KINGSPORT — Kingsport Speedway promoter Robert Pressley is looking to build off the success of last season.
The same holds true for Late Model Stock drivers, Zeke Shell and Paul Nogradi, while for others, the 2012 racing season means new challenges.
Pressley, a former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, had more ups than downs his first season as promoter of the 3/8-mile concrete oval track. With improvements to the facility, such as refurbishing the backstretch grandstands, and $16,000 in lighting, Pressley feels the track is ready for another strong season of NASCAR All-American Series racing.
“What we really did last year was we got back to the basics,” Pressley said. “I looked at what I liked about this sport, not really looking outside the box. Whenever you can get these local guys involved in racing at their hometown track, it’s a big, big deal.
“Our next thing is to get the community even more involved. Am I happy with last year? I’m very happy, but I’m not satisfied. I’m not going to be satisfied until it’s back to what it used to be, and if you come on a Friday night, you need to get here early to get a seat.”
Shell, driver of the No. 57 Ford, won his first ever NASCAR sanctioned race at Kingsport last season. He nearly made it back-to-back wins in the featured Late Model division, but was spun out in the final laps the following week by Lee Tissot.
Despite that setback and getting a late start to the season, the Johnson City driver finished fourth in the year-end point standings. He comes into the season with a stout car, one formerly raced by recent Daytona NASCAR Truck Series winner John King.
“When we won last year, it meant no more wasted time,” Shell said. “We had worked and everything finally paid off. “Now, we’ve finally got the car shaken down and it’s a lot different than it was last year. Once we get it onto the track, maybe we can show something.”
Nogradi, an engineering student at the University of Tennessee, joined Shell as a first-time Late Model winner last season. The Knoxville driver was consistent throughout the year, earning Rookie of the Year honors.
He should be in the mix of championship contenders along with guys like defending champion Nate Monteith, Tissot and Shell.
Hayden Woods, a 16-year-old student at Providence Academy, will join them in the Late Model ranks this season. Woods was the champion of the Legends car division last season, but believes he’s ready to compete in the featured class.
“It’s a lot different with the bigger cars and bigger engines,” said Woods, who was second-fastest to Lee Tissot at the test. “It’s really a whole new kind of racing, running with older guys, some of the best in the business. You see guys who could have made it to NASCAR, but never got that opportunity.
“We will see what we can do. I think we have a shot at being a top-five team this year. I want to win at least three races and be Rookie of the Year.”
Watching Woods intently at the test was another Providence student, seven-year-old Carter Davison, a go-kart racer who won the Tennessee State Championship for his age group last season.
His father, Dean Davison, a former Legends car racer, took Carter to Bristol Motor Speedway earlier in the week for a K&N Pro Series test, where he shadowed extreme sports star Travis Pastrana.
The father feels it’s important to expose the young driver to other levels of racing.
“It’s like if you were a high school basketball player and you had the chance to hang around with the guys who play college basketball,” Davison said. “It helps you gain confidence and makes you feel a bigger part of racing.
“He sees that he’s not the only one who needs practice, that these older guys have to practice just as well. He’s able to watch their lines and pick up on the similarities of racing, no matter what kind of racing it is.”
Preparing for the future, the youngster already has a Twitter account set up.
It’s a different venture entirely for Richie Ballard, a 40-year-old from Piney Flats, who will make his first foray as a driver this season.
A paint-and-body man by trade, Ballard fixed up an Acura Integra and painted it with a No. 14 and the colors of Tony Stewart’s car. He had a big smile across his face as he described the challenges of making those first laps on the track.
Pressley said all the drivers are equally important to the speedway’s success, whether it’s the guys in the Late Model division, those like Ballard who run the support classes or getting youngsters like Davison interested.
“You’ve got to get that younger generation involved in the sport,” Pressley said. “And we’ve got a lot of the Rookie Pure 4 drivers signed up this year. The biggest thing the racers are telling me that we’re treating the 4-cylinder people just like those with the Late Models and we’re treating the back cars like the front cars.
“As racer, whether it’s a driver, crew member or owner, they just want you to be fair with everybody. That’s one thing I learned with NASCAR, you have a set of rules out there and it doesn’t matter who you are, you have to keep the playing field level.”