Originally created 02/10/00

Evans man enjoys Daytona



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Ahlbrandt has seen the view from one of the posh grandstand seats at the Daytona International Speedway. Now he's going to try it from the other side of the catch-fence.

The Evans car dealer was so anxious to be part of Speed Weeks 2000, he arrived two days before the first wave of stock cars hit the massive 2.5-mile raceway Tuesday morning.

"I'm so excited," he said as he nervously waited in line for credentials that allow him complete access to the garage area and pit road. "The last four years, all I've done is dream about going to Daytona. If you race, that's your dream."

Ahlbrandt is a car owner on the Goody's Dash Series, NASCAR's four-cylinder division that will kick off an 18-race season with its Super Bowl -- Saturday's 21st Discount Auto Parts 200.

If everything goes as planned, Ahlbrandt's car not only will qualify for one of 43 spots in the starting grid, but it also will run in the top 10 during the main event.

"A lot of people put everything they've got into this first race," said team driver Ricky Woodward. "If you do well in this race, you're set up for the rest of the year. If you lose a car or don't make the race, it can set you back for a whole year."

The Goody's Dash Series is where some of the stars of the Winston Cup Series got their starts. Michael Waltrip and Hut Stricklin are former champions of the four-cylinder division, and drivers such as Bobby Labonte, Phil Parsons, Davey Allison and Robert Pressley all got their starts in subcompact cars.

The series operates at a few of the same race tracks used by the sports' headliners, but Daytona is one of only three racing weekends the subcompact division shares the same raceway with the bigger, more popular Busch and Winston Cup Series cars.

Ahlbrandt, who owns American Auto Remarking in Augusta, says he hopes his driver is the next to grow bigger and better.

"There's a lot of sponsorship dollars out there, especially when you advance to the next level," the owner said. "If we can run a successful year in the Dash series, our goal is to do something like the Busch Series next year and someday move into Winston Cup. It takes a lot of money to run competitively in the Dash series. We've got sponsorship for Daytona, but we're still looking for the rest of the year. A good run at Daytona will help."

Ahlbrandt's American Motorsports Pontiac Sunfire will fly the colors of the Morris Museum of Art, Fort Discovery, Augusta Gardens and Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. The car also has an Augusta Convention and Tourism Bureau sticker.

The top teams in the Dash series need between $100,000 to $350,000 to be competitive, Ahlbrandt said. Busch Series teams, a support series that's a lot like baseball's Triple-A leagues, need more than $2 million a year to be competitive, while a top-flight Winston Cup Series team requires at least $7 million a season in financial backing.

Qualifying for the Discount Auto Parts 200 is today. The main event is scheduled for a 3 p.m. start Saturday.

For Woodward, the upcoming season is a second chance in NASCAR. He attempted to make the starting lineup for the 1989 Daytona 500 in a Winston Cup Series car. A crash in one of the 125-mile qualifying races, however, ended that dream.

A year earlier, he finished 22nd in an ARCA Series race at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

"These cars are a handful at Daytona," Woodward said. "The rack-and-pinion steering is really quick, and that's not necessarily good at Daytona with the way the cars move around in the draft. You really have to stay on top of the steering wheel and make sure you don't jerk the car around too much and get in trouble."

Woodward, who lives in Martinez, used the practice sessions leading up to Saturday's race as a cram session. He followed some of the series' top drivers, such as defending champion Robert Huffman and top-five drivers David Hutto, Ricky Bryant, B.J. Mackey and Jake Hobgood to learn their lines around the mammoth raceway.

"I've got a lot to learn," he said. "It's not real comfortable at these speeds, especially when you get in traffic and the air moves you around a lot. By the time the race comes around, though, I'll be all right."

Ahlbrandt originally hoped to be the team's driver, but a Legends Series crash nearly two years ago has him on the sidelines. He had back surgery in August, but his recovery may allow him only two or three Dash series starts late in the year as long as Woodward is a solid top-10 driver and doesn't destroy any of the three cars in the team's modest fleet.

"I used to be a drag racer, so it seems like I've been going to the races my whole life," Ahlbrandt said. "I tried to live with the pain (following the crash at Lanier), but I couldn't stand it. I still want to drive some day, but right now, I'm solidly behind my driver.

"This whole thing has been a thrill. The adrenalin is incredible. It's a feeling you only get from racing. Octane is more addictive than any other kind of drug I know. And the thing I've learned from this whole experience is you don't have to be the driver to feel the effect. That's why NASCAR packs them in the way it does. This is my first time at Daytona on the racing side of the catch-fence, and it's a thrill of a lifetime."

The view isn't bad, either.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.