TOLEDO, Ohio – official release – It’s all one big learning curve for Hinckley, Ohio’s Matt Tifft.
In his first year at UNC Charlotte as a business major, he’s learning what it takes to excel at the collegiate level. As a rookie on the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards tour, he’s learning the business of big-time stock car racing. In looking over his recent result sheets, he’s accelerating his own learning curve in relatively short order, raising the bar along the way.
In fact, the 18-year-old driver is inching ever so closer to Victory Lane; and he nearly got there last week at Kentucky Speedway where he battled for the lead throughout the 150-mile race, ultimately finishing second right behind race winner Brennan Poole.
Tifft, who drives the No. 52 Federated Auto Parts Chevrolet for Ken Schrader Racing (when Schrader’s not in it) will get one more shot at the winner’s circle in 2014 when the ARCA 98.9 season finale at Kansas Speedway comes to life Friday night, October 3, live on FOX Sports 2.
Fortunately for Tifft, who’s never raced at Kansas, he got the opportunity to test on the 1.5-mile speedway beforehand.
“We got to test at Kansas, so I’ll be more comfortable going in,” Tifft said. “It’s similar to Chicagoland, and we ran third there, so I’m really looking forward to Kansas. But every track has its own characteristics and personality, so it’s helpful to get to know these places a little ahead of time.”
Tifft quickly found out that Kentucky, despite a similar layout to Chicagoland and Kansas, has its own ‘personality’.
“Kentucky is really cool; it’s bumpy, so it has that extra challenge. We did okay at Kentucky, so we should do really well at Kansas. Kansas has got quite a bit more grip and not nearly as bumpy as Kentucky.”
Outside of the open test at Kansas where he recorded the third fastest speed at 170.106 mph, Tifft has already familiarized himself with Kansas through the virtual online world.
“I watch a lot of old video. Whether it’s a previous Cup race, or an ARCA race, I learn quite a bit by just watching video. Some guys do iRacing, but I’m horrible at it, and I usually end up hitting the wall, and that doesn’t work in real life.
“There have been some big learning curves this year…my first year on these big tracks. You have to learn the limits pretty quickly. I know at Pocono in the test, I stabbed the gas too early coming out of (turn) one, and it jumped broadside on me, and that was only five laps into the session, so I definitely learned something. I picked it up in the wrong place on the track. I’m going to have to learn quickly at Kansas.”
Tifft is not afraid to seek the advice of some of the veterans on tour.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or get behind someone to see what they’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. I talked with Frank Kimmel before Pocono, and got a lot of great advice from him. I mean, he’s definitely a whole book of knowledge; I’d be crazy not to talk with him. Between him and Schrader, you can definitely soak in a lot of knowledge.”
Tifft also knows that there is no substitute for on-track experience.
“It helps to hear from the veterans for sure, but none of it really matters until you apply it on the track. I learned from racing at Pocono and Chicago that you can’t overwhelm yourself with too much information. Everything is so sensitive on the speedways. The slightest turn of the wheel will affect your direction. If you have one brain lapse, it can be pretty big at those tracks.”
No doubt Tifft feels pretty darn lucky to be driving for an icon like Schrader.
“It’s so cool (driving for Schrader); it’s definitely entertaining. He’s a great guy. As the owner of a race team he wants to win, so there’s a little pressure there. It’s not any pressure that he (Schrader) puts on me; it’s pressure I create for myself. Mr. Schrader is really patient and that helps so much, especially for me…being that I have such a huge learning curve. That can be challenging for a team when they’re working with a driver that’s still getting up to speed.”
Beyond Tifft’s aforementioned miscue at Pocono – his first superspeedway attempt – he found out how quickly the superspeedway world can bite during the race. He had driven up to third in the closing laps, and was challenging front-runners Kyle Larson (eventual winner) and Mason Mitchell when he was part of three-car crash in turn one.
“We restarted third and the 88 (Justin Allison) was stuck in fourth gear. It got all jumbled up for everyone. By the time it fanned out, here comes turn one, and we all found ourselves trying to buy the same space that was there, and we wrecked. It was just a racing deal,” Tifft said.
He replayed the video when he got home to see if he could learn from the experience.
“I watched the recording to help put the pieces together. I wanted to see if I could have done anything different. After watching it over and over, I decided that it really was one of those racing deals and that I didn’t do anything wrong. I learned that everything is situational, and what might be applied here will not necessarily work there.”