When Neal Williams won the DIRTcar Nationals big-block Modified finale on Saturday night a year ago at Volusia Speedway Park he shocked everyone including himself. A victory on any four of the nights this week at the Nationals won’t come as a surprise to as many people, especially the driver from Pittsgrove, N.J.
“It was definitely a big surprise,” said Williams of last year’s $5,000 victory, “but at the same time I wasn’t surprised that it happened either. I’ve been going down there for several years and had some notes. The fact that I went back for the second year with the same car helped. We had gotten progressively better every night. I think that played a huge factor in our victory on the last night.”
Williams, who was starting just his third year behind the wheel of a Modified, opened last year’s winter series with disappointing 15th and 17th place finishes. Those runs, however, were not a good judge of how fast his Fred Vahlsing-owned No. 323ov was.
“Everything was the same on the car as the year before,” said Williams. “Same car (Troyer Chassis) and same engine set-up. I had some really good notes from the year before. Not racing on Hoosiers (tires) often, we were playing around and stumbled onto something. We were scaling the car every morning and we kept tweaking on it. Every day we were passing more and more cars. On Friday it was really good. I think we started 16th and finished seventh.”
The victory was the first for Williams against the stars of the Super DIRTcar Series, rated as the best in dirt Modified racing.
“There was a pretty nice cushion on Friday and I was just ‘railing’ that all night. We got the same track on Saturday so we made just one tweak and it was almost perfect.”
Behind Williams at the finish were veteran Modified drivers Danny Johnson, Billy Pauch, Tim Fuller, Canada’s Mario Clair and Brett Hearn. The win came on Hoosier tires. They are used regularly by the DIRTcar stars, while Williams competes weekly on American Racer tires. The 2015 Florida series was one of only two times that Williams competed on Hoosiers all year. The other was a trip to run the satellite races during Super DIRT Week in October. In those events, with a 358 Modified engine under the hood, Williams qualified for only one of the two shows and failed to post a top-five finish.
“I think that (Florida) win allowed me to turn to a different page in my career,” said Williams. “Every time I go on the track now I feel I’m capable of winning. We’ve got the best equipment, now I’m figuring out what I like and I’m filling up a notebook. Nobody is going to give you that information. They’ll give you a baseline, but you really have to hone in and find it yourself. I really think that’s something I was able to do this past year.”
The VSP win came in the week’s longest distance race, a 50 lapper, but Williams’ car never slowed down. During an early race lengthy red flag period, many drivers got out of their race cars. Williams never left the cockpit. “The car was so good I never got out of my car,” said Williams. “I was ‘zoned in’. I didn’t move. Others got out and walked around, but I stayed in. I knew this was going to be an awesome night.”
How right he was. While the car was good at the start, it only got better as the race progressed.
Williams does his own set-up work on the car. He’s assisted full time in the shop by former driver Jackie Helget. His dad is also always at the shop and the races with him.
“The set-up was something I came up with,” said Williams. “Towards the end of that season I started to learn a lot of things about the Troyer car that suited my style. Going into the event last year I felt I had a really good game plan. It took me a year to learn the Troyer car, but everything I was doing down there all week was working for me. Nothing we did was bad. It was just too good to be true.”
The DIRTcar win in February was not only a career best for him, it was a season best as well. The only other notable highlight was winning Bridgeport Speedway’s Poker Series with three Queens (three third place finishes).
“Even though I didn’t get a lot of wins during the season,” said Williams, “what started good in Florida carried over during the entire season. The notebook kept getting better and better.”
Racing weekly on Saturday nights at New Egypt Speedway is extremely important to Williams. Not only is the track his homebase, it’s also owned by his car owner.
Wanting to start his own race team, Vahlsing surprised many when he hired Williams to drive for him in 2013. Williams was a top runner in the Crate Sportsman division at N.J.’s Bridgeport Speedway with little experience at New Egypt. As a rookie that season in New Egypt’s headline 358 Modified division, Williams won a feature and finished fifth in points. He’s not won a Modified feature at the track since and dropped to 10th in the standings in his sophomore season. Last year he struggled early, before rallying to finish fifth in the standings.
For 2015, Williams, Jimmy Blewett and other drivers that race at New Egypt Speedway purchased a newer design Troyer TD2 chassis. While Ryan Godown won the track championship with a Troyer, those with the new chassis, including Williams, struggled.
“That definitely wasn’t the answer for us at New Egypt with sail panels and a small-block engine,” said Williams. “We switched back to last year’s car about eight races into the season. I don’t think I finished out of the top-five the rest of the season with the older TD1 chassis car. We were good all year, just was missing a little bit here and there. Some nights I had a car to win and it just didn’t happen.”
Williams will be returning to NES this season with a TD1 chassis the team purchased from Jimmy Blewett when he sold his dirt operation. He has hopes of challenging track super stars Ryan Godown and Billy Pauch for wins and the championship.
“I think we’ll have a really good chance of starting the season off strong at New Egypt,” said Williams. “It will be an entirely different playing field for us than last season, with a chassis we know.”
Williams will continue to race in Bridgeport’s special events, including their Poker Series, and he plans to be a regular on the Short Track Super Series in the South region. He’d also like to pick fast tracks that fit his style to again challenge the Super DIRTcar series racers during the summer at one or two of their point races.
“I’d like to hit a bit more Super DIRT Series races on tracks I think suit me,” said Williams. “Going to these tiny tracks isn’t what works for me right now. I’m trying to be a bit smarter in picking races at tracks that play into our hand, our notebook we have right now so we’re not just shooting into the dark.”
At New Egypt, Williams will again race in the track’s new wingless Sprint Car division, with cars powered by a Chevrolet Crate engine. Williams won often in the division last year, but their were as few as two or three cars some nights. By the end of the year the division grew to 10 and Williams believes their could be as many as 30 on opening night this season.
“I think there is going to be a really good field there this year which will make it so much tougher,” said Williams.
“I know it’s going to be more competitive, so we’re going to have to stay on top of that. It’s a different mindset for me than what I’m used to, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited to see what it brings.”
Williams has built eight cars for the Crate Sprint Car series in his shop. He’s also helped others who are putting their own cars together. “I’m excited to see what that series brings,” said Williams. “If there are 30 cars there at the opener it’s going to be unreal.”
Williams has already started his racing season and thus sharpened his driving skills by competing indoors with Vahlsing’s TQ Midget in Allentown, Pa. and Atlantic City, N.J. After returning from Florida he’ll complete that three race series racing two nights in Trenton, N.J.’s Sun Bank Center on February 26 and 27. New Egypt Speedway then opens it’s season on Saturday, March 19th.
But first, Williams can’t wait to get back to Florida, and it’s just not for warmer temperatures. He hopes to leave the frozen north on Monday by air and once again enjoy the warmth of the south and a trip to victory lane.
“We’re excited,” said Williams. “We’re going back with the same chassis for the third straight year. We don’t run a big-block but a couple shows a year so the car is fresh. I think were real strong whenever we ran it last year. I put a lot of hours into scaling it to where it should be so I hope to come out of the box really strong on Wednesday.”
A second win at Volusia won’t surprise Williams a bit. In fact, he’s expecting to win, or at least challenge for a checkered flag.
“This trip I’m going back down there expecting to win,” said Williams. “From where I’m at as a driver, a fast momentum track like that fits my style right now. It caters to how I drive.”
Williams believes his team is stronger than ever. While he’s returning with the same equipment, he feels his Fox Shock program is better than ever thanks to a shock dyno that was purchased after his Florida win last year.
“I think the dyno has played a large part in letting me know what the car is doing,” said Williams. “When we came back from Volusia last year we went right to Bridgeport for a race and we were terrible. I made a couple changes in our program and got on the shock dyno. I understood what each corner was doing. It really took us to a different level.”
Many of the super stars of Dirt Modified racing have been competing for 20, 30 or more years. Williams is starting his fourth year.
“I’m still learning,” said Williams. “It’s tough when you’re young and you’re trying to do this yourself. But once you can grasp one and see improvement with the data and how you apply it things begin to snowball and you do a lot better.”