ROCKINGHAM — For 19-year-old Collin Fern, the half-mile practice track behind Rockingham Speedway is a lot different than the dirt tracks he’s used to racing on.
So was the car — a late-model Toyota formerly driven in the Sprint Cup series by J.J. Yeley.
Fern — from Norwich, New York — is more accustomed to being behind the wheel of something with a 4-cylinder , not a 350 cubic-inch 400 horsepower engine. This was also his first time driving on asphalt since 2012.
“I’ve only raced a couple of races,” he said. “I haven’t raced competitively in quite a while, so this is something new.”
The teenager said he was only 8 years old when the last Sprint Cup race was ran at “The Rock.”
“Just the history,” he began, “it’s kinda eerie — come out of the trees and there’s a big race track that hasn’t been run in a dozen years.”
To prepare for the track dubbed “Little Rock,” which is designed similar to Martinsville Speedway, Fern said he practiced on the iRacing.com simulator.
“I had no idea we were driving a Cup car today,” he said after seeing the machine at the speedway. “I was expecting a super late-model truck. That’s gonna show who has the talent and who doesn’t.
“It’s going to be a lot to handle,” he added. “Regardless, it’s going to a fun experience (because) not many people get to do it.”
Fern was one of three racers to have an evaluation with the Level 1 Motorsports driver development program on Sunday, the fourth test on the track since November.
“I started the program to give lower-level racers a chance to move up and maybe compete in NASCAR at some point,” said Level 1 founder James Martin. “But also to offer sponsors and marketing partners a lower cost and better value for motorsports sponsorship and advertising. The cost of racing has really gotten out of control and I am trying to bring a real-world, grassroots approach back to it.”
To become part of the program, drivers send in a description of their experience and are scheduled for an evaluation, where Martin and other industry veterans look for consistency in lap times, braking zones and throttle pickup points, among other things, including driver attitude and marketability.
The cost of the program is $1,200, which includes a marketing tips and tools session.
“This is a cool opportunity,” Fern said. “What they’re doing, making it affordable for everybody.”
Affordability is something Canadian Dylan King understands all too well, having to sell several cars just to stay in the game.
King is a service manager at a General Motors dealership in Gibsons, British Columbia, with experience in NHRA and drag racing.
He said he got into racing late, not starting until he got his driver’s license. After 11 years of drag racing, King said he wanted something different.
“It was really hard to get to the competitive level in drag racing,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to get into competitive racing, against a bunch of other guys, where you have to drive the vehicle.”
On his way to North Carolina, King stopped by Las Vegas Motor Speedway to try to get some track time in, but was rained out. He did, however, visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame — despite never having seen a NASCAR race.
Fern, and his friend Daylon Burr, managed to get a little racing in on Saturday at the GoPro Motorplex go-kart track in Mooresville.
According to Martin, King isn’t the only international racer to go through the program, becoming the third from Canada.
“We’ve had several guys from the west coast,” said Martin, “two guys from Australia.”
After the car was fueled up and taken for a test run by development driver Mark Davis, King crawled through the window to get behind the wheel for his first of two 20-lap runs.
As he made his way around the half-mile oval, Martin timed each lap and gave King tips as he neared the turns.
“It was incredible,” King said afterward. “It’s a lot different than going in a straight line. I wish I had a track like this in my backyard.”
While Martin was debriefing King in the car’s trailer, Davis helped Fern get buckled in for his evaluation.
“I think I’m more nervous than he is,” said Burr — a student at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina — who was there to take photos.
Burr, who is used to photographing dirt track races in the Northeast, is going into mechanical engineering and wants to be a crew chief.
The third driver was an active-duty special forces soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, who was there with his parents, wife and two children.
Being a go-kart driver for most of his life, he said this was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
Both Fern and King said coming out of turn No. 2 was the hardest — shortly before the soldier lost control and spun out on the back stretch.
“Everybody’s doing a really good job,” Martin said after all three drivers had completed their first runs. “The car’s in one piece — that’s the first part to a very good day.”
He said the first 20 laps were to get drivers acclimated to what’s going on.
“Are there any superstars here?” he asked. “Who knows?”
During the second set, the drivers’ speed increased and handling improved.
“It’s a world of difference between the first time you’re in the car and the second time you’re in the car,” said King. “You know what to expect, so you can push it a little bit.”
At the end of the day, the soldier had the fastest time, making two laps in a row at 26.63 seconds. Fern came in second at 26.83 followed by King at 27.06.
As a comparison, Martin said drivers qualifying at Martinsville would have to at least make it in 22.5.
“In a car with 300 less horsepower, that’s not too shabby,” he said, especially since none of the participants were used to driving that type of car.
King said he hopes he was good enough “that they’ll want to bring me in and train.”
He said it doesn’t matter if he winds up in NASCAR or ARCA.
“Anything where I get to drive a car like that,” he said. “Racing’s not only a job — it’s a life.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.