Drivers are gearing up for upcoming season

Posted April 09, 2010, at 9:59 p.m.

As the weather improves, they start getting the itch.

Auto racers can’t wait to get the season started after surviving a long winter.

For many, it’s a year-round endeavor.

They start mapping plans for the next season soon after the conclusion of the previous campaign and they work on their cars throughout the off-season.

“We work on them three or four days a week and on the weekends,” said Bangor’s Shawn Hamel, who races with his son, Shawn Hamel II, in the Strictly Street division at Hermon’s Speedway 95.

Hamel finished third in points last season, one spot below his son.

The Hamels team up with Stockton Springs’ Duane Seekins to work on their respective race cars.

“We’re always trying to upgrade from the year before,” said Morrill’s Travis Benjamin, who finished seventh in the Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model North points last year. “We look around to see what we have and what we think is beating us. You figure out what you think you need and see what other people are doing.

“Then, right after the holidays, we start really getting after it,” added Benjamin.

“I think most people get started [in earnest] right after Christmas,” agreed Bradley’s Deane Smart, who races in the Late Model Series at Speedway 95. “You have auto shows in Augusta and Portland and that gets everybody excited.”

Hamel said there are auto parts swap meets all over New England during the off-season and that allows drivers to upgrade their race cars without doling out tons of money to do so.

“They had one at Thompson [International Speedway in Thompson, Conn.] that was 10 acres [long],” said Hamel.

He looks for good buys on auto parts but he noted that he also “gets some ideas” from observing and interacting with other drivers and car owners. “You see what’s being built and how they’re being built.”

Holden’s Steve Moulton summed up the mentality of auto racers and their desire to improve their cars.

“You can always go faster,” said Moulton, who finished second in the Super Street class at Speedway 95 last season but plans to run for points at Unity Raceway this year.

There really isn’t an off-season for Hermon’s Jeff Overlock Jr., who was fifth in the Sport-Four class at Speedway 95 a year ago.

“I work on a lot of other people’s cars [year-round],” said Overlock. “I do sheet metal fabrications. I build body panels.”

During the season, Overlock doesn’t just race, either.

He is the flagman for Friday night racing at Unity Raceway and the entry-level Wacky Wednesday cards at Speedway 95.

“I love flagging,” said Overlock.

Overlock and Moulton are half-brothers and work on each other’s cars in addition to their own.

The event that jumpstarts the interest is the Daytona 500, according to several drivers.

That is the first NASCAR points race and the most prestigious race of the year.

“That’s when I get excited for the season,” said Benjamin.

Smart concurred.

“As soon as I see racing on TV, I get excited. Then, when the snow goes away, it gets even better,” said Smart.

Hamel, who is 48, said he doesn’t get too excited for the start of the season but the younger drivers do.

“[Son] Shawn has been counting down the days for the past 10-12 weeks. He’s ready to go,” said the senior Hamel.

“When the weather is warmer, it makes it a lot easier to work on your car [and get ready for the season],” said Moulton.

Benjamin, who will begin his season in eight days when PASS North opens at Speedway 95, said it is important to “refresh my engine and work on my set-ups and stuff.”

“You want to make sure you’re as prepared as possible,” said Benjamin. “In the early races, everybody is on the same playing field. I’ll try some new stuff in the first three races to see if I can hit on something. If not, I’ll go back to my old notes.”

He also said this is one of the best times of year to race.

“It isn’t too hot and the tracks are usually good to race on,” said Benjamin. “During the middle of the summer, some tracks get hot. And you also get burned out.”

Drivers put a lot of money into their cars in preparation for the upcoming season.

“We’ve probably spent $2,000-$3,000 on my car and my son’s,” said Hamel. “I didn’t think I’d spend that much. But you’ve got to upgrade your stuff and then when they make rule changes you have to spend more money [to meet the new specifications].”

Smart said a lot of drivers have switched over to the economical spec engines but those will still run you in the “$4,000-$5,000 range.

“But those engines will last you three or four years,” said Smart. “If you use another type of engine, it’ll cost you $2,000-$3,000 a year to rebuild it for the next season.”

“I just spent $400-$500 on shocks and springs and $600 on a body panel,” said Moulton.

Overlock doesn’t have sponsors so “what I make for a paycheck is what I put into my cars.”

Benjamin said the fact the 13-race PASS North SLM schedule doesn’t involve as much travel as it once did has been a plus for the drivers.

“The schedule is really good, again. We’ve got a lot of easy-travel races,” said Benjamin. “It makes it a lot easier if you don’t have to get hotel rooms every time you go racing. And you don’t have to be away from your family too long.”

Speedway 95 will open its own racing season on Sunday, April 24, at 2 p.m.

There will be a car and flea market show at Speedway 95 today from 10-5.

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