BNS: Lake Erie: Inaugural race preview

Quick learners in practice will have edge in NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series debut at Lake Erie Speedway, Sun., May 18 NORTH EAST, Pa. (May 10, 2003) -- The NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series makes its debut at...

Quick learners in practice will have edge in NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series debut at Lake Erie Speedway, Sun., May 18

NORTH EAST, Pa. (May 10, 2003) -- The NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch North Series makes its debut at one of America's newest and finest short tracks on Sunday, May 18, when Lake Erie Speedway hosts the Local Dodge Dealers 150 presented by Travel Club International. Bud Pole Qualifying and the third Busch North Series race of the 2003 season are both set for Sunday. However, top competitors agree some of the most important action of the weekend will take place in practice the preceding day, as the teams attempt to find the ideal setup for a track none of them have ever driven before.

Lake Erie Speedway is located in North East Township, about ten miles from the city of Erie, Pa., just off Interstate Routes 86 and 90 near the New York state line. The .375-mile oval, which cost an estimated $11 million to construct, opened during the 2002 season. The Local Dodge Dealers 150 presented by Travel Club International is set for a 2:00 p.m. start on Sunday afternoon following an on-track autograph session. Bud Pole Qualifying will take place Sunday morning at 11:15 a.m. SPEED Channel will tape the race for national telecast on Saturday, May 24.

It is Saturday afternoon's two-hour practice session that holds much of the teams' attention, however. None of them have raced at Lake Erie. Few of the drivers or crew chiefs have seen the track. There are two other 3/8-mile tracks on the Busch North Series schedule, but neither is a reliable guide to the Lake Erie layout, which features a compound banking that ranges from 6 degrees at the bottom of the turn to 12 degrees near the outer wall. Holland (N.Y.) International Speedway, the closest traditional Busch North venue to Lake Erie, is a high-banked track. Lee USA Speedway in Lee, N.H., where the 2003 series opened in April is closer in configuration, but without the compound banking.

The challenge of arriving at a winning combination for Lake Erie is two-fold. First, a team needs to unload at the track with a set-up that's as close to correct as they can manage. Second, the crew needs to use the two hours of practice time efficiently, giving the driver as many laps as possible with each new tweak to the chassis.

To make their initial set-up decisions for Lake Erie, crew chiefs have turned to one of the most useful tools in the shop, the telephone. "I hope my crew chief, Ron Ste. Marie, did his homework," quipped Bryon Chew, driver of the Buzz Chew Auto Group Chevrolet. "We've been calling people that have seen the track and people from classes that have raced on the track to see how it is," Chew continued, adding "We'll probably go with what we've used somewhere else; I just don't know yet what track it's closest to. We'll go with it for the first practice and then modify it as we go."

That process of trial and improvement makes the opening practice at Lake Erie one of the most fascinating hours of year to watch with a stopwatch in hand, and one of the most pressure-packed for the drivers and crews. It gives a team with depth and experience in the pits a potential advantage. That plays to the strength of the Tops Friendly Markets Chevrolet team and driver Paul Wolfe. Wolfe can call on the combined talents of Tommy Baldwin Racing, as well as Dick Glines, his mentor during the first three years of his Busch North Series career.

Wolfe, like Chew one of the Busch North Series' young stars, sums up the challenge this way: "We've got a good bunch of guys that we can rely on to make changes and get me back out. That's a key thing. Not only are you racing on the track, but you're racing in the pits. The more changes you can get done, the better you will be."

Wolfe pointed out that he has just as many laps around Lake Erie Speedway as Kelly Moore or Andy Santerre. "I think it plays into my favor," he said. "It seems the tracks we've where gone that the other guys haven't been in a while we're closer to the top of the list. Most of the tracks we go to most of the other teams have a lot of experience."

Bryon Chew, who like Wolfe has yet to visit Busch North victory lane despite knocking on the door in 2002, agrees with that assessment. "I like to go to new tracks, I feel we're on an equal playing field," he declared.

Will the compound banks of Lake Erie Speedway indeed prove a level playing field, or will they tilt in the direction of one team or another? The answer will be revealed to thousands of fans and to the SPEED Channel cameras on Sunday, May 18, but a big part of the decision may really have come in the less visible, but no less competitive arena of practice 24 hours earlier.


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Drivers Paul Wolfe , Bryon Chew , Tommy Baldwin
Teams Tommy Baldwin Racing