Zeke Shell can explain why his red No. 97 Ford has been the fastest car at Kingsport Speedway this season.
Shell, who has won the pole for two of the four NASCAR All-American Series races, said it’s something that can’t be bought in stores.
So, what’s the secret ingredient?
It’s good old-fashioned, elbow grease.
“It’s mainly determination at the shop,” said Shell on Monday after grinding a piece of metal off the car’s frame. “We’re willing to work that extra five hours for that little extra time, no matter how miniscule it is. We’re trying to make pennies turn into dollars here.”
Shell, 25, has been fast from the time he started racing. He won numerous races on the WKA karting circuit before advancing to the Allison Legacy cars.
In 2005, he moved to Late Model Stocks for the first time, winning Rookie of the Year honors at Lonesome Pine (Va.) Raceway.
It was followed by two years with the UARA-Stars touring series before racing the next three seasons at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va.
He really started to take off in 2011 when weekly racing returned to nearby Kingsport Speedway. Taking to the 3/8-mile concrete oval like a duck to water, Shell won his first NASCAR-sanctioned race, and had a stretch of five straight pole positions.
Last season, Shell won two races, led the points for the middle part of the season, before ultimately finishing second to Nate Monteith for the track championship.
“I do enjoy Kingsport,” he said. “It’s a hard-to-drive race without a lot of room for racing. So, you have to have your wits about you. You have to make your mind a little sharper at that place. I came from dirt track racing, and in asphalt racing, that’s about as close as you can get to it.”
Shell had the field covered at the season-opening race on March 9, but a tie-rod came loose on lap 23, leading to a disappointing 17th-place finish.
He came back with a solid eighth-place run the next Friday night.
Over the last two Friday nights, Shell has been stalking victory lane. He was second to Virginia driver Adam Long two weeks ago and recovered from a flat tire 10 laps from the end of the 60-lap feature to finish fourth this past Friday.
It’s gotten him a little behind in the early-season point standings, tied with Hayden Woods for fifth overall. He trails co-leaders Chad Finchum and Daniel Pope by 11 points, but feels confident about achieving the goal of winning the championship.
“This is the first time I’ve been to a track so many times and have had the fastest car out,” he said. “We’ve always been one of the top qualifiers and we’ve led at least one lap in every race this year.”
He realizes no one is going to hand him a championship.
South Carolina driver Anthony Anders has two wins this season, while Finchum of Knoxville and Long have one win apiece.
It means other top drivers like Lee Tissot of Asheville, Blake Jones of Sevierville, who is driving the car which Monteith raced to the last two track championships, and Pope are among those looking for that first win.
It’s no surprise to Shell, who believes there are a dozen drivers at Kingsport who would be competitive racing anywhere in the country.
“I’d put any those drivers at Kingsport up there against anybody,” Shell said. “I know a lot of tracks say they’re better than others, but I believe we have the stiffest competition in the whole (NASCAR All-American) series.”
With the competition so tough, every position becomes valuable. For some, it has meant every man for himself with very little give-and-take. Shell doesn’t believe that’s the right way to go about racing for a championship.
“Some people try to think with that attitude, and that’s what is making them tear up cars, turning the show into chaos,” Shell said. “With real professionalism, you know when to give and when to receive. That’s the difference from taking.
“With me and Daniel Pope, we will race side-by-side for 20 laps, never touch and it’s some of the best racing you’ll see. You get me and Hayden Woods or me and Blake Jones, we love to put a little door-to-door action. But, we all have fun doing it. There’s a fine line between rubbing and insanity. That’s been happening too much lately at Kingsport.”
However, he knows so much of racing is insanity.
A driver can be well on his way to winning when something out of his control takes him out of a race. It’s part of a challenge, but one which Shell is willing to tackle.
It was less than three years ago when he was injured in a crash at Motor Mile, and his race car was destroyed. He and his father, Pat, were down on their racing luck and out of commission.
Less than a year later, however, they came back with the determination Shell talked about to be a contender for race wins.
“We’ve been really blessed,” Shell said. “That was the first time in my racing career we were done. We didn’t have a car and it seemed like we didn’t have a hope or a prayer. But, everything lined up for us and we were fortunate.”