Mason Mitchell Motorsports eyes ARCA owner’s championship, driver development for 2017

Mason Mitchell Motorsports

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Mason Mitchell Motorsports (MMM) quickly established themselves as legitimate contenders in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards when they earned both a drivers and owners championship in their 2014 debut.

Now entering their fourth season in 2017, the organization has their sights set on becoming the de facto best team in the paddock.

“This year is going to be a little bit of a transition and growing year, and even a little bit of a re-establishment year,” team owner Mason Mitchell told Kickin’ the Tires. “I know that might sounds a little weird, but I feel like we aren’t considered the top team out there right now, and I want to be that top team.”

The past few seasons have gone well for MMM. If their results appear underwhelming at first glance, it’s solely due to the tremendous success the organization found in their debut.

After earning an ARCA championship in 2014, Mitchell stepped aside from full-time driving duties going into 2015, opening MMM’s No. 98 Chevrolet up for driver development opportunities. Upcoming prospect Austin Wayne Self took advantage of the availability, making the jump from Cunningham Motorsports to compete full-time for the team.

MMM combined to claim three wins that year, with Self earning his first-career triumph at Winchester Speedway and Mitchell notching victories at Iowa Speedway and Kansas Speedway. Grant Enfinger ultimately ran away with the title, but Self finished a respectable second in the series standings.

Self parted ways with the team in 2016 to move up to the Camping World Truck Series, leaving MMM’s No. 98 to field a full-time driver development ride to a host of different prospects, with potential second and third options available for companion weekends with NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.

In their third year MMM continued to enjoy modest success, winning two races with Gus Dean (Talladega Superspeedway) and Justin Haley (Springfield). However, the team again wasn’t as dominant as they’d been with Mitchell at the helm. The cars showed occasional bursts of speed, but nagging inconsistency issues kept them from contending for any championships.

Still, the Mooresville, N.C.-based team continued to fight and persevere, a feat that Mitchell attests to their work ethic.

“Honestly, I just think it’s a lot of grit, determination and being ruthless,” Mitchell explained as the cause of his team’s continued success. “I know those are three distinctive words, but everybody’s just put in a lot of time and effort. We’ve tried to surround ourselves with good people.”

Looking to continue to grow and improve, MMM made a few significant organizational changes over the offseason.

With Mason continuing to assume more duties with the team, father Russ Mitchell stepped down from the company’s leadership roles, allowing Mason and veteran crew chief Kevin Reed –one of those good people Mitchell was referring to in the above quote– to take over sole control of the team.

Mitchell oversees day-to-day operations at MMM with a focus on driver development, with Reed taking over competition operations, a move that Mitchell thinks will serve his team well.

“He (Reed) works well with drivers, sponsors and parents – he’s kind of the total package,” Mitchell said. “He and I work well together. We’re sharing the same office, so we talk all the time, tackle tasks together and go through adversity together. It’s been a big benefit to us to have him on board.

“He’s a huge asset to us because of what he can bring to the table. The most important thing I feel is that he brings performance. That’s what you need to stay relevant in this industry.”

With their internal operations set, MMM proved ready to compete. All they needed was a driver.

When the green flag waves to start Saturday’s season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, they’ll have three.

MMM only anticipates that they’ll use one car –the No. 98 Chevrolet– full-time in the coming season. However, with the spotlight of NASCAR companion races comes the potential to field additional drivers.

Such is the case this weekend, as Camping World Truck Series prospect Kaz Grala and recent late model standout Quin Houff join young 19-year-old ARCA shoe Kyle Weatherman to complete MMM’s three-car roster.

The lure of Daytona has brought Kaz Grala (pictured), Quin Houff and others to Saturday’s ARCA race. (Photo: Mason Mitchell Motorsports)

For Grala, who just turned 18 last Dec., a lack of history competing at super speedways and hope for a NASCAR career necessitates what will likely be his only ARCA start of the season.

“We’re considering possibly adding another one or two (races), but the main reason for running this ARCA race is just to get experience on a plate track,” Grala told Kickin’ the Tires. “I turned 18 just over a month ago, so I haven’t driven on any track bigger than a mile-and-a-quarter.

“I’m running full-time in the Truck Series with GMS Racing, so I’m trying to get some experience at a bigger track like this, and to get approval to compete from NASCAR. The ARCA race was a good fit this year.”

While Grala is using the race as a guaranteed stepping stone to another full-time drive, Houff prepares for what may be his only race of the season.

A native of Weyers Cave, Va., Houff made a name for himself in the CARS Super Late Model Tour from 2015-16, earning two victories and eight top fives in 17 starts for LFR Development Group. However, when the deal fell apart in the second half of 2016, Houff was left without a ride.

“Ever since the LFR deal fell through on us, we’ve been running on a race-to-race basis,” Houff told Kickin’ the Tires. “We’re trying to monitor what I’m doing and put me in the best positions that we can with what I’ve got.

“Right now, all forces and interest are in this one Daytona race. I’ve got high hopes for it, and we’re putting everything we have into it. We’re just hoping for a good result, and hopefully something comes out of it.”

For Grala and Houff, whose history comes primarily on short tracks and, in Grala’s case, on road courses, making their ARCA debuts at Daytona is a unique challenge.

However, for Weatherman, it’s a familiar step in what he hopes will be a successful year.

Though he sits at just 19 years old, Weatherman has a wealth of experience in ARCA, entering 2017 with 43-career starts including one win and a third-place run at Daytona just last season.

Given his teammates’ lack of restrictor plate experience, the Missourian also figures to be the organization’s best shot at a trip to victory lane on Saturday. However, for Weatherman this season is about much more than just Daytona.

After Lira Motorsports’ midseason collapse last year, Weatherman made a temporary two-race move to MMM. The resulting starts at Madison International Speedway and Winchester yielded his best runs of the season with finishes of second and third, respectively.

Now Weatherman’s back, and with a 10-race schedule that includes the majority of the NASCAR companion events, he hopes to catch the eye of the right owner somewhere along the way.

“We don’t have anything set in stone or anything, but obviously exposure-wise it’s just more important to run those races,” Weatherman told Kickin’ the Tires. “That’s why we’re here. Nothing’s set for our future, but NASCAR’s my main goal, my dream, so getting experience there is important to make it happen.

“Showing your skill on Cup tracks is more important than at a track like Salem (Speedway). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anything bad about Salem. It’s awesome, and I’m glad I’m going there, but it’s important to run good at big tracks to get your name out there.”

Weatherman hopes that with success he can secure funding to compete in the full ARCA tour.

“As long as we can find funding for it, the goal right now is to make that happen,” Weatherman said of a full-season run. “But funding may not allow for it. We’re just going to do everything we can to make it happen.”

With no official plans for the No. 98 team outside of Weatherman’s 10 announce starts, Mitchell wouldn’t rule out the possibility of fielding him for additional starts if the opportunity arose.

“We have a few different plans,” Mitchell said. “That’s one that we would love to have.

“It would be awesome to go out and win the driver’s championship again, but this sport is crazy with how sponsorships work, so we have multiple different avenues we’re approaching and looking at. We can kind of pull the trigger any time and do it, we just want to give everybody their respective time.”

Could those different plans include Mitchell himself?

As it turns out, the answer is no, at least not for more than one race.

“I’m honestly trying to focus on some other avenues as far as the Truck Series, XFINITY Series,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be in one ARCA race, and everybody can probably guess where that’s going to be.”

If Mitchell is to make a start, expect it to come at Iowa Speedway, his hometown track.

With uncertainty surrounding their full season plans, MMM has one true goal for the upcoming season: win the owner’s championship, hopefully with some victories along the way.

“The owner’s championship is the number one priority,” Mitchell said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for the team. It’s just as important as the driver’s championship, you just don’t get the huge PR side of it.”

And as for the organization’s long-term prospects, Mitchell intends for the time-being to keep his team’s focus on ARCA.

“Teams do it all the time, they go up to the Truck Series and run,” Mitchell said. “But they’re not competitive. I don’t want to do anything that I’m not competitive at. There’s no sense in me as a driver or owner running 25th every week.

“Right now we’re good at ARCA. We’re going to keep trying to get better, and if the right opportunity comes up, we’ll take it. But there’s not a deadline or anything we want to meet. It’s going to come at the right opportunity.”

MMM will get their first shot at victory lane in 2017 in this weekend’s Lucas Oil Complete Engine Treatment 200 Driven by General Tire.

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