Race day always requires a lot of work, but local race car driver Zack Simpson somehow found a way to make the day even more stressful than usual.
Simpson, who leads the point standings in the street stock car class at Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma, pulled double duty on June 15 and brought two different cars with him to the track.
Simpson’s street stock car has been his mainstay this season but the Hoquiam resident decided to expand his horizons in the off season with the purchase of a modified race car that he admittedly is still getting used to.
Saturday’s race was just his third in the car, but the relationship was off to a good start. Simpson had finished third and first with the new modified he affectionately named ‘Natasha’ and hopes to take the car to Las Vegas this summer for the prestigious ‘Duel in the Desert’ in November.
With a big race to gear up for later this year and a lead to protect in the street stock standings Simpson decided to run both cars on Saturday. That decision meant extra work for him and his six-man crew in the pits between practice laps.
“It was a lot of work. I don’t think I want to do it again the rest of the year,” Simpson said after the night was over.
Pit crew member Fred Elder was not a big fan of Saturday’s workload either and quipped, “You heard that, right? I’m going to hold him to that.”
Drivers and crew show up about three to four hours before the 7 p.m. races and gather on pit row where some choose to tinker with the car before getting it on the track.
Simpson and company weren’t making any wholesale changes to either car in the minutes leading up to the first practice lap, but running two cars on the same day would soon present its first minor hurdle.
Every classification gets an opportunity to run a few relatively low-speed laps on the dirt track to help prep the soil for the night of racing to come in a process dubbed ‘packing the track.’
Simpson did his laps in his modified car but the tight track schedule didn’t leave enough time for him to do the same in street stock, which meant the responsibility fell to pit crew member Coal Canada.
Canada jumped on the track to pack it but wasn’t too high on the idea of having to drive the street stock named ‘Mary Jane.’ Canada said he’s still apprehensive about racing after a bad experience a few years ago.
“It’s only packing. I hate that racing (stuff). It scared me last time,” he said.
The first laps of the day weren’t anywhere near racing speeds but still provided some key insight into track conditions.
Simpson and the crew went to work on making its first adjustments of the night. Tape over the radiator to keep heat from escaping the engine on the modified and a tire pressure adjustment to the street stock accounted for some of the small tweaks made before the first heat race of the day.
Work on both cars continued after the hot lap, but things were still relatively relaxed in Simpson’s pit. No damage had been sustained during the hot laps for the modified or the street stock and Simpson was beginning to get an idea of which parts of the track were the fastest.
Avoiding damage can be a big money saver for dirt track drivers. Simpson said he spends about $500 for each car on race day alone, not including any costs that come up in between races as parts are replaced. Simpson has sponsors such as O’Reilly Auto Parts, Walker Racing Development and D4 Sports that help ease the financial burden, but most nights he just hopes to break even with his race winnings.
“You don’t make any money off of it. Everything you win just goes right back into the car,” he said.
Simpson put himself in good position to win after the heat races. He finished second in his modified and third in the street stocks, but the latter of the two would soon present problems.
“That boy ain’t right,” Simpson said while peering under the hood of Mary Jane after the heat. The street stock was suffering from oil pressure issues and required a new carburetor that was installed less than an hour before the green flag dropped. Despite borrowing the part from friend Neil Derline just in time for the race, Simpson told pit crew members that he only planned to run one lap to collect points for starting the race then exit the track before damaging the car further.
Unbeknownst to his crew members, Simpson changed his mind once the green flag dropped and decided to complete the race. Though his car was literally not hitting on all cylinders, Simpson worked the car to the front of the pack and finished third.
“The car was hurt and it wasn’t going to get hurt anymore. As long as I watched the oil pressure and the oil pressure didn’t drop, I would be alright,” he said. “I was maybe half throttle the whole race because I didn’t want to get on it and run it hard.”
Simpson felt Mary Jane was fast enough to win had it not been hampered with equipment issues, but he still had a chance to leave the track with a win that night.
Natasha hadn’t given Simpson as much trouble, but the new car still required some last-minute alterations.
When he wasn’t working with the pit crew to get the car ready for action, Simpson was looking for his phone to get in touch with the Natasha’s previous owner, Collen Winebarger, for advice. Simpson would regularly step away from his most recently acquired car to text Winebarger to ask how to set up the car for what the crew expected would be a slick track with limited driving lines available.
The hours of preparation paid off as Simpson won the race, leading most of the way. Members of Simpson’s crew were strategically placed around the track and held up hand signals to indicate how much space there was between Simpson’s car and the driver behind him. Crew Chief Pat Lamb was willing to provide any information he could during the race but isn’t sure Simpson actually needs the extra help.
“He’s very sharp. He says he needs someone to tell him that stuff but I don’t know,” Lamb said, laughing.
The win in the modified and the third-place finish with a wounded street stock meant a successful night for Simpson’s team and he was quick to acknowledge his team’s effort to get those results, jumping out of his car to hug his crew members after winning the modified race.
From the sextet that worked on his car to his family that tolerates the time he spends away from home, Simpson gave credit to the people behind the scenes that make nights like Saturday possible.
“Without (my friends and family) there ain’t no way I’d be able to make it. Not even close,” he said.