal. We go to some really nice race tracks and it’s something totally different and I think they would enjoy it.”
From a more serious standpoint, all parties with the desire to ascend toward the top levels of racing are coming to realize that this is a required skill to attain in this day and age.
“There are young guys out there that need to come and get road race experience,” Mike Cope commented. “Whether it’s K&N, Trucks, or Xfinity, if they have aspirations to move forward this is the place to come. We have a rental program, arrive and drive, it’s really inexpensive, and there are other guys that do it, not just us. If there’s a preference to a Howe car, there are guys with Howe cars that do it and there are guys that we sold cars to that do the same thing as we do. I just want people to come race, have a good time, and hone their road racing skills.
“This is an art and it’s not a dying art. It’s going to become more prevalent in the higher ranks of NASCAR. They are going to run more road courses. It’s going to happen.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com