Vermont Motorsports Magazine

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STUDY HALL: School In Session For Packard

Posted By Tj Ingerson On March 13, 2013

Categories: American-Canadian Tour | Regional | Thunder Road

Emily Packard has planned busy sophomore season in Late Model competition. (T.J. Ingerson/VMM photo)PHOTO: Emily Packard has planned busy sophomore season in Late Model competition. (T.J. Ingerson/VMM photo)

Crew Chief Woodward Helps Sophomore's Late Model Learning Curve

(From team press release)

When 16-year-old Late Model driver Emily Packard buckles into her race car, she might as well be settling into a chair in the front of a classroom at U-32 High School.

For the sophomore Late Model driver, who last year competed weekly at two different northern New England tracks and qualified for her very first ACT Late Model Tour race, she has a veteran presence atop her pit box coaching her through the ins and outs of competing in one of the region's most competitive stock car racing divisions. Five-time ACT champion crew chief Neal Woodward has been with Packard every step of the way.

“Neal is one of the smartest guys I've ever met, honestly,” said Packard, who was named the 2012 Vermont Motorsports Magazine Rookie of the Year. “He's always supported me. Having him at the track is huge, and having him here at the shop to work on the cars and get them right is a big deal, too. He knows what I want. Even when I'm at school, he's working on things to make the car the way I want it.

“Neal's kind of the guy that holds this whole thing together.”

Woodward, of Georgia, Vt., first began working with Packard more than four years ago, when she started in the Allison Legacy Series at 12 years old. For a crew chief who led Brian Hoar to his first five ACT championships and track qualifying records at both New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Woodward knew right off that he was seeing huge potential behind the wheel of the cars he was preparing.

“Certainly it has been frustrating at times,” Woodward said of working with a Late Model rookie last season. “I remember in the Allison Legacy cars, we were struggling and we'd put Nick (Sweet) in the car and he'd go out and destroy the field. Technically, that was frustrating – but I knew eventually, Emily would come around.”

That she did, particularly midway through last season.

The turning point came in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series race at Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., just days before the Vermont State Championship Late Model Series was set to kick off at the half-mile. Woodward said he saw a change in Emily that day as she took a liking to both the track and the car – finishing second to ACT champion Wayne Helliwell in her heat race. The confidence she gained there translated to the remainder of the summer and fall, as she turned in some of her best performances of the season, including strong runs in extra-distance events at Devil's Bowl, Airborne Speedway and her home track of Canaan Fair Speedway.

“The reward was probably a lot more, just because of that long waiting period,” Woodward said.

The team hopes to capitalize on its late-season momentum in 2013. They plan to return to Canaan to run for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship this year, as well as run a full weekly schedule at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vt. Packard will also attempt to run a few ACT Late Model Tour events in the No. 9x Northstar Fireworks/Fecteau Homes/ Shifter Karts Ford Fusion, beginning with the season-opening NH Governor's Cup 150 at Lee USA Speedway on April 14. New sponsors are also getting ready to come on board in time for the season opener.

The team bought a new Distance Racing chassis this winter with the belief that an upgrade in equipment will go hand-in-hand with a driver that gained invaluable experience last season.

“Obviously, we want to come out with a bang to start the year,” Packard said. “Having not one, but two cars that are up to date now, it feels really good. Hopefully we can put it all together.

“I'm still in a huge learning mode as a driver, and I'm going to be in a huge learning mode for years. But toward the end of the year last year, especially at Loudon, I knew that my car was holding me back. I could see the noses of the other cars at Loudon and the way they were right down on the track, and we weren't doing that. It was costing us. It was a little disappointing, but it was what we had.

“This year, we've put everything together for an entire season, and I can't wait to get going.”

Woodward is looking forward to seeing Packard continue to mature as a driver. While the focus last year was on seat time and delving into some of the premier Late Model events on the schedule – including Packard's debut in the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September – this year's efforts will be about seeing Packard become a better racer.

“The next step for Emily is just gaining a little more car control and confidence, and getting just that last little bit out of the car,” Woodward said. “That's what separates guys like Wayne (Helliwell), Brian (Hoar) and Nick (Sweet) from the rest.

“The more she's in the car, the better she's going to get. That's true with any driver. Brian would say the same thing, Wayne would say the same thing. Wayne was so good last year, but when you look at it, he was racing three times a week. It's a big part of it.”

And as soon as the season begins in mid-April, summer school will be back in session for Packard.