Nathan Byrd went modified racing at Irwindale Speedway last weekend. (Byrd Racing photo)

BYRD: Modified Madness At Irwindale

IRWINDALE, Calif. — Instead of the usual fire drill of racing from one car to another, this past weekend at Irwindale Speedway I narrowed my focus — at least for one weekend.

It was a weekend of modified racing on Irwindale Speedway’s half-mile asphalt oval — a track that I really enjoy.

It was the first time in 14 months that I was back in a modified in a straightforward, two-day schedule that included three practices on Friday followed by a practice, qualifying and feature on Saturday.

The last time I raced the modified on Irwindale’s half-mile, it was relative success in both qualifying and the feature before my right rear-tire was cut in the beginning of the race. Friday’s main goal was to get reacquainted with the Arce Racing car and to take advantage of all the practice time available to work on setup changes and get the car dialed in.

Each practice session was 30 minutes long, enough time to allow us to make changes and return to the track. That was great because it helped me learn in quick succession how different changes to the car affected its handling characteristics. 

In each practice, I ran consistent times just two-tenths off the fastest driver. My fastest lap was a 19.195, my best at Irwindale.

The only downer for the night was on my final run, when the car lost oil pressure because of a self-protective mechanism in the engine, the car thankfully turned itself off. The eventual diagnosis was the oil pump failed. This was a blessing in disguise though, because we were debating on whether to even go back out for that final run.

We had pretty much gotten everything out of the used tires that we could.

My dad told me it would probably be a good idea to go out one more time just to experiment with how the car felt on the passing line around the bottom of the track. I agreed and went back out, but if I hadn’t then we probably would’ve experienced the failure with the engine in the morning practice.

That would have been difficult to replace before qualifying and the race, and we would have been scrambling to make the feature.

When I got to the track on Saturday, the team was still working on the car, replacing the old engine with the new one. They were able to finish the engine swap and get me out just in time so I could scrub tires for qualifying during practice.

I was sixth fastest in practice with a 19.256-second lap.

The way they convert qualifying times to the feature is unique in the Spears Modified Series. The top eight qualifiers do a random pill draw to determine their starting positions. I squeezed into the very competitive top eight with a 19.073-second effort that was my fastest time around Irwindale. This was with a sub-optimal setup as the car was slightly too loose, preventing me from getting off the corners as hard as I wanted.

It was still incredible, though, the seven fastest qualifiers were all within two-tenths of each other. It was even more incredible the fact that my teammate and I drew first and second in the pill draw to lock out the front row of the feature for Arce Racing Engines.

The 60-lap feature race was shortly after qualifying. I talked to my crew chief about the setup we wanted for the feature. We both determined that starting off with a car that was too tight would be optimal, as the car would come to me during the last half of the race.

Starting second, I was looking to hold onto my position for as long as I could while I dealt with the tight car. As the car improved over the course of the race, I hoped to compete for a podium finish.

Well, that was the plan at least.

I had a great start to the race, taking the lead right off the rip over my teammate. The car’s setup was neutral and felt great for a few laps. But I knew this meant that it was only going to go downhill from there. Despite being in the lead for a few laps, I was soon challenged on the inside by a faster car and was passed. I was doing my best to manage the car, while maintaining the pace of the fastest cars ahead of me, but ended up overdriving the entry of turn three.

As a result, I got into the marbles and spun. I grazed the wall with my left-rear quarter panel and restarted last. 

Despite the unfortunate circumstances I was still determined to get everything out of the car that I could and learn as much as possible while working my way back up the field. I restarted the race in 15th and worked my way to 10th place, chasing after my teammate who was in.

Despite our lackluster performance in the feature given how competitive the car was leading up to it, I wasn’t completely bummed with the result. I could tell how much I had grown as a driver and racer since my last race at Irwindale Speedway on the half mile.

I was generally happy with my performance as a driver and it makes me excited to see what I can do in the car if modified racing ends up on my very busy racing schedule again next year.

I can’t thank God and the Arce Racing crew and folks enough for all their hard work and for letting me in on their racing season. I’m really looking forward to working with them again.

I know that with my improvements as a driver and a nailed setup, we will be quite the force on the race track.

That’s something that I wouldn’t have been able to confidently say 14 months ago.