Before setting out two seasons ago to start his own team, Frank Kimmel utterly dominated the ARCA Racing Series, winning eight consecutive championships and becoming the first series regular ever invited to participate in the International Race of Champions. Can 2010 be the year he makes it back to the top? Kimmel sat down with Frontstretch‘s Bryan Davis Keith to discuss just that, taking time out at Palm Beach recently to discuss the No. 44 team’s 2010 campaign.
Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: It’s been a change with ARCA coming back to road racing. Now they’re going to two road races, and it sounds like from what we heard in the drivers’ meeting there’s going to be two for a while now. How much of an adjustment has it been for you to get back into road racing?
Frank Kimmel: It’s something I’ve never gotten to do a whole lot of over the years. The equipment’s gotten a lot better, the cars are a lot better, the brakes are a lot better, so the way you’re racing is a little bit different from what I did originally. Now you’ve got to race all day long, there’s good competition, a lot of cars that are running pretty fast. So it’s exciting to get back and race against some of the guys that do this all the time. [You get to] kind of pit yourself against them a bit.
Keith: It’s kind of interesting the way ARCA is starting the season. You start with a restrictor-plate race, now you’re on a road course. This is still a series whose bread and butter is short tracks, dirt tracks. Does it throw you off at all that you have two specialty races to start the season?
Kimmel: Well Daytona’s always been there, so that’s just something we’ve had to deal with. I think the biggest change is that we usually had a really big layoff after Daytona. We usually didn’t race until April, which was usually at Salem, so that gave us over a month, maybe a month and a half to get really prepared for the season. That’s made it a little bit tougher [this season] to get things ready to go. As far as where we go, it doesn’t matter. A racetrack’s a rac track, and it’s snowing like crazy at home, so….
Keith: You’ve been with your own team a couple of years now, and haven’t quite gotten to the championship level with your organization. How close are you to getting back to the level you were at with Tri-State Motorsports in the No. 46 car?
Kimmel: We’ve still got a little ways to go. The team has definitely picked up a little steam this winter. I think our equipment has gotten better. I think the last part of last season helped us a lot: our cars got faster and became more competitive. We really weren’t competitive I felt like almost the entire season last year. We were a second-tier car, but were not with the top notch teams we saw last year. I think we haven’t shown it yet. This is a place where we won’t be the guy to beat, but by the time we get back to Salem and such we can start getting back to a very competitive level and try to win some races. If we can get to that point, then we can start worrying about the championship.
Keith: ARCA has been in the spotlight a bit because Danica Patrick was in the field at Daytona, a spotlight the series never really has been in before. As an ARCA regular, what kind of impact did that have on you?
Kimmel: I think it was great for the series. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a great race. It was an OK race, but it wasn’t great. As it turned out [though], it was probably the second-best race of Speedweeks, because the other divisions had troubles too. It was great having her here. And I think she should be here right now. I think if she really wants to do stock car racing, this [Palm Beach] would have been a great venue for her to come to and drive one of these heavy cars in a lot more familiar area that she’d actually be used to. I think it’s terrible the way she gets hounded, but it’s good for the series that she brings so much attention to it.
Keith: One of the things that brought attention to the series in a negative light was that we had a lot of wrecks in the race at Daytona. There were some writers that were highly critical of ARCA’s licensing process. What would you say to a critic that would say maybe ARCA shouldn’t be at a place like Daytona, or on a road course with rain tires?
Kimmel: Well, should ARCA be there? Absolutely. Should ARCA rethink some of the ways they choose to let people come race with us? Absolutely, they should too. I’ve actually had some conversations with Ron Drager [ARCA President] about just that, because I think sometimes we allow people to come race, be they old, young or middle-aged, whatever, that probably should be required to run some short-track races before they do this [plate race]. Not for a road course, a road course is a completely different place, but especially for places like Daytona, and maybe even a place like Kansas or Chicago where the speeds are so fast. The problem is that it’s a double-edged sword. Equipment became very readily available a couple years ago when the Cup Series went to the CoT car. [Then], anybody could buy a pretty much top-of-the-line ARCA car very quickly, so that’s made it where someone can go out and get a race car that will run up front pretty easily. So it’s made it more difficult for regulars like myself, but I think ARCA should rethink how they’re letting some of these people come in. Some of those wrecks [at Daytona] were just not called for.
Keith: Speaking of equipment, ARCA announced they’re going to allow the 105-inch wheelbase at some tracks in addition to the 110. You’ve obviously been in the 110 for a while, but what approach is your team going to take for competing with a 105? Are you considering running it yourself?
Kimmel: I think eventually we’ll start moving that way a little bit. Right now, I think the 110 still has a bit of an advantage with the way the rules are laid out. Until that’s proven to be different, we’ll wait and see. But some of the bodies the 105s will have that are racing this year are probably better than some of the bodies we can get a hold of now. So it remains to be seen how that’s going to factor in. They’re not allowing them on a superspeedway yet, so I don’t think that’s a big issue. But a place like here and short tracks, I think the 105 may have a little bit of an advantage. Places like Kansas and Chicago, I don’t think it does. It just remains to be seen how they’ll start filtering them in.
Keith: You’ve got a real strong track coming up at Salem, but after that you’re going to Texas, where the ARCA Series hasn’t been for a while, and then another crapshoot at Talladega. Is there any concern as you’re trying to make a championship run that the tracks historically that have been your bread and butter [are those] we won’t get to until the summer?
Kimmel: Not really. I think if you give up a little bit at the beginning, you’ve just got to be stronger at the end. The history has been about three-quarters of the way through the season we’ve gotten stronger as a team, just like last season. I honestly feel like we should be able to go to Texas and run very well. I sat on the pole there the first time ARCA went there, and was leading, coming back to the lead, and I got spun. That track’s good for us, we know it’s going to be a fast place. Then you go back to Talladega. We hurt our Daytona car pretty badly, to the point it won’t be prepared for Talladega, so we’ll use our backup car, which was a very good car last year. That’s just throwing finishes up in the air, and how they land is how they land, we’ll just go from there. Again, it’s fair for everybody. Everyone has to deal with the same thing, and I have as much experience as anybody, so we should be OK.
Keith: You have been here a long time. You are the figure in the garage here. Looking forward to 2010 and beyond, what challenges do you see for the ARCA Series, and what should fans be excited about down the road?
Kimmel: I think the biggest challenge for all of us is money. And ARCA’s no different than any other business, it’s struggling right now with the way the economy is. But Ron Drager and his staff are well-versed in dealing with that. Over the years, I think you see that things go in waves. Things start picking up, and you starting seeing sponsors, money, and cars. We’ve had very large fields a lot of times. But we’re on a down spiral a little bit, and I think they’re going to have to really battle that and understand what it takes the racers to get here and what it takes us to run with engine bills and such. [They need to] look at the whole picture, and try to help us as much as they can. I don’t think Ron has his head buried in the sand. I think he understands that there are some issues. The challenge for us is to keep our two sponsors, Menards and Ansell, happy. [We need to] do the best we can for them, and get them all the exposure and treat their customers the best that we can.
Keith: ARCA, like all stock car series, is in a downward spiral – even NASCAR’s having trouble. Is there anything you can point to that ARCA’s doing different from NASCAR, in a good or bad way, to make it easier for competitors like yourself?
Kimmel: Our tire bills are ridiculously high, the cost of travel is expensive for everybody… but as a series, I think they have something that the other series don’t offer right now and that’s a very inexpensive ticket to watch a good race. I think that we can prosper during these times. Instead of going to see the $125 a ticket Cup race, let’s go over to Salem and spend $15 or $20 and watch a great short-track race. I think our short-track schedule should be very strong this year, and I hope to see big crowds for all the short tracks. And Springfield, DuQuoin, with the fairs right around there I can see them doing very well. Sometimes in this economy, just like the housing market, the big high-end houses aren’t selling very well right now, but the lower-end houses are. Hopefully that will help us.