That First Turn’s the Toughest

By Beacon Staff

He grips the steering wheel, black gloves stretched over white knuckles. The engine’s roar echoes in the bare metal of his racecar. His hands jar the wheel left; his body tenses up while rubber tires squeal on the asphalt below. He glances out of the side of his helmet, jockeying for position.

Suddenly he collides with another driver; his car begins to careen toward the concrete wall along the side of the track.

A seasoned racecar driver has been through this scenario countless times, but this is Ben Drent’s first race – ever.

His car’s front end crumples into the wall, metal screeching as cars slam against one another.

The smell of gasoline and hot rubber wafts in the air at Montana Raceway Park, a quarter-mile high bank oval racetrack tucked between Kalispell and Whitefish, where hours earlier Drent was hiding any hint of anxiety.

NASCAR’s popularity has helped to draw more drivers and fans to the sport, said Raceway Park co-owner and operator Marie AuClaire, especially newcomers like Drent.

Before the race flag dropped, Drent, tall and young with brown hair, stood at the end of a trailer sipping water. He wore bright red racing pants and a black T-shirt, his eyes fixed on the asphalt track before him.

The crew checked over the No. 13 car, a blue 1982 Mercury owned by Cody Wood’s Automotive Associates team, racing in its first season. Wood bought the car so his friends could drive it.

“Now explain this time trial to me,” Drent said to a friend. “Two laps as fast as I can, right?”

On the first lap, Drent skidded out. His friends laughed. Back in the pits, Levi Walter suggested, “Just let it go, baby.”

Another driver introduced himself, to which Drent responded, “I’ll try not to run into you.”

Woods knows it’s not the car, but the driver who wins races, and tonight a newbie would get behind the wheel.

“You can have all the car in the world, but not the experience and lose a race,” said Wood, who had already used two different drivers in three previous races.

Drent, a 2005 Flathead High School graduate along with Wood, has always enjoyed muscle cars. But it was Wood’s buying a car from his brother-in-law that got him hooked on the track.

The Mercury, which cost $5,000, is a perfect fit for the compact division, which is geared toward crews who lack the deep pockets of other race teams. It costs $35 in membership fees and $20 at the pit gate for each race.

Drent qualified for the main event, the final compact race of the night with 11 cars driving 25 laps.

Drent’s plan was an obvious one.

“I have to go in there and drive,” he said. “I am too new at this to have a strategy.”

He started in last place. A multiple car pileup near the starting line allowed him to pick up a few spots but he was forced to the back with a caution.

Around the first lap of the restart Drent wrecked.

His car’s nose hit the wall with such impact that the front bumper was nearly scraping the track.

Deep scrapes mottled the slightly buckled hood.

He turned his car around and kept driving, finishing ninth.

Back in the pits, Drent’s friends were waiting to greet him.

“Dude, you hit 6900 rpms,” Wood said looking at the gauge. “Thanks man, that was good entertainment.”

A fellow driver studied the damage. “Is that when you hit me or the two guys ahead of me?” he asked.

Drent was undaunted after the collision and his first experience as a racecar driver.

“It was a great time out there and I will race again if I have the opportunity.”

Raceway Park offers racing Saturday nights throughout the summer. Time trials begin at 6 p.m. with racing starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the gate.