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This past weekend, Nathan Byrd ran the midget races at Bakersfield Speedway and Placerville Speedway. (Byrd Racing photo)

BYRD: A Ride On The Struggle Bus

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — A chance to compete in the same car in back-to-back races at different tracks multiple weeks in a row is the next step in my progression as a race driver. 

This type of opportunity rarely happens because of my diverse schedule, going back and forth between different cars every weekend. This opportunity comes with the midget that I am driving as I am competing during the West Coast swing for the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Championship.

I’ve only ever driven a midget on dirt twice, both times at Ventura Raceway with Cory Kruseman who runs an “arrive-and-drive” dirt operation in California. This past weekend, I ran the midget races at Bakersfield Speedway and Placerville Speedway.

It started with a single day show at Bakersfield Speedway, a third-mile dirt oval. I made solid progress throughout the night as we went from hot laps, to qualifying, to the heat race and finally to the C main where my night ended. My primary and initial goal was to become familiar with the track, which I did in hot laps, with my best lap at 15.257 seconds. This was 2.6 seconds slower than the fastest car in hot laps.

I improved on my best lap time during qualifying, getting a 14.685. This was 2.3 seconds off the fastest car in qualifying. After my qualifying effort, I watched half of the field qualify, which really helped me understand what they were doing, and I wasn’t doing. They were pretty much full throttle all the way around the track, whereas I was lifting significantly on both ends.

I took this knowledge into my 10-lap heat race. I finished my heat race last but managed to improve my best lap time around the track to a 13.608, now only about one-second off the pace.

We finished the night in the C main just ahead of last place, with a best lap of 13.562. This made me feel pretty good as I progressively got faster and more comfortable with the car throughout the night and ultimately learned a lot about how to drive a track like Bakersfield.

The week was just getting started, as we had a three-day event called the “Hangtown 100” at Placerville Speedway next. With nearly 50 cars registering for the event, it was no surprise to me or anyone else that it would be difficult. Just like at Bakersfield, I focused on not making any big dumb mistakes in hot laps while I learned the track.

Hot laps went smoothly, but my fast lap was 2.2 seconds off the fastest lap, which meant I had to close the gap on mastering the track or the car. Unfortunately, I messed up my first flying lap by driving up on the inside berm of turns one and two and I spun out and stalled on the second lap. My heat race ended up going significantly better though, as I got my time down to a 12.767, only about eight-tenths off the fastest car in my heat.

It was challenging though because visibility was abnormally low that session. I barely trudged over the finish line on the final lap because of a battery issue. We were able to fix that before the next session. My final session was in one of the two B mains. It was only 12 laps, but I was intent on finishing the race while learning as much as possible, hopefully, getting faster in the process.

I barely managed to avoid a big first turn pile-up on lap one and ran more consistent laps that were faster than in the heat. None of my laps were outright faster than my previous 12.7, as I only managed a 12.9.

My fastest lap of the B main was 1.2 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the race.

The next day at Placerville was a little up and down. I did well in hot laps and qualifying. I ran a 13.164, a lap which was about 1.3 seconds off the fastest lap in hot laps, and I improved on my qualifying performance at 12.718. That was 1.1 seconds off the fastest lap in qualifying. I got two clean laps in qualifying, more than my first qualifying effort. However, in my heat race, I hopped the “Struggle Bus to Loser Town.”

I managed a 13.029-second lap compared to a 11.962 ran by the fastest car in my heat. I was well off the competitive pace, and I struggled to understand what I needed to do with the car to go faster.

 It was another “learn on the fly” moment over the course of the 12-lap B Main. I explored the track and got more comfortable with the car. My fastest lap was within a second of the fastest lap of the race, my best margin the whole day. I was slowly but surely showing signs of improvement, which was enough for me to take and run with into the final day of racing at Placerville.

I asked Kruseman plenty of questions in hopes of improving on the final day.

One of the things I asked about was the importance of braking. The brakes are a fundamental component of making the car drive the way it’s supposed to, and I had been neglecting it all week at both Bakersfield and Placerville. My neglect of the brakes at Bakersfield was because I didn’t really have to use the brakes to be competitive because it was a bigger track with less slowdown in the corners.

If I had employed proper dirt driving technique at Bakersfield, I would have used the brakes at one point or another.

At Placerville though, using the brakes was a fundamental component of driving faster. I learned that using the brakes would help me feel more confident in driving deeper into the corner like the other cars, would rotate the car faster, and enable me to get back on the throttle earlier and faster as well.

Above all, the brakes would help me to feel more comfortable and drive more consistently, as it allowed me to have greater control and confidence with the car, a critical aspect of improving as a driver in any discipline of racing.

When I went out for hot laps, I hadn’t had this conversation with Cory yet about making a concerted effort to use the brakes. I was still doing early and excessive lift throttle technique to get through the corner. However, I did manage to run my fastest hot laps of the three-day event, coming in with a 12.922 which was 1.2 seconds off the fastest hot lap of the session.

This at least confirmed I wasn’t getting slower and regressing.

There was no qualifying and heat races were lined up by points accumulated during the first two nights.

My heat race was as stacked as usual and I finished last out of the cars that finished, like usual. But I did go faster than in hot laps, achieving a 12.824 with all but my first two laps coming in under 13 seconds. The improved consistency and speed of my laps was evidence that I was starting to do something right and that something was “using the brakes.”

My goal for the C main was to hang with the other cars around me and in front of me, and to try and beat as many people as I could. I was able to do the first, but not the second. The race was going smooth at the start until a caution came out which bunched up the field. On the first flying lap after the restart a car ended up flipping onto its side, right in my path. I had nowhere to go and made contact.

My car was evaluated by a few USAC officials who said, “the front axle might be a little bent, but you should be good to race.”

I restarted just ahead of the tail of the field.

I put up as good a fight as I could, but ultimately my lack of experience combined with the car relegated me to the back of the field.

This final race of the weekend taught me a lot and gave me the most racing of the entire three-day event. It was fun and good to experience. Out of the cars in the C main, I was the most competitive I had ever been, getting a 12.851 for my fast lap, only half a second off the fastest lap of the race.

The results of the week didn’t reflect my progress as a driver, but I improved substantially and plan on getting better and better as the USAC National Midget West Coast swing continues through the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura.