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Published: Wednesday, 2/9/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

ARCA stays true to blue-collar roots

59th season starts Saturday at Daytona International

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The 2011 racing schedule will rev up with the ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.

It will be the start of the 59th season for the Toledo-area based series, and a lot has changed since the Automobile Racing Club of America founder John Marcum started putting stock car races together.

The drivers have gotten younger, the technology has grown much more complex, and the competition in the marketplace is more intense than ever.

But for ARCA, some essential aspects remain as locked in granite as the foundation of the series. The cars still go fast, make lots of noise, and the folks behind the wheel usually put on a show. And ARCA stays loyal to its identity.

"We're not trying to be the Sprint Cup Series or the Nationwide Series or anything else, because that's not who we are," said Ron Drager, ARCA's president and the grandson of founder Marcum. "Our series is well known as a place for people that work hard for a living, and race because they love it."

If this were a collection of artists and not racer car drivers, they would be called eclectic. ARCA's events have been a showcase for diversity, long before that became a keyword in the vernacular.

Through the course of the season, ARCA races will attract entrants who are full-time racers as well as those who compete in just a single event. There will be well-funded developmental drivers affiliated with powerhouse teams such as Penske and Hendrick, and drivers who work all week in the plant so they can pay their own way.

There are graybeards and there are kids in their teens who have never shaved. There are up-and-comers seeking to move into NASCAR, and those whose careers at the top of the stock car food chain have started to wane.

It's also racing without borders -- the ARCA event at Daytona this week has attracted entries from Quebec, Venezuela, and Brazil.

The series will make two stops in Toledo this season, in May and October, and also visit Michigan International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Pocono Raceway, as well as more than a dozen other varied racing venues. Some of the events are stand-alone races, while others are part of a weekend of racing that is headlined by NASCAR races.

"That's a relationship that goes back to my grandfather and Bill France, Sr., back in the 1940s, racing on the beach in Daytona," Drager said, citing the close ties Marcum had with the founder of NASCAR. Often, ARCA serves as the final stepping stones for some drivers on the path to the NASCAR ranks.

"The fact that we've maintained that relationship for so long makes us feel like we're doing something right. I don't get the sense that 'what have you done for me lately' is what this is all about. It's about recognizing the big picture."

As a stubborn recession has made sponsorship dollars tougher to cultivate or maintain, ARCA has moved from a long association with title sponsor RE/MAX to a growing affiliation with home improvement giant Menards. The circuit's official 2011 title is "The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards."

"Menards has provided us with the opportunity to work with another well-known company. There's a big credibility factor there," Drager said. "Menards is very much a hard-working, do-it-yourself place, and that meshes very well with the way we do things."

Since it stages the first race of the 2011 season, ARCA gets to break in the pavement on Daytona's recently resurfaced 2.5 mile superspeedway.

Nine-time ARCA series champion Frank Kimmel is part of the field, as is Canadian driver Steve Arpin, who is energized about giving the new deck its baptism.

"One thing's for sure, being the first stock car race on the track, there's going to be a lot of eyes on us," said Arpin, who won three times on the ARCA circuit in 2010. "That makes it even more exciting. You take the bumps out, make it smooth like it is, and we're all going to feel like Superman out there."

Following Daytona, the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will race at Talladega and then Salem Speedway this spring before coming to Toledo Speedway on May 15. Drager said that ARCA, in keeping with its traditional business plan, will keep staging entertaining races, and leave most of the bells and whistles to others.

"Call us the little guy, the underdog or whatever, but I still believe that there's an affinity for that company, that business or that group of people that just grind it out," he said. "There are always the bright lights and the big city out there somewhere, and we aspire to that level, but when it comes down to it, we're just blue collar and grinding it out. And we're proud of that."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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