There were a lot of memorable moments on and off the track for Mini and the #81 team in 2020. With the CARS Tour schedule seemingly always in flux because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mini and the team persevered to post 3 finishes in the top-4, as well as continuing to make a difference in so many lives. Here are some of our favorite times from the past season.
The first of 6 of our favorite moments of 2020 takes us back to the first weekend in August at Hickory Motor Speedway. Mini's initial experiences on the historic .363-mile track came in 2019.
In 2 CARS Tour races last year at Hickory, he struggled to adapt to the rough track surface. He qualified 15th and 17th and finished 12th and 24th -- the latter after a broken shock. Suffice to say, after 2019 he probably would've preferred the track to become a bass pond where he could drop a bobber at the end of a Zebco 404. Of course, that wasn't going to happen, so an improved performance became his focus.
In June, he qualified a strong 5th before suspension and tire problems ended his night just past the 100-lap mark. He returned to the track in August with the confidence of the previous top-5 start under his belt.
Mini went out early in the qualifying session and posted a lap of 15.277 seconds (85.54 mph). On the cool down lap, crew chief Brandon Butler told his driver that it should easily be good enough for a top-10 start. As it turned out, that was a bit of an understatement. After exiting the car, the driver waited apprehensively while the rest of the field made their qualifying runs. Contenders such as Bobby McCarty, Corey Heim, and Layne Riggs all posted solid times, but were unable to top Mini's lap.
Ronald Hill was the last driver to make a qualifying run. After Ronald completed a 15.57 second lap, the prodigious 15-year-old looked up seemingly in disbelief at the accomplishment of his first ever CARS Tour pole position. Post-qualifying interviews with Jacklyn Drake and Doc Love were followed by a trophy presentation and team picture.
Mini started the race on the inside of the front row, but lost the lead to McCarty on the opening lap. He ran in the runner-up spot for most of the event. With his venerable crew chief coaching him on the radio from the spotter's perch, the driver made sure to take care of his tires before slipping back to 3rd in the late stages. He posted his best ever CARS Tour finish (up to that point) on a humid night in Hickory. The track that had vexed the young driver a year ago had become one that he nearly tamed.
The second of our 6 favorite moments from 2020 brings us to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina in early October. The impact of COVID-19 resulted in the rescheduling and extension of the CARS Tour season. Originally, the season was scheduled to conclude in mid-September. However, with some tracks opting not to hold events with state-mandated reduced capacity limits, the CARS Tour looked further south beyond its traditional Virginia and North Carolina battlegrounds. Mini and the #81 Mini T's Fastest Grease In The East team had never seen Florence Motor Speedway prior to an afternoon of testing leading up to the Late Model race on October 3.
The track is unique because it lacks an outside wall beyond the frontstretch. There is a grass runoff area in the turns and along the backstretch. When Mini visits a track for the first time, the initial days are always a learning experience. What separates Mini from so many of his competitors is his ability to accelerate the learning curve. He studied the competition during Friday's practice sessions and came prepared for race day.
He qualified 12th and began charging through the field when the green flag waved. By lap 36, he had gained 10 spots and was battling Justin Johnson for the race lead. After a competition caution slowed the field on lap 40, Mini restarted on the outside line. A communication mistake on lap 41 resulted in contact and a spin in turn 4.
Mini came to pit road for repairs and rejoined the race in 18th place. He moved up to re-enter the top-10 by lap 90. He came across the finish line with an 8th place finish.
Following the race, the driver's focus was on the contact and ensuing spin on lap 41. But focusing on one negative moment would be overlooking the silver linings of success at Florence. Using an older chassis than most of his competitors, Mini passed an astounding 20 cars during the course of the race. It was the most cars he had passed in any race this season.
Our third of 6 memorable moments from 2020 focuses on Mini's off-track charitable efforts. Over the last decade, Mini has spearheaded efforts that have raised nearly half a million dollars for various charitable initiatives with a focus on childhood cancer research and quality of life services. In 2020, Mini's efforts focused on making a difference for the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation to further their mission to pair children battling cancer with an athlete or a sports team to provide support during treatment.
At the start of year, Tim May contacted us about the prospect of building a pedal car in the style of Mini's #81 Late Model that would be raffled off to benefit the Friends of Jaclyn with a goal of $2,500. With an assist from Bradley McCaskill from Grafix Unlimited for the decals, the #81 pedal car with the FOJ logo came to life.
We held a fundraising raffle over the summer and set the drawing for September during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. On a rainy Friday in August, we went out for a team lunch at Buddy's BBQ VA. There were less than 20 tickets remaining when Penny's donation came in, thus ensuring a sell out. That's a moment from 2020 that won't ever be forgotten. We conducted the drawing a few weeks later at Carteret County Speedway (thank you Bob Lowery for the use of Moonshiners Cafe to conduct the drawing). Congrats again to Dan Pack on winning the pedal car.
At the start of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Mini announced a $10,000 donation to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. We're grateful to the Lake Jackson Volunteer Fire Department and the Manassas Men and Women of the Moose for their amazing fundraising efforts.
Mini also participated in the Brain Freeze Challenge to raise awareness of pediatric brain tumors with proceeds being split between the Friends of Jaclyn and the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation. We held a tricycle race on the frontstretch at Larry King Law's Langley Speedway in late August. Thank you Grayson Cullather, Colin Butler, Corey Heim, Ronald Hill, Ray Long, Black Acid Custom Racing Apparel, and Nelson Motorsports for participating in the tricycle race and Klondike 'Brain Freeze Challenge.' It means a lot more when we can involve Mini's peers on the CARS Tour in the fundraising efforts.
Our fourth of 6 memorable moments in 2020 came on a mid-August night at Dominion Raceway. The closest CARS Tour event to Mini's hometown brought legions of family and friends to the track. Mini didn't disappoint with a career best 2nd place finish on the CARS Tour. With a large contingent of vocal supporters in the grandstand and the suite level, the driver from nearby Manassas, Va., started the Radley Chevrolet 125 on the outside of the third row.
He entered the top-5 on lap 4 and moved up to fourth place prior to the first caution on lap 9. His march forward continued on lap 12 with a move around Corey Heim.
As the race neared the halfway point, Mini remained in third position. However, he dropped a spot to Layne Riggs after a restart on lap 60. Mini fell to fifth prior to a caution for Nolan Pope's crash. After getting around the #2, he jumped to the runner-up spot when Jared Fryar slowed and brought out a caution. Mini inherited the race lead when Riggs came to pit road under caution on lap 75. On the restart, Mini lined up along side Jonathan Findley.
The pair battled door to door down the frontstretch with Findley assuming the top spot on lap 76. A caution with 25 laps to go brought the field together for a restart. Mini held the outside line and was able to get in line behind Findley. He cut the gap to a half-second with 15 laps to go, but Findley was able to stretch his lead in the waning circuits.
With 2 laps to go, Chad McCumbee stopped on the track to bring out a caution and set up a dramatic finish. With Findley comfortably in the lead en route to his first CARS Tour victory, Mini fought on the outside line as contact at the checkered flag resulted in the #81 car spinning sideways into turn 1. Riggs and Justin Johnson avoided Mini's car which came to rest in a vulnerable position with the driver's door facing the oncoming finishers.
Following the race, Mini made the trek up to the suite level to visit with family and friends. After about a half hour to decompress, he left the suite and headed into the grandstands. There was one more special guest that we simply had to see.
In 2019, Mini and the #81 team 'adopted' Ethan Dixon as a team member through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. Ethan, 10, has been battling leukemia and the race at Dominion Raceway was the first time he was able to see Mini on the track.
Seeing Ethan's joy when he saw Mini after the race was gratification on a far different level. It's that connection that makes the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation such a special organization because of the personal support to children and families impacted by cancer.
VICTORY IN HEAT RACE #1 AT GREENVILLE-PICKENS
"A breakthrough is a positive thunderbolt. It enables the team to grasp and realize their mission by defining and fulfilling the most important performance goals." -- Pat Riley
The fifth of our 6 memorable moments from 2020 brings us to late October. Mini and the #81 Mini T's Fastest Grease In The East team arrived for the final CARS Tour race of the year at Greenville-Pickens Speedway looking for a positive outcome to carry into 2021.
It had been an inconsistent season, but after turning the fastest lap in two practices on Friday -- and being in the top-3 during the Saturday practices -- the driver and his race team had an expectation for a top-5 start to avoid having to start a 25-lap heat race to qualify for Sunday's main event. Mini could only muster the 9th fastest lap in qualifying, which put him into the first heat race on Saturday night. As it turned out, a breakthrough was about to occur.
He started on the outside of the front row in Heat Race #1. In the early laps, he took the lead from two-time CARS Tour champion Bobby McCarty. After a late caution for fluid in turn 1, the driver had initially decided to take the inside line for the restart. Grayson walked over to turn 1 and warned the driver over the radio about fluid and the clean-up on the low line. Thus, the decision was made for the outside line on the restart.
Ultimately, that was the winning move. Opting for the outside line, Mini held off 2020 CARS Tour champion Jared Fryar to maintain the lead of the race. He took the checkered flag for the first time in a CARS Tour event ahead of perennial contender Chad McCumbee.
It had been more than two years since Mini took the checkered flag in a Late Model event. When we look at building blocks for 2021 and the potential for Mini's first feature win on the most prestigious Late Model tour in America, the breakthrough victory in the heat race was a big step forward.
ONE FROM THE HEART
Our final look back at 2020 memories is probably the most poignant. It was Sunday morning after Mini had posted his best-ever CARS Tour finish with a 2nd place effort at Dominion Raceway. We were finishing breakfast and going over race pictures when a Facebook birthday notification came on our phones. True to his selfless form, Larry Lindsay didn't mention it was his birthday until that very moment. Our focus immediately shifted away from the experience at the track the night before to importance of celebrating and honoring his day.
Larry is our tire specialist, but simply calling him a tire specialist is an understatement about the role he has on our raceteam and in our lives. Having been neighbors in Northern Virginia with Mini's grandparents, he's known the driver and his family for decades. He jumped at the chance to help the raceteam in 2018 and has been a fixture at the track ever since.
At the various outposts on the CARS Tour, you can find him hauling the tire cart and checking tire temps after Mini's practice runs. Beyond the track, he jumps at the chance to help in any way that he can. We've marveled at his ability to make single-day 500+ mile round trip drives for race parts when needed. But, really, Larry's role and his influence goes far beyond racing. His salute to the flag during the National Anthem takes on added meaning because of his time earlier in life protecting and defending freedom at home and abroad.
There's a level of comfort and trust that comes with having him on the raceteam, and that trust is definitely reciprocated. Just three days after receiving his driver's permit in August, Mini fired up Larry's Pontiac G8 GXP for the 20-mile drive to Dominion Raceway. Granted, the driver didn't push the envelope on the car's higher end performance, but it underscored the trust that Larry placed in the neophyte driver on public roads. Then again, a similar trust exists between Mini and his PR manager (psst.. this writer) regarding a jaunt on the very night he received his permit. But, that's surely a story for another time.
Everybody on our raceteam knows that Larry's words are invariably packaged with wisdom and experience. There have been so many drives to the track and to the hotel where he probably thought I was focused on driving and wasn't paying close attention to our conversation. It was actually the opposite. It's often said that you learn far more by listening than you do by responding. In Larry's presence, just by listening, you can learn so much about commitment, dedication, and perseverance.
Through his own personal heartbreak and tragedy this year, he's been incredibly motivated to be around the raceteam. That's why spending his birthday with him meant so much. August 9, 2020 was more than just an idyllic day on the lake. It was a day where Larry Lindsay could appreciate what he meant to us -- and what he'll always mean to us. One team, one family. One from the Heart.