Eastbound International Speedway is well-represented at the INEX Winter Nationals being held this week in Inverness, Fla.
Competing at the Citrus County Speedway in the city north of Tampa are Bandolero class drivers Owen Groves, 15, of Hearts Delight and Chance Cove’s Sara Thorne, 14. In addition, Portugal Cove’s Michael Neary, 16, is making his debut in the US Legend Car series in the Young Lion Division.
Drivers and race teams from all over North America have joined the three Newfoundlanders in a five-race event series.
Groves, the reigning Eastbound Bandolero champion, had his head in the right space as he headed to Winter Nationals for the first time.
He also has some much-appreciated help.
“Pop does the car for me. He is the mechanic, does the setup. Other teams have a few guys to help them, but he does a lot of work to help me,’’ Groves said. “He does an awesome job and I can’t say how happy I am with what he does for me.”
Groves in entering his fourth season in Bandolero. He hopes a good finish in Florida, some networking and racing well this season in Newfoundland can open a host of doors.
He started the 2017 season running about the same as he did the previous year when Thorne took the championship. Then his team hit on something, a different set-up and perhaps a mindset change that allowed them to take three or four tenths a second off their lap times.That improvement equated to speed and positioning, which saw him run up front the majority of the campaign.
He went to Florida hoping to do the same.
“I have done my research on this (Inverness) track. It is banked, and I like banked tracks. It suits my driving style,’’ he said.
It’s tough to get track time in this province, so to prepare for the event, Groves used a race wheel, paddle and shifters which were purchased as part of IRacing, an online simulation that allowed him to remotely compete on track set-ups from all over the world, helping keep his feel for racing sharp.
“My goal is to go and run consistent, stay out of trouble and earn some national points,” he said entering the week. “If I am quick and have the chance, a Top 10 or Top 5 finish would be nice.
“And if the car performs well and I am in the position to win, I will see what happens then.”
Looking to open doors
Thorne, the first female from Newfoundland to compete in the Winter Nationals, was “excited, but nervous about the opportunity,
“This is a new experience for me and I know there are going to be a few bumps and bangs due to the closer racing,’’ she added.
She said racing with her fellow Newfoundlanders is always competitive, but knows it is different with 25 cars around her, all bumper-to-bumper and fighting for positions on the track.
“Hopefully, I can get a Top 10 or Top 5 finish. This is a new track, a new experience, a lot of new people to meet and (I need) to try and figure out the car, how it will handle,’’ she added, the latter in reference to the fact her race team rented a car for the event.
She is hoping this trip, her first to Winter Nationals, will help her to meet the right people, making connections that might open a few doors for her and assist in her ultimate goal of getting to race in NASCAR.
“I want to make a career of racing and if I run good, hopefully somebody will notice that I have a talent for the sport.”
Neary, making his second appearance at the INEX Winter Nationals, had a stellar second season at Eastbound Park in the Automotive Supplies Bandolero series in 2017 with a second-place overall position in championship points.
“This is a new challenge, a new way driving style for me,’’ Neary said.
“I have only done 20-40 laps in a Legends car so far and had to cut that short last fall when I broke an axel during practice,’’ he added.
He rented a car from Chris Wood Racing, a driver development program out of Charlotte, N.C. Wood also helped Neary get started in Bandolero racing as his group sold the Nearys their first car.
“My main goal is to get lots of time on the race track and to finish well,’’ said Neary. “I went to Winter Nationals last year for the same reason I am here this year — it’s a learning experience — and helps me get ready for the season here.”
He said the biggest adjustment is shifting gears as the Legends cars are equipped with a standard transmission, something he has not had any experience with.
“My biggest fear is stalling getting out on the track,’’ he said. “That and getting through the gears on restarts.”
Whatever happens this week, the three teens are getting a lot of support from their home track.
“Eastbound Park, Avondale is extremely excited to see three young drivers from Eastbound International Speedway stepping up to the International level of competition,” said Mike James, Eastbound’s director of events.
“This is the very reason why track owner Pat Squires built Eastbound Park and why he invested in the INEX program in 2012. Driver development is the foundation of Squires vision and seeing these three young drivers move through the program is a great sign of what to expect in the future of Stock Car racing here in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Eastbound Park is the home of IHRA Drag Racing, NASCAR and INEX Oval stock car racing, and hosts numerous special events such as Extreme Sports, Monster Trucks, and live concert events.
“This is a great start to 2018, as we get set for the most exciting season of NASCAR and INEX racing at Eastbound Park, Avondale,” James said.
“The 2018 season will mark the fifth anniversary of Eastbound Park and the season will start on Victoria Day weekend. The schedule will feature 10 races this season.”