Today’s motorsports landscape has allowed for drivers as young as 15 to come out and compete for wins in series such as the ARCA Menards Series. These youngsters come to professional racing series with a lot of experience at the wheel of a racecar, in some cases they’ve been racing since they were four years old in quarter midgets and go-karts.
But that experience on the racetrack doesn’t always translate to a lot of life experience.
The young men and women who use the ARCA Menards Series as a steppingstone to a career in the upper levels of NASCAR get the opportunity to see a lot of Americana in places like Madison, Wisconsin, Springfield, Illinois, Toledo, Ohio and Newton, Iowa. But there are also trips to big cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, and this weekend, Chicago.
Christian Eckes will make his first appearance at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway in Thursday night’s Bounty 150, the opening race of a four-day weekend that also includes the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, the NASCAR XFINITY Series, and culminates with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday afternoon. Not only is it his first visit to Chicagoland Speedway, located southwest of the city in Joliet, but it’s also his first trip to the Chicagoland area in general.
While it’s his first time there, he will have some top-notch guidance on places to see. Especially when it comes to food. His team owners, Bill and Cathy Venturini and their son Billy Venturini, are Chicago natives and know the landscape very well. They’ve already given Eckes a heads-up on some food choices while he’s in the area.
“I haven’t been to Chicago before,” he said. “It’s rich in history for the Venturini family. I keep hearing about this deep-dish pizza. Apparently deep-dish pizza isn’t Chicago pizza. I guess it’s something different so I need to try both and figure it out. We’re only there for one night so I will have to listen to the advice I got from the Venturinis and hope it pays off. You don’t know all about all of their food choices, but you have to take the words of the experts on this one.”
With a long day of activity at the speedway – the ARCA teams will practice, qualify, and race all on the same day – that doesn’t leave a lot of time to play tourist. But Eckes would like to find the time to see some of the sights the city has to offer.
“I wish we had more time to go out and spend some more time in the city,” he said. “For the most part it’s hard to go see the scenes of whatever city we are in. At the very least we’ll go have a good time with the team and go out to dinner but sometimes that’s it. I’d like to go into town and see some of the buildings, go see the lake, go to Navy Pier and all of that. But at the same time we need to stay focused on why we’re here.”
Eckes is there to win the Bounty 150, but there’s also some big picture goals in play. Eckes led the ARCA Menards Series standings earlier in the season but missed the third race of the season at Salem Speedway due to illness. That dug him into a deep points hole, but he and his Kevin Reed-led team are still in the thick of the battle. With a win at Nashville already in their pocket, they know they win races but there have been some hiccups to overcome that they’d like to eliminate over the second half of the season.
“The biggest thing for the next half of the season is to start putting races together. We have had the speed we have just lacked in execution. Whether it’s mechanical failures or me dialing out the car, we need to execute better.”
While Eckes, just 18 years of age, is like most teenagers as he starts to gain that life experience, he does have years of racing experience under his belt. He’s won several major short track races, including the famed Snowball Derby and the Myrtle Beach 400. His late model wins came while driving for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s JR Motorsports organization, and he now races part-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander Trucks.
Eckes has taken some important lessons from both owners.
“Both owners, Dale and Kyle, were very passionate even with the late models,” he said. “I think Kyle is a little more tense, for sure, but that’s the good thing about him. He demands excellence. He said it the other day, if you can win in those trucks you don’t deserve to be there. Kyle has a little more fire to light under you and that’s a very good thing.”
Like Busch, Eckes is confident in his abilities behind the wheel and believes there are many more wins – both in the ARCA Menards Series and the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series – to come this season.
“I am pretty confident in my abilities,” he said. “I thought there were one or two races last year we had a shot to win. I completely agree with him, if you make the right moves you should have no problem winning. There are a lot of race tracks we’re going to where they have excelled at and tracks I have excelled at and we should be able to go and race for some wins. I’ve never raced at Chicagoland before but Venturini Motorsports has a lot of experience there. They always bring good cars. I can’t wait to get there and see how we do.”
Practice at Chicagoland Speedway is set for 1 pm ET/12 noon CT, with General Tire Pole Qualifying set for 5:35 pm ET/4:35 pm CT. The Bounty 150 will take the green flag shortly after 8 pm ET/7 pm CT and will be televised live flag-to-flag on FS1. ARCA for Me members can access free live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live chat at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. Discounted tickets are available at nearly 75 Chicagoland-area Menards locations for just $10. For more information, visit ChicagolandSpeedway.com.