Motorsports observers, those in the media and even causal race fans say that the hotbed of young driving talent is located in the Southeastern and Midwestern portions of the United States.
Little regard is given to rising stars that call the Northwest home.
If our region is to finally have one of its own young talents achieve national recognition, the odds of that person coming from the Inland Empire appear to be good. The Inland Northwest Super Stock Association has crowned two teenage rookie of the year winners in the last two seasons (Andrew Zimmer and Braeden Havens) while Spokane’s Blake Williams became the youngest driver (15 years old) to qualify for the Idaho and Montana 200s this summer.
This weekend Havens and Williams head to the region’s premier season finale for super late models, the Yakima Speedway Fall Classic, with plenty of momentum behind them.
Williams won the INSSA season finale on Sept. 11 while Havens rode out a seventh-place finish to secure third place in the championship standings en route to his rookie of the year title. Williams has a rookie title to his credit on the ICAR series in which he finished second overall to their champion, Dan Garber.
The Fall Classic, like the Idaho and Montana 200s, attracts top talent and will be a good measuring stick for Williams and Havens. Each is battle tested as both set age records in the Idaho 200, with Havens being the second-youngest qualifier (16 years old) for the race behind Williams. Both finished in the top 10 at the Stateline Speedway event.
The up-and-coming drivers have had successful mentors lead them to their respective rookie crowns while preparing for big races such as the Fall Classic.
“(Three-time INSSA champion) David Garber and (2006 INSSA champion) Mike Behar have really helped me with set-ups on our race cars,” Havens said. “We finally starting hitting on something at the end of the season and this being our second year in this type of car (after spending 2009 running the ICAR series), I think our team did pretty good.
“Our crew chief, Jim Dodson, took a big step learning about the cars and has been a huge help for us. I know we couldn’t have been INSSA rookie of the year without him.”
Williams’ team is led by past NASCAR crew chief and driver, Kevin Richards. At the Idaho 200 Richards was in the team’s second car and jumped in the car for an INSSA race earlier this year to race door-to-door with his protégée. Having that kind of experience has paid big dividends for his team, Williams said.
“Running second to Kevin as my teammate (in the INSSA race Richards went onto win) was a big highlight of my season,” he said. “(Richards) is the best (as a crew chief) and without him, my dad (Don) and the team we could not have done well this year or compete in the races we have gone to like the 200s.”
Both drivers will have other races on their minds while competing in Yakima this weekend. Havens is racing for a karting championship at Sunset Speedway prior to heading to Yakima for Fall Classic qualifying. Williams took possession of a new late model race car that the team is preparing for the Las Vegas Bullring Fall Classic in November.
After all of the racing is wrapped up for 2010, each driver has plans for their next season once the snow thaws next spring.
“We are thinking of running the Lucas Oil Super Late Model Series at Montana Raceway Park next year, and like David Garber did this season we’d run the INSSA races that don’t conflict,” Havens said. “I’m eligible to compete for the rookie of the year title in Montana and we’d really like to make a Montana 200 after coming close the last two summers.”
For Williams the future is open but full of anticipation.
“We’re not sure of our plans, but INSSA is something that maybe we’ll do,” he said. “Right now (we’re focused) on the Fall Classic and the Las Vegas race with our new car.”