Two days after Todd Gilliland celebrated his 15th birthday, the Sherrills Ford resident’s sole objective in his ARCA debut was to complete the 200-lap race; instead, he shocked everyone and emerged with a victory.
Gilliland’s surprise performance at the Toledo (Ohio) Speedway made him the youngest driver ever to win an ARCA Racing Series event. Kyle Benjamin of Easley, S.C., previously held the record. He, too, was 15 when he won his first ARCA race, but he was just two months shy of his 16th birthday.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s probably the most emotional I have ever been at a racetrack,” NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland said about his son’s victory. “I’m obviously very proud of him. Racing is all he has ever known. It’s his passion. It’s all he wants to do.”
Todd admitted he was “kind of surprised” when he won the race and was “proud” of everyone who made it happen.
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In the final lap, “it was crazy because I definitely had to stay calm and not get overexcited,” Todd said, “because with the ARCA Series, even if you take the white flag, and the caution comes out, they do a green-and-white flag together and then the checker. I definitely couldn’t get excited until I saw the checkered flag and definitely crossed the finish line.”
The 15-year-old Gilliland’s opportunity with Concord-based Venturini Motorsports developed about a month before the event, when team co-owner and competition director Billy Venturini contacted Todd’s father. Venturini had watched the Liberty Preparatory Christian Academy student race numerous times at Hickory Motor Speedway but couldn’t put him in an ARCA car until he turned 15.
Once the two parties began discussions about Todd’s ARCA debut, three things had to take place for the deal to work.
It had to be at a race his father could attend, and it had to be after Todd’s 15th birthday. The Toledo race and NASCAR’s Sprint All-Star event were the same weekend but on different days. That met David’s criteria, and it was two days after Todd’s 15th birthday. Venturini also believed Toledo would be the ideal track for the young driver because it was similar to a handful of Southeastern tracks on which he had competed.
The team tested with Todd at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., before heading to Toledo for the Menards 200.
“I had high expectations when we went there,” Venturini said. “I did not expect him to win the race. One of the first things I told him was not to even think about winning the race; don’t even start to put that kind of pressure on yourself. Just think about running 200 laps. If we have something to race with, with 20 to go, then we’re going to run our butt off and see how good of a finish we can get.”
Completing the race distance also was the goal set before the event by Todd and his father. After all, Todd had never raced on radial tires or made a pit stop during an event. He later admitted the pit stops were the most “nerve-wracking” aspect of the race. However, they weren’t as hard as he expected because they were slower than he anticipated.
When Todd arrived at Toledo, he led Saturday’s practice session and qualified fifth. His dad told him to be patient and not to rush anything where his pit stops were concerned.
During the race’s later stages, Todd’s car sustained some cosmetic damage in a five-car accident, but that was quickly fixed by the Jeff McClure-led crew, and he restarted in the top 10. With 15 laps remaining, Todd was sixth. Using the patience he had exhibited throughout the event, he methodically drove to the front to take the lead for the first and final time on lap 197 of the 200-lap race.
“I definitely had to stay calm,” said Todd, who earlier this year won at Southern National Motorsports Park nearly Kenly for his first super late model victory.
Venturini admitted he kept a tight rein on Todd until 15 laps remained.
“You can’t just let a 15-year-old driver run the whole deal,” Venturini said. “He’s definitely a horse that wants to run, so we kept the reins tight on him up until the end. But even at that point, we were telling him to be smooth, hit your marks. We never gave him free rein. He’s too young to do that. You have to manage him properly, and that’s what we did. We made sure we got him in position to fight at the end of the race. He then just whipped their butts and drove like a veteran the last 15 laps.”
The Wednesday before the Coca-Cola 600, David was to meet with Venturini Motorsports about possibly scheduling more ARCA races for his son.
“He’s got the passion, the desire and the will to do it,” David said. “Our main goal is to get him aligned with a manufacturer and one of these bigger teams; hopefully, as a development driver.”
A third-generation driver, Todd said the victory wouldn’t change his game plan for the 2015 season. He will continue to race late models and, hopefully, make his NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut.
“Get more experience, gain everyone’s respect and, hopefully, move up,” Todd added.
The Gillilands build their super late model, NASCAR late model and K&N cars in their shop behind their Sherrills Ford home. Chris Lawson oversees Todd’s racing when his father is attending to his Sprint Cup duties.
McReynolds snares first NASCAR victory
Mooresville resident Brandon McReynolds received an early birthday present when he won the Casey’s General Store 150 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West race at Iowa Speedway. The driver for Bill McAnally Racing led twice for 22 laps, including the final eight. Charlotte’s William Byron led a race-high 128 laps and finished second. However, he also will be credited with a victory as the highest finishing NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver. It is the second win in four races for the 17-year-old Byron.
McReynolds’ first NASCAR victory came in his 34th career start. McReynolds is the son of former NASCAR crew chief and now FOX Sports analyst Larry McReynolds.
Line defeats teammate for win
Mooresville’s Jason Line defeated teammate Greg Anderson in the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway to score the 37th Pro Stock title of his NHRA career. It was the fourth all-Summit Racing Pro Stock final in Atlanta and the 24th time Line and Anderson have gone head-to-head for the title. Line, the event’s No. 1 qualifier, surged ahead for a 6.606-second, 211.33-mph victory over Anderson’s 8.628 at 114.39.
Wallace makes ARCA debut
Third-generation driver Matt Wallace finished 10th in his ARCA Series debut at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway in the Menards 200. The Concord resident is the son of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Mike Wallace. Earlier this year, the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College student recorded a victory, his first-ever pole and a fourth-place finish in the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing Pro Late Model standings at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway.
Deb Williams is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Deb? Email her at email@example.com.