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."
Adds Phillip, "You've got to make sure your driver is comfortable in the car, and more importantly, confident in his car, in order to get 100 percent from your driver. If he doesn't buy into the setup, you're handicapped from the start."
Adventures On The RoadProgress has come, as last season's performance shows. The team gathered three feature wins, three Seconds, and three Thirds in the 11-race National Touring Series. The top eight performances counted toward the championship, meaning they got to throw out a DNF at Lake Erie (Pennsylvania) Speedway and a DNS at Orlando Speedworld in Florida.
In fact, they've been able to overcome most setbacks along the way. They've found that racers in general are a helpful group, often willing to lend a helping hand or advice whenever a fellow competitor is in need.
Once last year, they found themselves in a jam while testing at Lanier (Georgia) Speedway. The rear end seized in the car during the session, and Phillip had to scramble to find a solution. A few phone calls found a local racer who had a rear end he was willing to sell. The clock was ticking, though, as their rental of the track was about to expire.
"A paramedic there at the track actually drove me out to the guy's house who had the rear end," recalls Mark. "I still had my driver's uniform on and I told him why I was there, that I had heard he had a rear end for a Legends Car. He said, 'Yeah, I've got one,' and pointed to several cars sitting in his garage, including a Legends Car sitting behind a Late Model. He told me, 'Just go over there and take it out and it's yours.'
"Well, I'm not afraid to jump in and do whatever needs to be done on the car, but here I was in my uniform, with our track rental running out, and so I jumped under there, took it out, loaded it up, and rode back to the track. Dad and I put it under our car and we barely missed a beat."
A race at 31/48-mile Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) Raceway provided other memorable moments. Mark was asked to allow a car back in front of him during a caution. He had passed the car three laps before and didn't feel that he should be forced to give up track position-and he didn't. A track official expressed his displeasure by kicking one of his tires as Mark drove back around the track.
After the race, the Whitleys were told to go to the barn to pick up their pay for finishing Second. "As we approached the barn, we saw a bonfire outside surrounded by drivers, crew and fans, most of which were holding amber bottles with long necks," says Mark. "Once inside, we found more of the same around a beautiful dance floor, complete with a DJ, another refreshment tub, and a complete bar. Hanging from the ceiling were several TV monitors replaying the night's races."
Video copies of the races were even offered for sale. "The payout was given to racers in the rear of the barn, so when you finally settle your tab from all of the drinks, your take-home pay is just gas money," Mark says, adding that the area provided some of the nicest scenery they saw all year.
The Whitleys are defending their INEX National Touring Series championship this season. With events in Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and points all around the country, there'll be other highlights and more lessons to be learned along the way.
Win or lose, they've come a long way from their Soap Box Derby days. Then again, they really didn't have far to go. Racing, after all-with its hard work, companionship, and intense competition-is pretty much the same at any level.
A Big-Time Derby SponsorWhen Phillip and Mark Whitley decided to give Soap Box Derby competition a try in 1990, they turned to a racing legend for support. The Whitleys were living in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, at the time, just 20 minutes or so from the racing shops and residence of Junior Johnson, who was on the tailend of a NASCAR career that produced 50 wins as a driver and 139 wins and six Cup championships as a team owner.
Phillip approached Junior and he agreed to provide financial support for their endeavor. Phillip had grown up near North Wilkesboro Speedway and attended races there as a boy, idolizing Junior and drivers from his era.
One of Junior's former drivers, in fact, had been a Soap Box Derby competitor. Cale Yarborough, who won three Cup titles for Junior Johnson and Associates, competed in the Soap Box Derby as a boy in the '40s and early '50s.
Another Derby connection came when the Whitleys decided to go Legends racing. They purchased a used car from Andy Hillenburg, who had competed in the Soap Box Derby as a boy in Indiana in the '70s. Hillenburg owns the Fast Track High Performance Driving School in Concord, North Carolina, and still competes in NASCAR.
Whenever the Whitleys attend the Summer Shootout events at Lowe's Motor Speedway, they receive assistance from former Soap Box Derby competitors Scott Brown, Scott Sprouse, and Max Flowe. "When we're competing at home, the additional race-day help these fellows provide is a welcome relief after going it alone on the road," says Phillip.-Larry Cothren
Top 10 Things To Address As A Beginning Racer
1 Safety-everything on the track is at risk, including your lifeIf you are spending several thousand dollars on a race car but are reluctant to spend a couple thousand on safety, stay home.
2 Seek advice from winning racersDon't be proud. If you don't come from a racing background, the learning curve may never end.
3 Focus only on the things you can controlWorrying about the other fellow's ability and equipment is exactly what he wants you to do. It will slow you down.
4 Change one thing at a time when practicingDrastic circumstances sometimes require drastic measures. When all else fails, go back to your baseline.
5 Spend your money only on things that can make your car go fasterIf it doesn't improve your engine's performance, enhance your driver's comfort and ability, or improve the car's setup, you don't have to have it.
6 Driver, car, and setup are the main components of a race teamThe driver is the most important of the three. (He's the only one with the ability to reason.) The crewchief holds it all together.
7 Drivers should have ownership in their successes and failuresThey should have some of their own equity invested in the effort. If the car gets torn up and it costs him in real dollars and actual sweat equity, you'll be surprised what you can do with only one car.
8 Arrive at the track as prepared as possibleThe order of business is fast and steady. You'll be adjusting to many new variables in quick order, especially if you're traveling to new tracks.
9 Be realistic about your chancesIf, through a draw, you find yourself on the front row with little or no experience and feel a little out of place, you probably are. Start in the back and begin learning the skills you'll need to get to the front.
10 Finish the raceTake what the race has to give you while getting the most out of your car. Poking your nose where it shouldn't be and overdriving the car will eventually cost you and your fellow racers.-Whitley Motorsports
The First Steps"Being new to auto racing where everything on the track is at risk, including the driver, the first order of business was to seek out the best safety equipment available. For this we turned to Chris Vangilder of Innovative Safety Products in Concord, North Carolina. We incorporated the complete ISP system into our car, including the seat, additional shoulder and head restraint components, six-point belts, and most importantly, a head-and-neck restraint system. We are consistently amazed at the irreverence and lack of regard for driver safety exhibited by many racers around the country. It just doesn't make sense not to take advantage of the advances in driver safety available to everyone today. When you watch the neck of Chris's test dummies stretch 18 inches on impact, you'll have no further reservations."-Phillip Whitley