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The Sophomore Surge
2000 Rookie of the Year debuts at PPIR this weekend

click to enlarge Danny Mientka gets a quick patch-up job, a new tire and some duct tape, before finishing the race at CNS.  Photo courtesy of Martin Racing - JOE STARR
  • Joe Starr
  • Danny Mientka gets a quick patch-up job, a new tire and some duct tape, before finishing the race at CNS.
    Photo courtesy of Martin Racing

In the smaller echelons of racing, a certain camaraderie exists between less experienced race teams and rookie race teams. Due to the prohibitive expenses that are easily amassed, mechanics share parts; and because of the dangers inherent to the sport, drivers share advice.

"That's the thing about the racing community," says Colorado Springs' Danny Mientka, a late-model stock car driver. "You can raise your hand and ask a question and usually they're going to help you."

But this season Mientka and his Martin Racing team haven't been as privy to the secrets of other racing teams. "Now people aren't so eager to share secrets with us, but that's part of racing," Mientka said.

He's no rookie anymore. Instead he's the man no driver wants to see in the rear-view mirror. In just his second season of racing -- his first full-time racing season -- Mientka won the NASCAR weekly racing series Rookie of the Year title at Colorado National Speedway (CNS) in Erie.

"We were excited about going after the Rookie of the Year title," Mientka said. "We had people tell us, 'There's no way -- you've never raced on this track, you haven't done the modifieds, you haven't done the street stock.' But we didn't listen to them. We had a dream and we set out fulfilling it."

Mientka is hoping to parlay his 3/8 mile-track success into success on the 1-mile oval at Pikes Peak International Raceway May 19-20 when he competes in the Southwest Tour Featherlite late-model stock car series race.

Mientka got hooked on racing during a 1997 pilgrimage to the racing mecca known simply as the Brickyard at Indianapolis. He returned to the Springs infused with the dream to start a race team.

Initially, Mientka wanted to race in the NASCAR Winston West Series, which is a feeder league to NASCAR's premier Winston Cup Series. The sky was the limit. Then he came back down to earth. All racing is expensive, but NWWS was too much too soon for Mientka, a successful commercial real-estate agent, to commit to. NWWS cars cost about $85,000, compared to about half that for late-model stock car, and a NWWS team needs two or three cars set up specially to run on everything from short tracks to road courses and super speedways.

"You have to be realistic about it," Mientka said. "I think we started with really grandiose plans but finally gravitated back to reality. I will tell you, though, stepping into the late-model scene in Denver is a big step. We've now proven that we can be competitive, but it's a whole 'nother step to go to tour racing."

While crew chief and friend Greg Johnson set about assembling a team and building a car, Mientka honed his skills at no less than eight driving schools. Mientka compares racing to "high-speed ballet," but explains it thus in short: "You drive the back of the car with your butt and feet, and drive the front of the car with your eyes and hands."

Mientka raced five races at CNS in 1999, few enough to keep his rookie status in tact. He started rather ignominiously by crashing on the first lap of the first race.

"You can't imagine, when they turn the lights off on the pace car, your adrenaline goes through your head and your vision gets like a telescope. It's intense. It's like raining rubber off the back of these cars. It's the most thrilling thing you've ever done."

The adrenaline didn't subside with experience. Mientka still gets excited at the mere mention of going racing. The difference is that, when on track, he has learned to channel and focus his energy better. He credits his crew chief, who also acts as a spotter, with helping him relax behind the wheel.

"Greg actually talks me around every single lap, tells me where the traffic is, who's behind me, tells me whether I'm on my line or not on my line. I'm telling him what the car's doing. He's reassuring me. He reminds me to breathe once in a while. Sometimes you go around the track a few times and you aren't breathing. It's an exciting deal, but the key to it is to relax."

In 2000 Mientka finished 18 of 22 races at CNS and won a B-main event. He took ninth in season points on the track and beat out five other competitors for the Rookie of the Year title. He also took home the Sportsman of the Year trophy, while Johnson won the Crew Chief of the Year trophy. "We needed a wheelbarrow to get off the stage," Mientka said.

For this season's goals, Mientka wants another top-10 points finish in the weekly season at CNS. He will also race in the REMAX Challenge Series at PPIR in July. In the long term Mientka wants to run five SW Tour and five REMAX events in 2002 and 2003 before trying to make it full-time on the SW Tour in 2004.

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NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series

What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday. It's the oldest line in auto racing, but it's also a simple truth that has helped stock car racing grow into the billion-dollar industry it is today.

So, given the glycerin-clear benefit of hindsight, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series had to be a natural winner right from the start. Now in its sixth season, the NCTS -- at PPIR May 19-20 -- has become such a favorite of drivers, fans, sponsors and manufacturers alike, that it begs the question: What took it so long?

Here were Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge's most popular vehicle series, pickup trucks, and there was no way to market them in a motorsports setting, save for off-road races like the Baja 1,000, which attracts neither a large spectator nor a large television audience.

Then in 1995, NASCAR officials approached the Big Three about a racing series for pickup trucks on a national circuit. The manufacturers jumped on it. The Craftsman truck series was born and, if the series' rapid growth in popularity and rising truck sales are anything to go by, it will be around for a while.

Now in its sixth season, it is estimated that over 40 million viewers will tune into NCTS events on television this year. It is expected that over one million will attend truck series races in 2001. Not coincidentally, pickup trucks made by Ford, General Motors and Dodge have placed in the top 10 in overall sales year in and year out. Since the start of the Sport Utility Vehicle boom of the early '90s, pickup trucks are no longer just the iron workhorses of cowboys, farmers and construction workers. These days it's not uncommon to see a pinstriped professional, housewife or college student behind the wheel of a pickup truck.

-- RW


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capsule

NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour Series

Jelly Belly 200 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series

Sun State Equipment Company 100

Pikes Peak International Raceway, 16650 Midway Ranch Road

Sat.-Sun., May 19-20. Gates open at 8 a.m.

Tickets from $5 to $40 for one day; family and two-day packages also available. Call 888/306-7223, or visit ppir.com/speedway_highlights/tickets.

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