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The winner of the Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals in 2021 also won a one-race ride in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. (Jim Denhamer photo)

Opportunity Is Knocking

Many talented drivers never make it to the big leagues due to a lack of money. Without family funds, private benefactors or commercial sponsorships, opportunities to advance rarely arise.

This is a determent to racing, since unlike less expensive sports, fans aren’t always seeing the most talented drivers in the major leagues, but a combination of talented drivers and not-as-talented drivers who are very good at raising money.

It’s been this way for generations.

This bothers a lot of people, including Cody Efaw, general manager of Niece Motorsports — Al Niece’s multi-vehicle NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team based in Mooresville, N.C.

Efaw was raised on dirt late model racing.

“I’ve been blessed to make a living through racing and I always wanted to give back,” Efaw said. “I see first-hand that people come into NASCAR with financial backing. What I don’t see is the grassroots racer coming into NASCAR. It’s all a corporate business these days.

“I thought, ‘How can I make this work together and help the driver who is talented but never gets a shot to prove himself on the bigger stage?’ I thought about it for a couple years, actually.”

While waiting to get through the tech line at Talladega Superspeedway, Efaw bumped into Cody Sommer, who promotes the Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals. The nationals are an indoor event held in December at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. Super late models, modifieds and midgets compete on a one-fifth-mile dirt track laid out on the facility’s floor.

“I’d love to take the main event winner of the late models and give him a one-off truck ride at Knoxville,” Efaw told Sommer. “He was all for it.”

The promotion was called “Win and You’re In” and the prize was a ride in the No. 41 Niece Motorsports Chevy Silverado in the Truck Series race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway on June 18.

The announcement was made only days before the event. “The last thing I wanted to do was come into that scene and interrupt it,” Efaw said. “Also, I didn’t want somebody to throw a lot of money into their dirt late model just to go after this truck ride. I wanted it to go to a grassroots racer who was running the equipment he had to run at Gateway. I didn’t want anyone to cherry-pick it.”

Efaw said Niece is footing the bill.

“Al loves the underdog,” Efaw said. “He challenges me all the time to give people an opportunity. Dirt races are the least expensive truck races we run. There is less wear and tear on the motors and a smaller tire bill. It just all fits.”

Niece Motorsports will run five trucks at Knoxville. The team’s regular drivers this year are Dean Thompson, Carson Hocevar, Kris Wright and Lawless Alan.

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Tyler Carpenter is often described as outspoken and controversial, but always gives the fans a show. (Jim Denhamer photo)

Joining them at Knoxville will be 31-year-old Tyler Carpenter of Parkersburg, W.Va., who earned the ride by winning the late model feature at Gateway in December. The event wasn’t held in 2020 due to COVID-19, but Carpenter also won it in 2019. He’s outspoken and often controversial, but he’s also committed to giving the fans a show.

He says he doesn’t care if fans love him or hate him, but his Facebook page has 47,554 friends and is followed by 51,014 people.

“Who we got is perfect in my eyes,” Efaw said. “He runs on a shoestring, but he wins races. It was great to see his whole family in victory lane. Maybe he’ll do well at Knoxville; you never know who he could meet there or what could come out of it.”

The Carpenters live and breathe racing.

Tyler’s father, Freddy, and his older brother, Chris, are also drivers. The family business is Kryptonite Racecars, which produces some 50 to 60 late models and modifieds annually. Cheering Tyler on is his wife and five children — four girls and a boy.

To date, Carpenter’s biggest paying victories were the Gateway shows. He also won the 2019 Butterball Memorial in Richmond, Ky., and the 2014 Jim Dunn Memorial in Crooksville, Ohio. He was the 2014, ’15 and ’16 AMRA late model champion.

An announcer gave him the nickname “The Kamikaze Kid.”

“I guess I got that for being pretty aggressive when I started out,” Carpenter said. “I always ran hard, and sometimes over my head.”

The truck ride is a huge opportunity.

“We’ve been looked down on for so long,” he said. “We don’t have the money that others do. I always have to prove myself and do my very best. A lot of people like me, but I can only do so much with my equipment. I think I get the most out of it that I possibly can.

“Growing up, I just wanted to race anything,” he added. “We didn’t have money for go-karts; we just played with diecast cars. But the older I got, I was able to earn my own money. I’d love to drive NASCAR, but I honestly never imagined I’d get the chance. I’ve always been a dirt guy, but who wouldn’t want to give it a shot?”

At press time, Carpenter had been to exactly two NASCAR Truck Series races in his life.

“A family friend, Eddie Miller, took me to Martinsville when I was probably 15 or 16, and it was just very cool,” he said. “I rooted for Mark Martin, who was my favorite driver. And I went to this year’s Bristol truck race with Niece Motorsports to learn as much as I could.”

He’s never been to Knoxville Raceway, although he’s watched races from there online. He said he doesn’t know any of the drivers he’ll be competing against.

NASCAR stipulates that drivers with little experience have to be approved, but Niece Motorsports got Carpenter over that hurdle by quietly giving him a test in an ARCA car at Daytona in January.

“He completed his laps,” Efaw said. “That gave him the approval to run anything under a mile in the Truck Series.”

Carpenter called the 20 or so laps he did there “the coolest thing I ever did in my life.

“It lets you know you have to be in shape to run that stuff,” he added. “I did about five- to eight-lap sessions. It gets hot.”

More pre-race testing would be done if the rules would permit it.

How is he preparing for his big opportunity?

“To be dead honest, I’m not preparing,” he said. “I’m going into the whole deal blind. Yes, we’ll be on dirt. But I’ve never driven anything like this. The whole atmosphere is different than what I’m used to. At the end of the day it’s going to be a huge learning deal. I want to be as calm and as smooth as I can be on the throttle, because it’s a lot different than what I’m used to.”

What is his goal?

“Surviving,” he said. “I want to stay on the lead lap and finish the race without anything torn up. It’s all going to be challenging. I enter every race thinking I’m going to win, and in my heart I want to win that fricking thing so bad, but my biggest goal at Knoxville is going to be to survive and be there at the finish.

“I got the dirt part down, but them guys understand the trucks. Everything about them; the transmission, the way you fit into the truck; it’s like nothing I’m used to. I’m going to focus on what Cody thinks we need to do. I’m going to be behind the eight ball early, but I think I’ll catch on pretty quick.”

“Trucks don’t drive like a typical dirt car,” Efaw noted. “The harder you drive a dirt late model, the better it goes. But with trucks you have to be more gentle and smooth. But Tyler has been at a lot of tracks where he’s sliding around. He’s used to being sideways, losing grip and having wheel spin. Toning all that down is going to be challenging.

“Another thing that will be different for him is that he’ll have a windshield,” Efaw added. “He’ll be used to tear offs and he’ll be able to read the track. He’ll know to move around as the track changes, to use the cushion, and he’ll be hungry. There isn’t going to be any fear; it’s going to be his one opportunity and he’ll want to make the most of it.”

One thing he’s sure to have is fan interest.

“There are going to be a slew of people from West Virginia going,” Carpenter said. “I’d say thousands of people from here are going. Whether they like me as a driver or not, they’re going because they want to see how I can do.”

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