Daytona: Andy Belmont race notes

Belmont fast at Daytona but motor breaks with 9 to go. Frustration is probably not strong enough a word to express the emotions manifested by everyone at Andy Belmont Motorsports following Saturday afternoon's ARCA 200 at Daytona International...

Belmont fast at Daytona but motor breaks with 9 to go.

Frustration is probably not strong enough a word to express the emotions manifested by everyone at Andy Belmont Motorsports following Saturday afternoon's ARCA 200 at Daytona International Speedway. Driving what he described as, "the best car I have ever had here", Andy Belmont started the race 17th and finished 29th. It was a race he could have, and maybe should have won. Early in the race, he was running in the top six and 10 laps from the end he had a solid top 10. There was a lot to be happy about, but the overall mood when it was over was the frustration of what could have been.

The frustration began earlier in the week. The Verizon car rolled out of the hauler fast and got faster as the team adjusted it for the cool, damp conditions of Daytona Beach in February, at least this February. In the final morning practice before qualifying Andy recorded a top 10 lap time without "showing them everything we've got." Weather conditions changed and the wind shifted and increased before qualifying coming directly out of the East at 20 mph blowing directly onto the nose of cars running down the 3000 foot long back stretch. According to Andy, "I had expected to pick up .4 of a second over morning practice. Instead the wind cost me 200 rpm and I was 7. slower." Still his lap time was fast and he started the race 17th, directly behind last year's series champion, Frank Kimmel.

The team continued to adjust on the car on Friday. Andy was so comfortable with it that he on ran the first half of the morning practice and didn't even start the engine for the final Happy Hour. "We had the car where we wanted it. There was no value in wearing out the motor and we didn't want to outsmart ourselves by trying something that would make the car slower or take handling away." Andy and Jenn, wife and team owner, took the crew to an early dinner at a local restaurant.

Race day arrived with a low cloud cover, temps so cool that you really needed a heavy jacket and the threat of rain. Historically, the ARCA 200 accompanies NASCAR's Bud Shootout. This year, for the first time the Shootout was shifted from a Sunday afternoon to a Saturday night event moving ARCA to a 4:00 P.M. Saturday start time. So the drill was to hang out in the ARCA garage area trying to stay warm and wait for time to grid the cars.

The race started on time with pole sitter Bobby Gerhart jumping out to a strong lead. Andy was fast from the green flag driving a smart, patient race. He and Crew Chief Brian Smith planned a one pit stop race starting on scuffed Hoosier Tires and changing the two right side tires to stickers. They correctly figured that there would be a number of caution flags so the pit stop would occur once they were inside their fuel window.

Early in the race the team discovered that radio communication was a problem. While Andy could hear what they said to him, only Andy's mom, Sandy, could hear him so she wound up translating what he said to Jenn and Brian atop the pit box. At about half distance, the problem cleared up as mysteriously as it occurred and everyone on the team could hear him from the race car.

Andy was fast and was picking off cars one at a time. He passed defending series champion Frank Kimmel and then took former CART racer Christian Fittipaldi driving for Petty Enterprises in a blue #43. By Lap 30 (of 80) he was running in sixth place, the last car in two groups of three that were breaking away from the rest of the field.

During the third (of 7) cautions, Andy decided to take his one planned pit stop. Since the caution occurred inside most driver's fuel windows, pit lane was crowded as most of the field came in. Two cars came down pit lane inside Andy and blocked him out from getting into his pit stall. One of them was Deborah Renshaw who was driving her first race since the practice lap accident at Charlotte last Fall which took Eric Martin's life. Renshaw walks with a distinct limp from the broken leg she sustained in the accident and spent a lot of time complaining about how slow her leg is to heal. ARCA officials penalized her one lap for pitting outside her pit box.

Andy went back onto the track. He could have waited for another caution but instead decided to pit as scheduled which put him back into the race at the back of the field albeit with two fresh right side tires. When racing resumed, he again showed how fast the car was by quickly passing cars several at a time and getting into the top 15 in short order. By lap 60, Andy was running 10th in the field looking comfortable for a late race charge toward the front. It all went wrong on the restart from a caution period on Lap 69. The car was slow to accelerate when the green flag fell and he immediately started falling back through the field. The next lap by you could hear that the engine was sour and getting worse. It turned out to be a broken valve spring so he was running on 7 cylinders. On Lap 71, Andy came coasting down pit road. The crew went under the hood but there was no getting the engine back. Andy got out and they pushed the car back down pit road and into the garage area.

Atlanta businessman Brack Maggard leased Andy's backup Pontiac Grand Prix and attempted to qualify for the race with Southern Pan Services and St. Leo University sponsorship. Maggard ran one ARCA race last year, at South Boston, in a car he leased from Andy. Maggard was smooth and confident but he qualified outside the magic 31 who made the race on time and the car didn't have any provisionals making him a spectator. Andy's brother, Kevin, who drove last year for James Hylton, has been retained by Christi Passmore to coach, mentor, and spot for her this year. A lean and youthful Kevin, who celebrated his birthday the day before the ARCA race, would like to get a full time ride this year as would former ARCA and Craftsman Truck Series racer Matt Mullin who spotted for Andy.

There was a lot to be happy about in the performance of Andy and his race team. Crew Chief Brian Smith, is mature and capable beyond his 24 years. He has a work ethic atypical of his generation which undoubtedly comes from his parents, Tri-Star Motorsports founder Mark Smith and his wife Kathy. Mark builds and leases Andy his powerplants as well as the increasing shop space the team occupies in Huntersville, North Carolina. Brian is a strong leader of the team. During the warmup laps, he held a short meeting on pit lane reviewing everyone's assignment, relaying the pit strategy, and providing encouragement and moral support to the crew. Andy's race cars are well prepared and fast. The Verizon sponsorship has provided them with the budget to properly test, prepare, and support the race program.

Given the good things that happened, the quiet confidence manifested by everyone on the team from the owner to the driver to the crew chief to everyone on the crew, and the financial support that Verizon has brought along with its sponsorship, everyone expected more than a 29th place finish. There is no doubt that better results lie ahead in the near future. But right now, the mood is encapsulated by one word--frustration.

-Rich Romer, Guest Writer

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Series ARCA
Drivers Christian Fittipaldi , Frank Kimmel , Andy Belmont , Bobby Gerhart , James Hylton , Brian Smith , Deborah Renshaw , Christi Passmore , Brack Maggard