In this age of youth over experience in NASCAR, teenagers make their debut in the sport’s Nationwide or Truck series all the time. But some first races are more special than others, not just for the hard work they’ve done to get to this point but for the people who’ve helped push them over the hump.
Before the AAA Insurance 200 at O’Reilly Raceway Park this past Friday, Frontstretch‘s Mike Neff found one such heartwarming story. He caught up with 18-year-old Nick Hoffman, who was on the verge of making his debut in the Camping World Truck Series for Mike Mittler. Mittler’s team, you might remember, is the same one that gave Carl Edwards his first ride in the Truck Series at Memphis eight years ago. How that old connection ultimately led to Hoffman’s debut this weekend highlights this edition of Beyond the Cockpit, as Mike sat down with the teen hours before his first career start.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: Welcome to Truck racing, brother. How were you in practice?
Nick Hoffman: We were good. We were just tight from the center off. Just had a bad hop in it, we’re trying to get the hop out. We really cured it perfect, but you’ll have that.
Neff: I understand you were able to do a little testing before you came up here.
Hoffman: Yeah. Wednesday, we went to Lebanon Speedway in Missouri and there we talked to Dale Roper, he’s won a lot of races there. He said that, in a truck, you’d need to run about a 16.0 to be really fast. We got down to the 15.8s by the end of the day, so we were really good there, but that place is pretty high-banked. So it was just getting a feel for the truck, not really tuning it for this racetrack. These things are so weird, how you drive them. I’m used to my dirt car, you just drive it off into the corner. These things, you have to drive slowly to be fast.
Neff: What, specifically, have you been driving?
Hoffman: I ran Jeremy Burnett’s late model three times at Caraway Speedway, and then I’ve been running all over the nation in a (dirt) modified. Two weeks ago, we ran a little Midwest swing. Ran Friday in Paducah, Ky., Pevely, Mo. Saturday and Sunday in Lincoln, Ill. Other than that, we’ve been running for points in the AMRA touring series. We’re sitting pretty good there; we’re like fourth or fifth in points. Just running for that; hopefully, this deal will come through a few more times, and we can get a couple more races in the truck.
Neff: Was that Midwest trip part of the DIRTcar Hell Tour?
Hoffman: Yeah, the Friday, Saturday, Sunday was all the Hell Tour. Friday was owned by Junior and Schrader (and Stewart) while Saturday was owned by Schrader at Pevely. I got to run against Ken Schrader on Saturday night.
Neff: Did you beat him?
Hoffman: No. His stuff is good!
Neff: I know you grew up in St. Louis. How long have you been living in North Carolina? Did you race in St. Louis when you were growing up before you moved?
Hoffman: I ran quarter midgets, mainly, when I lived in St. Louis. Then, when I moved to North Carolina I started racing bandoleros, legends cars, the Arena cars, and then the Allison Legacy Series.
Neff: You were the champion in the Arena Racing Series, weren’t you?
Hoffman: Yeah, we won that the first year.
Neff: The Allison cars are a lot like the Arena cars, aren’t they?
Hoffman: Yes, they’re just a lot bigger. They’re a quarter scale of a Cup car, and they have a kind of engine like a legends car.
Neff: They say legends cars are the hardest cars out there to drive. Do you agree with that?
Hoffman: I mean, they helped me a lot with throttle control and helped me a lot in getting ready for the dirt modifieds. But the dirt modified, you just have to hustle it so hard. My modified has about 850 horsepower, and it is only a 2,400-pound vehicle.
Neff: Let’s move on to the Truck deal. How’d this whole thing come together?
Hoffman: Well, Carl [Edwards] helped us get approved, and luckily we got approved pretty quickly. And Mike [Mittler] was willing to give me the shot, so we’re just going to have at it.
Neff: Is making it to the Cup Series your ultimate goal, or would you consider open-wheel if something came along there?
Hoffman: Y’know, [Cup] is every kid’s ultimate goal. Hopefully, I can kind of follow in Carl’s footsteps, do kind of the same thing he did and end up making it there.
Neff: So you guys are like family friends with Carl?
Hoffman: Yeah. He helps us out as much as he can, especially with this deal. He helped me out with talking to NASCAR about getting me approved to run this race. Everything came together pretty quickly. Anything I really need, he is there to help out when he can.
Neff: How did you meet up with him? Was it from your dad working on his truck?
Hoffman: Dad raced with him a little bit, but we didn’t really know him. Then dad was working with Mike Mittler, and he gave Carl a shot, so we became buddies and we hung out in St. Louis and stuff. Then we all decided to get up and move to North Carolina, and Carl needed a place to live. That was a time when he didn’t have anything but his car, so he came and lived with us for a month or two before he got his own place. He’s helped us ever since.
Hoffman ran a very clean race on Friday night, getting lapped early in the event and spending the rest of the race trying to get back onto the lead lap. He was battling with Donny Lia for the Lucky Dog position and running in 17th place when he pinched his truck off on the way into turn 1 and spun. His truck got stuck in the mud, and it took two laps for the safety crew to get him out and back onto the track. The team had to put old tires back on the truck and he battled those worn out tires the rest of the event, ultimately finishing 23rd, five laps down. It was a great learning experience and Hoffman handled himself very well, bringing the truck home with only a minor dent on the right front.
Hoffman’s father is Darrell Hoffman, a racer from St. Louis who works for Pro Motor Engines. He and Dennis Borem won the Clevite Engine Builders competition three years in a row and set the record in 2008 at 15 minutes and 59 seconds. Borem and Hoffman were asked not to come back this year, so two other members of the Pro Motor team took over and won the competition again.