Drivers from all backgrounds and ages will invade Bristol Motor Speedway (TN) this weekend for the second Short Track U.S. Nationals. One of the oldest drivers on the property will be 60-year-old Mike Skinner, a driver familiar to the upper levels of NASCAR and a legend in what is currently known as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Nowadays, Skinner has been busy in the Pro Late Model ranks, mostly as an owner and sometimes as a driver in his family team’s backup car, usually alongside younger drivers like Cole Anderson. But possibly for the last time, “The Gunslinger” will take the lead as he makes his first start at “The Last Great Coliseum” in a Late Model.
“I'm too old to do this, but this place is pretty cool,” Skinner said during Saturday’s test day. “This is one of my favorite short tracks, here and Martinsville, complete different race tracks, but this place is just amazingly fast. It's always been a lot of fun to drive in anything I've ever driven here.”
Although Skinner has led nearly 600 laps during his 30 career starts at Bristol, the Short Track U.S. Nationals will be his first Late Model race at the track. He admitted that the Late Model drivers completely different than anything he’s ever raced around the Bristol high-banks before.
“The center of the corner is just about as fast as anything I've ever driven here. It's a lot of fun,” Skinner said. “I'm just really blessed that my sons said, ‘Hey Dad, we want you to go run Bristol for us. Dust that old fire suit off and run for us for a week.’ It's cool to drive the primary car instead of the backup.”
While he has run in the top levels of NASCAR at Thunder Valley, including the 500-lap night race in the Cup Series, the impact of walking into the colossal confines of Bristol has never worn off.
“I got cold chills when I walked across the race track and I do every time I've come to this race track,” he admitted. “I tested in the snow here before, with snow flurries in the air. I run about every kind of condition here that you can run, three different configurations of the race track over the years. My hair stands up on my arm every time I walk in the gate. I love it so much.”
While Skinner might have the most laps out of all who are entered this coming weekend, it doesn’t make it any easier for the soon-to-be senior citizen.
“Mark Martin told me once that if you drive Bristol and you're comfortable you're not trying hard enough. There's nothing comfortable about this place. The windshield has some slight pits to it, and I said to bring a windshield when we come back, because your vision is already fluttery here to begin with. No distraction, if somebody starts to smoke way in front of you, you're only two seconds away from being in it.”
While he has had a number of good races at Bristol, including a still important Truck win in 2005, he has also had some forgettable outings. But no matter what the outcome has been, he’s always ready to saddle up and come back for more.
“It's like a bad golf game, you hit the ball terribly, but you can't wait to go out and hit it again,” Skinner commented. “I've run Bristol. I've run good. I won here. But I've run bad. I’ve crashed here. I broke my neck once, broke some vertebrae and couldn't wait to come back. This might be the last time I ever get to run Bristol, so I didn't want to pass up this opportunity to come out here. We got a lot of friends coming out here.”
Skinner is also proud of what the Short Track U.S. Nationals are giving to the up-and-coming drivers in attendance.
“The Saturday night racers are the root of racing, it's the backbone of our sport. NASCAR wouldn't be here without these Late Model guys doing what they do at all the short tracks across the United States. People complain about the Cup drivers coming to the lower series, Ron Hornaday and I loved it because they'd come in and we beat them. That's how we made our careers. Even if you can't beat them you're going to learn a lot from them. It's amazing that these guys get this opportunity. I'd like to see more (big) race tracks do it.”
As for his chances of winning in the Pro Late Model race on Friday night, Skinner believes he has as good of a shot as anybody.
“To win anywhere when you're 60 years old is pretty cool I think. It would be really cool to win, but as long as we're competitive and we have a good time… nah, that's b-------, I want to win.”
Race fans can watch “The Gunslinger” attempt to win his second career race at Bristol by watching the Short Track U.S. Nationals via a pay-per-view broadcast on Speed51.com. Video tickets can be purchased today at an early bird rate by clicking here.
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51.com