During Watkins Glen test, Cato’s Regan Smith looks forward to coming home, making progress

July 27, 2016 GMT

WATKINS GLEN — Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, visits with friends and family and turning around his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

That’s what Cato native Regan Smith looks forward to when he returns to Watkins Glen International in a couple of weeks for the NASCAR racing weekend with his No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing team.

Smith’s Chevrolet SS is typically adorned in the logos of his sponsors — Nikko RC/Toy State being his main one — but on Tuesday it hit the track at Watkins Glen in all black with a No. 7NY stylized to honor team owner Tommy Baldwin’s late father, Tom, a NASCAR modified series racer.

Along with about 16 other drivers, Smith arrived at the 2.45-mile road course to test both his racecar and the surface after the track completed a repaving project earlier this year.

“As a small team, we don’t get to test a lot, so we try to — since we are here — take advantage of that,” Smith said in his garage stall as the crew worked on the car after he ran a few laps on the track. “This is a place, obviously, that means a lot to me, means a lot to Tommy. I’ve had some success here, so we thought it would be a good test for us to come be a part of.”

With the surface being repaved, he said, the track can change how the cars feel to the drivers, so they want to come out to make sure they know what to expect before returning for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen on Aug. 7.

“They did a really nice job with this pavement,” Smith said. “I don’t know what they used or how they did it or what they did, but it feels like the Glen has always felt like. ... The character of the racetrack and how you drive around it is very similar.”

A repaved track also changes how the tires react, and Smith echoed the good reviews that his fellow drivers gave Goodyear for the tires it supplied during a tire test at Watkins Glen a few months ago.

“It doesn’t really slip and slide like you sometimes fight with on repaves,” he said. “Repaves have a lot of oil coming up through, and the asphalt does a lot of weird stuff. It seems like it’s gripping pretty well, and I don’t know that anybody’s having any problems with it.”

Except for a few organizational tests throughout the year such as the one at Watkins Glen in which one driver from each team gets to participate, NASCAR bans testing in an attempt to level the playing field across its teams.

That means small teams such as TBR use the tests as an extra practice session of sorts, and Smith said he and his crew can pick up things even at a road course such as Watkins Glen that can help them on the oval tracks.

“We try to learn as much has we can while we’re here,” he said. “We can learn stuff here that will help us other places, too. ... We can learn about how our car responds to certain changes maybe that we’ve done throughout the course of the year.”

Fans watching the end of Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway saw Tony Stewart — an Indiana native — circle the track after the race in a salute to the fans in his final race at his home track.

Smith said coming to Watkins Glen provides “that same feeling for me.”

“I grew up watching races here and sitting over in turn six over there in the stands,” he said. “I always liked coming here, anyway, just because it’s a fun track to drive. I enjoy driving this racetrack. You throw in that it’s your home track, it makes it a little more special.”

Racing in the Xfinity Series last year for JR Motorsports, Smith won at the 2.258 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — one of three road courses that series runs, along with Watkins Glen and Road America in Wisconsin — and said he felt he could have won at Watkins Glen and any of the nine road races he competed in in the past three years running the full Xfinity schedule.

Smith said he would not have felt that way several years ago when he started out in his NASCAR career, but he “went to work pretty hard” on road courses and even sought advice from Ron Fellows and Boris Said, sports car racers known for their appearances at NASCAR road races.

“When you reach out to those guys and they start teaching you some of their tricks, you use them and they work and you go back and ask them another one and you use that and it works,” Smith said. “I’m not much into rating myself, but I’m very proud of my road course racing abilities.”

And when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen in a couple of weeks, Smith hopes to use those abilities to boost the No. 7 car’s standing in his first year driving for TBR.

Smith said he felt impressed with the improvements the team made in the first three months of the season, but then it hit a lull about two months ago and started struggling things that it just couldn’t figure out.

Then, at Indianapolis, he said the team finally hit on something that it hopes can help it through the rest of the summer and into the final 10 races.

“If we can take what we learn there and continue to build on that, then I’ll feel good about where we are seven, eight weeks from now,” he said. “We need to step up a little bit. We need to do just a little bit better based on how we started off the year and where I thought we’d be at that point.”

Smith and the TBR team will look to step it up when they arrive at Watkins Glen — but they also hope to relish the people and the food while they are there.

“I look forward to coming here and hanging out with all the fans at the Glen,” he said. “I don’t know how much family I’ll get to see ... but if I do get some spare time, (I’m) going to see some family, and I always try to sneak in a little Dinosaur Bar-B-Que if it’s in the cards.”