Ohio ARCA driver returns to seat of Ken Schrader's Federated Chevy for Chicagoland.
It took two busloads to get them to the track...all to cheer on their classmate Matt Tifft. As it turned out, Tifft gave them plenty to cheer about.
Tifft (in photo from a previous event, in the red car on the left) celebrated his high school graduation at Toledo Speedway in late May, driving for Ken Schrader Racing. The Hinckley, Ohio teenager (17 at the time) finished a career-best third with his car owner Schrader right behind in fourth.
"That's one of the coolest things about my school," said Tifft, who graduated from Highland High School in Medina, Ohio on May 23.
"My friends follow me and care about what's going on with my racing. The first year we ran Toledo (2013), we had about 60 kids come for the race, and probably two out of the 60 had been to a race before. One hundred and twenty people came this year, and about 40 of them had already been to a race, so I know we're making new race fans."
Following Tifft's stellar performance in the ARCA race at Toledo, his high school chums hoisted him up onto their shoulders as part of the celebration.
"I got a lot of positive feedback. Having my friends and family there to cheer me on was definitely pretty cool. The biggest thing they learned was how intense racing is."
And Tifft's racing schedule is about to get even more intense when the 18-year-old driver rolls off the grid at Chicagoland Speedway for the Ansell ActivArmr 150 Saturday, July 19.
Tifft will not get the opportunity to test on the 1.5-mile speedway in Joliet, Illinois beforehand.
"I'll just watch a lot of old video. Whether it's a previous Cup race, or an ARCA race, I learn quite a bit by just watching video. Some guys do iRacing (online), but I'm horrible at it, and I usually end up hitting the wall, and that doesn't work in real life.
"There'll be some big learning curves. You have to learn the limits pretty quickly. I know at Pocono in the test, I stabbed the gas too early coming out of (turn) one, and it jumped broadside on me, and that was only five laps into the session, so I definitely learned something. I picked it up in the wrong place on the track. I'm going to have to learn quickly at Chicagoland."
Tifft is not afraid to seek the advice of some of the veterans on tour.
"Don't be afraid to ask questions, or get behind someone to see what they're doing right and what you're doing wrong. I talked with Frank Kimmel before Pocono, and got a lot of great advice from him. I mean, he's definitely a whole book of knowledge; I'd be crazy not to talk with him. Between him and Schrader, you can definitely soak in a lot of knowledge."
Tifft also knows that there is no substitute for on-track experience.
"It helps to hear from the veterans for sure, but none of it really matters until you apply it on the track. I learned in my one and only superspeedway race at Pocono that you can't overwhelm yourself with too much information. Everything is so sensitive on the speedways. The slightest turn of the wheel will affect your direction. If you have one brain lapse, it can be pretty big at those tracks."
No doubt Tifft feels pretty darn lucky to be driving for an icon like Schrader.
"It's so cool (driving for Schrader); it's definitely entertaining. He's a great guy. As the owner of a race team he wants to win, so there's a little pressure there. It's not any pressure that he (Schrader) puts on me; it's pressure I create for myself. Mr. Schrader is really patient and that helps so much, especially for me...being that I have such a huge learning curve. That can be challenging for a team when they're working with a driver that's still getting up to speed."
Tifft had some serious challenges at Pocono. In his first superspeedway start, he had driven up to third late in the race, and was challenging front-runners Kyle Larson (eventual winner) and Mason Mitchell when he was part of three-car crash in turn one.
"We restarted third and the 88 (Justin Allison) was stuck in fourth gear. It got all jumbled up for everyone. By the time it fanned out, here comes turn one, and we all found ourselves trying to buy the same space that was there, and we wrecked. It was just a racing deal."
In true Tifft form, he replayed the video when he got home to see if he could learn from the experience.
"I watched the recording to help put the pieces together. I wanted to see if I could have done anything different. After watching it over and over, I decided that it really was one of those racing deals and that I didn't do anything wrong. I learned that everything is situational, and what might be applied here will not necessarily work there."
Tifft is planning to attend UNC Charlotte in the fall, majoring in business management, while continuing to study the fine art of auto racing.