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Monday, May 11, 2015

A Lap Around the Track with NASCAR’s James Bickford: Tucson Speedway

Interstate Plastics sponsored James Bickford ended his third K&N Pro Series race with a sixth place finish at Tucson Speedway on May 2nd. On the rebound from his April 16th weekend at Irwindale Speedway, Team Bickford made a tremendous comeback at Tucson and climbed to the number six spot in overall series points.

Friday, May 1
5:00pm: James landed in Tucson on Friday afternoon and drove to the track. “[Our car was] pretty fast in the beginning but then got really, really…loose. It had no drive-off, which meant that the tires were spinning but there was no traction on the track.” James and his crew attempted to change the setup of the car to adapt to the track but failed to assess the underlying issue. He added, “We ended up finding out that the track was extremely abrasive and decided to change tires toward the end of the night and it made the car a lot better.”

Saturday, May 2: Race Day
8:00am: James woke up and drove from the Baymont Inn (in Tucson) to the track, ate breakfast and prepared for practice.

10:00am – 10:55am: After going though two sets of tires the previous evening, James was forced to essentially forfeit the first practice of the day. “We did everything we could to adhere to the setup of the track the night before, so we didn’t have any tires for the first practice…we had to sacrifice the first practice, basically, because there was no point driving on 100-lap-old tires.” He was able to run a few practice laps, but nothing more.

12:30pm – 1:30pm: For the second practice of the day, James and his team changed the tires to sticker tires and “…we were the third fastest on the track.”

4:15pm: James attended a mandatory NASCAR driver meeting. Following the meeting, he prepared for his qualifying race.

6:00pm – 6:45pm: “Qualifying was…one of the most interesting sessions I’ve ever done. Tucson is a really abrasive track, which means that the track is so used.” He clarified: “Have you ever been on the highway in the truck lane? And it’s really bumpy? That’s how the track is…They haven’t paved the track at Tucson in a really long time and it’s like sandpaper…which is very, very, very bad on tires.”

The abrasiveness of the track caused the cars to drive relatively slowly, and caused them to be what James refers to as ‘loose.’ James added: “It’s abrasive, it’s a three-groove track and it’s a short track [.375 miles]. So it had some really interesting components to it.” (A groove is a preferred line on the track, and drivers can run the bottom, middle or top lines.)

He added: “We started out running the bottom line. We thought it would be less abrasive because you’re taking a shorter distance around the track. Well…my crew chief was telling me on the radio that the faster line was on the top side…and our crew was set up for the bottom side… So before qualifying [My crew chief and I] were discussing, like: ‘What should we do? Maybe we should roll-the-dice and try the top side? Or, maybe we should we stick with the game plan and go with the bottom side?’”

“And right before I drove out, I made a decision and told my crew chief, ‘I’m gonna try the top side.’ I went out and did my best and we qualified fifth. If we would’ve gone out on the bottom side, we probably would’ve qualified outside the top 15. We took a big risk and it paid off.”

8:00pm: The NAPA Auto Parts Wildcat 150 race started. “The race was really, really interesting. It was a race of tire management…[W]e started running the top groove because we thought it saved tires. Everyone was shifting around the track…going fast, then slowing down because they went too hard…And we were kind of in the middle, bouncing around, going front to back, getting passed and passing cars. And it turns out that the bottom line was the fastest. We initially tried running the top line to try and save tires but it slowed us down and we went pretty far back...farther back than we wanted.”

According to James, the top groove was the best option in qualifying because the tires were new. When the tires are new you can push the car a lot further. When the tires get older, the shorter way around the track becomes the fastest. James said, “During the race we thought we could gain more momentum and save more tires on the top side, so I made a little bit of a mistake not listening to my crew chief and choosing the top side over the bottom side.” He then added, “And as soon as we moved to the bottom groove we moved up a bunch of positions and ended up finishing sixth.”

At the end of our interview James took a moment to reflect on his decision to ride the top line for the majority of the race: “The bottom line probably could’ve won us the race. So we’ll take our sixth place finish and move onto Iowa. We’re pretty good at Iowa. So I’m looking forward to it. And it’s also gonna be great because I’m now part of the NASCAR Next program.” Read all about James’ induction into the NASCAR Next program. James’ next adventure takes place on May 16th at Iowa Speedway in Newton Iowa. Get ready, Bickford fans!

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