The Rookie

By T.J. Buffenbarger

Gavin (l) working with his father Roger (r) and nephew Corbin (r) to fix mechanical gremlins. - File Photo

Fenton, MI — Rookie seasons for sprint car drivers are often memorable. Moments of progress, regression, broken equipment, mild success, and learning to travel up and down the road can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in someone’s racing career. Gavin Hunyady finds himself taking those lumps on the Engine Pro ASCS Sprints on Dirt presented by ARP tour this season.

After spending his youth racing flat track motorcycles on ice and several years of competition in asphalt modifieds, Hunyady, a 31 year old engineering graduate from Kettering University, became the quintessential working man racer fulfilling his dream partaking in his rookie year of sprint car racing. There is no pipe dream of becoming the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, there is only the desire to fulfill dreams conjured up as a child sitting in the stands at race tracks all over Michigan.

The dream comes to fruition…

Hunyady's wife Barbara pushing him to the staging area for a hot laps at I-96 Speedway. - Mudclodbob Photo

Hunyady’s racing career started down the same two wheeled path as his father Roger Hunyady and many others from the Flint area, racing motorcycles on ice. Hunyady’s four wheel racing began in earnest, by driving his father’s backup modified on pavement. Showing some promise, he continued down that road, but eventually started looking at other options.

“I’ve always loved sprint cars and always wanted to run one, but just thought that we couldn’t afford it or understand the cars,” said Hunyady. “Then I got burned out on modifieds and had just been in a deal where Chris Hettinger was driving a car for me, so working with him I learned more about sprints and midgets.”

After a couple of starts in a midget car and weighing his options Hunyady decided to go sprint car racing with the ASCS Sprints on Dirt.

“I got hooked on (Sprint Cars) right away and decided right then that was all I wanted to do. I didn’t really want to run a pavement winged car, USAC was out of the question, Midgets were too expensive for the amount of payback, and SOD just fell in between everything. They have a good payback, 360 engines, reasonable tires and rules matched with good competition regionally and nationally.”

Reigniting a passion for the cars he had seen in his youth, Hunyady slowly built up equipment and competed in six events in 2008. It was shortly thereafter that the decision was made to take a year off to build up knowledge and resources to make serious run in 2010.

The true rookie season…

Good Form
Showing good form at Crystal.

Hunyady started his first full season in sprint cars with his self funded team primarily assisted by his wife Barbara, his father, and whoever else could be roped into going to the races. Traveling from show to show with the team’s unique open trailer (Hunyady proclaims the open trailer is “old school”, more functional and looks cooler) has traveled to tracks from Ontario to Indiana, seeing many for the first time. The challenges have been multiple for the 31 year old rookie.

“The most challenging thing at first was getting laps. Coming from pavement where you get to the track at noon and practice all day long it’s easy to get laps and get comfortable. Here you just don’t have the chance to get that many laps to get comfortable. I have to get comfortable before I can start to learn and it really took me about five races this year to do it,” said Hunyady. “Once I got to that point it was a little easier, but I still make a lot of dumb mistakes. Now I can focus on that now instead of being all scared and uneasy because I never got enough laps in.”

Throughout the experience of being on the road racing has been good and bad for Hunyady. Struggling through the early part of the season things started to click following a brutal Ohio swing that Hunyady missed all three feature events. Broken parts became less frequent and top 10 finishes began to appear. From there Hunyady scored the first win of any kind during his racing career with a heat race win at Owendale Speedway and made his first appearance in the fast car dash. This was followed up by the first destroyed race car of his career after flipping into the catch fence at Kokomo Speedway, but Hunyady rallied to put together his backup car and was ready to go for the next event. Hunyady even picked up a nickname, “The Buick City Bullet”

Ironically Hunyady points out that some of the down moments rank right among the best as his favorites.

“The most fun I’ve ever had is either the first five laps at Kokomo where I passed five cars before stuffing it in the fence, winning my first heat race at Owendale, or getting to run in a 40+ car field with NRA or at the Summer Nationals.”

Through all the triumphs and tribulations Hunyady is one of only three teams to attend every race on the ASCS SOD tour and currently sits sixth in the point standings. Hunyady often refers humorously to his “epic” battle with all time ASCS SOD feature win leader Dustin Daggett and former ASCS SOD champion Dain Naida for fifth position in the point standings.

Family and friends contribute…

Post Crash
Rookies endure all kinds of firsts, sometimes that includes the first destroyed race car. Hunyady looks on as his handywork gets towed back to the pit area at Kokomo. - File Photo

For the working racer like Hunyady family can make or break the success of a season. This was never more evident when Hunyady had to leave for a work trip to Mexico the night after competing at I-96 Speedway. Hunyady would not return until 3:00 a.m. the morning of the next event at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, so his wife Barbara did all of the preparation work on the car.

“Normally my dad is a huge help at the track, but he doesn’t have a passport so he can’t get into Canada. It’s like being on the penalty-killing team as soon as we cross the border. We wouldn’t be able to run at all if it weren’t for Barbara and my Dad, Gibby and Mike.”

As the season concludes…

With one race left in the season Hunyady has considered his full tour of the ASCS SOD series an education for learning how to race at different places. Hunyady has continued to improve as the season wore on. At the Canadian Sprint Car Nationals he ran up front in the “little feature” that qualified one car to the main event and had promising runs at Crystal Motor Speedway and Ownedale Speedway late in the season.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to race in a series. Not so much points racing but attacking the schedule as a year and not as a race to race deal. In the modified it never meant anything to me to run for points or run just one place, so I was just a nomad. We went wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. With the modified the budget deal was pretty open. If we could afford to go someplace we wanted to go, we would. Now we know exactly when and where we will be someplace and how much money it will cost to compete that night.”

The feat of running the entire ASCS SOD Season was made even more impressive by not utilizing new tires during the entire campaign.

Greatest Hauler on Dirt
The Greatest Hauler on Dirt. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

“Then the whole budget deal is a completely new experience. I knew I couldn’t afford to put a tire on every night, so I spend a lot of time grinding and siping old tires and trying to find guys to buy decent used tires from. I haven’t bought but two new fronts all year. That’s a completely new thing for me. In the modified I was the guy buying new tires every three or four nights and selling the old ones, now I’m the guy trying to buy the old ones and make them work. Early in the season I probably wasn’t good enough to notice. Now I’m not sure if it’s holding me back or not. I can only afford what I can afford though, so we’ll have to make it work.”

Making it work is what Hunyady has accomplished. Even with the budget challenges, struggles learning the sprint car world, and traveling from track to track Hunyady never thinks twice about any decisions he made this year.

“I wish I could do it all over again! I really feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning each time out. Honestly though for the first time as a racer I really can’t wait to get back in the car.”