Imagine the reaction Mark Whitley gets when a fellow racer asks the inevitable question-How did you get your start?-and he tells them he began his racing career in Soap Box Derby competition. The reply typically draws a puzzled look and a follow-up question, sometimes even two, before the questioner is satisfied. But what else did you race? Whitley, by now used to the query, answers simply, That's it, just Soap Box Derby cars.
But it's true. Whitley, the 2004 INEX Legends National Touring Series champion, went straight from racing a Derby car to racing a Legends Car. Well, there was that 12-year lapse when he didn't race at all. When Whitley and a friend attended a Legends race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2002, though, he turned to the friend and told him, "I'm going to do that next year." So he bought a used Legends Car from part-time NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg and began competing in the '03 season. He then became the inaugural NTS champion in 2004-his first full season of competition.
To understand Whitley's short journey to Legends champion, you have to go back to 1990 when Whitley and his dad, Phillip, built a Soap Box Derby car and won everything in sight around Winston-Salem, North Carolina, near their home. At one point, Mark won 11 consecutive races that season and was Junior Division champion in the Winston-Salem area. He was Second in the National Derby Rally that year and also became the Pennsylvania Keystone Champion. In the 1990 All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship in Akron, Ohio, he won a heat race. He then placed Sixth in the 1991 World Championship as Senior Division champion representing Winston-Salem.
Before you assume that it's all a bit absurd, implying that their Derby experience prepared the Whitleys for a championship run in Legends 13 years later, understand that Soap Box Derby competition is where Phillip and Mark learned how to race. The similarities are numerous. Derby cars are handcrafted vessels, requiring hours of tedious work and craftsmanship. Competitors travel to different venues, face other fathers and sons just as dedicated and eager to win as they are, learn what it's like to roll up to a starting line, blood pumping, adrenaline flowing, and face the excitement of winning or the disappointment of defeat.
"We learned to travel and compete at different tracks, to take in different atmospheres on race day," says Phillip of their Derby experiences. "Whenever we started racing Legends we weren't intimidated by that atmosphere at all. We had already done it in Derby competition."
Nor did their fellow competitors intimidate them. The Whitleys met the challenge with the mindset that they were novices who needed to pay attention and learn. Most of all, they were not too proud to ask questions. These race cars had engines, after all, and presented different challenges from Derby cars. They sought out teams that were fast, the ones that obviously had done their homework and were regularly running up front.
"I respect anyone who climbs into these cars, even the guy who finishes last," says Phillip, "but I have the most to gain from talking to the guy who finishes up front."
Driving techniques used in gravity racing proved invaluable when Mark made the transition to motorized racing. "In both types the driver is critical," he says. "A good driver merely corrects the car rather than driving it. According to one Busch Series crewchief, this concept is how his driver does so well at Daytona versus other tracks. His soft touch lets the car find its path of least resistance. At Daytona speeds, that style helped propel the driver to the front."
Getting StartedDuring their first season in Legends, the Whitleys relied on others around Concord, North Carolina, to set up the car and provide usable advice. Devo Keith, of Devo Motorsports, was the first National champion in Legends. He provided invaluable set-up assistance. G.E. Chapman, of Chapman Performance Racing Engines, an INEX certified engine builder for the sealed 1,200cc Legends engines, provided engine tuning assistance. Chapman is also a former National champion in Legends.
Phillip and Mark soaked up everything they could about the cars, including the basics, such as setting caster and camber, and the more advanced tuning tips, such as rejetting the engine's four carburetors. They learned that having multiple sets of carburetors with different jets were the way to go because of the ease of trading out the carbs as opposed to rejetting at the track.
They were quick learners. Mark won in his seventh Legends race, a Summer Shootout event at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2003, and added finishes of Third and Fourth that summer. He transferred directly into the main event in all nine semi-pro events he ran that season in the Shootout, and he finished in the Top Five in every qualifying heat race, while earning two heat wins.
They came into the '04 season more comfortable with the competition and decided to run the inaugural INEX National Touring Series Semi-Pro Division, where tracks usually paid $1,000, or close to it, for winning. Mark won the first race in the series on a quarter-mile track at Concord Motorsport Park. The Whitleys realized then that they had a shot at taking the touring title. A Second-Place finish followed on the quarter-mile track at Atlanta Motor Speedway where Mark finished behind the local champion. They raced from North Carolina to Texas to Wisconsin to Connecticut in pursuit of the title. They logged approximately 30,000 miles, visited 28 states, and raced on 12 different tracks that they had never seen before.
Then, near the end of last season, Mark and Phillip did their first unassisted car setup. They were competing in the Grant Fritz Memorial at Anderson (Indiana) Speedway, a quarter-mile bullring with high banking, much like Bristol Motor Speedway, and the setup worked. Mark was the highest finisher in his division in the race, and was Second overall. He then collapsed from exhaustion after climbing from the car. The 100-lapper was tough on the little track billed as the world's fastest quarter-mile. Nonetheless, it counted as a victory in the National Touring Series standings, and, significantly, it was the first time that Phillip and Mark had relied on their own skill and knowledge to set the car up.
"We were patient in waiting to rely on our own knowledge to set up the car," says Phillip. "We learned, though, that you can go to a track and try to get too creative with your setups. What happens is you end up chasing the car and get too far from what you know has worked for you. The best thing to do, especially if you're just starting out, is keep it simple. Find a baseline setup and don't stray too far from that.
"I was told early on that Legends Cars were designed to be simpler than full-sized Late Model and higher division race cars. The reality is the more you're restricted in what you can do, with no sway bars, street tires versus racing tires, only one shock vendor, and so forth, the more important attention to detail becomes, and the more important accurate measurement and geometry settings become."
The Whitleys, of course, have spent countless hours in their shop (actually a two-car garage attached to the house in Concord where Phillip and his wife Rebecca live) and at the track learning what works and what doesn't work. Naturally, they don't always agree.
"If we're in the shop working on the car, Dad wins the arguments," says Mark. "If we're at the track, then I win."