Burlington native Kelsey Carpenter, 35, is no stranger to winning championships. Even before he captured the 360 Sprint Car season points championship at Skagit Speedway last season, Carpenter had won twice, back-to-back, in Sportsman Sprints.
But what last year confirmed for the veteran driver was that he can find success racing among faster cars and more experienced competition.
The breakthrough came during Carpenter's third year running with the 360s.
"Every year we have progressively gotten better," Carpenter said in a phone interview. "First year, we won one race. Second year, we won two. Last year we won three and should have won about five. Every year we have gotten better and better and have gained confidence."
Carpenter will look to follow his 2013 championship with another strong summer, as his title defense begins when the 60th Anniversary Season of Skagit Speedway racing gets underway at the three-tenth-mile, high-banked clay oval Saturday night, April 19, in Alger. Gates open at 5 p.m., and opening ceremonies begin at 7 p.m.
Carpenter was extremely consistent a year ago. He finished top 10 in each of the 10 feature races he entered, won three and had six top-five finishes.
It was season filled with dream-come-true moments for the driver who grew up marveling at the Skagit Speedway spectacle hoping he'd someday be competing under the lights.
"It's pretty crazy," Carpenter said. "Every once in a while I'll have a flashback of back before it all started. It's been a long, hard road to get here. I definitely appreciate it, and every time I get a win, I kind of go in a daze, like, 'Wow. I've spent a lot of years watching.'"
Carpenter finally got the chance to make his dream a reality when he compiled enough funds to begin racing at 21 years old. Since then he's spent each year logging laps and has used that track time to improve his driving skills.
"I don't know anything other than it takes time and it takes laps and experience," said Carpenter when asked what was most responsible for his breakthrough in the 360 class. "You can't go out there and relax. You have to be on it, and there are a lot of good drivers. Just to be competing and winning in that class is an honor to me. A lot of those guys are really talented."
Carpenter should have his hands full again this season with some big-name returners coupled with an infusion of new talent.
The Burlington driver isn't looking too far ahead or envisioning back-to-back titles in the 360 class quite yet. He's following a one-night, one-race approach.
"Last year we didn't say we need a championship," Carpenter said. "We just go week-to-week. Qualifying is a big thing to start in front. You don't always have to be No. 1, but if you finish high every week, toward the end of the year you'll be where you need to be."
Carpenter will have plenty of opportunities to face strong competition this year, and new to the 60th season at Skagit Speedway will be the Summer Thunder Series, which is a traveling series of eight shows with enhanced purses raced at both Skagit Speedway and Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma.
The annual Jim Raper Memorial Dirt Cup, featuring 410 Sprint Cars, is slated for June 26-28, 360 Nationals will be held July 25-26 and the speedway will also feature three firework shows, with the first being held on May 24.
"We are really excited," track owner and promoter Steve Beitler said in a phone interview. "It's been a long time, and we have really been busy, but we are ready to go."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
2014 SKAGIT SPEEDWAY RACE SEASON
Opening night: Saturday, April 19
Gates open: 5 p.m.
Racing Starts: 7 p.m.
Season highlights: Jim Raper Memorial Dirt Cup (June 26-28), Mid-Season Championships (July 5), 360 Summer Nationals (July 25-26)
More information: skagitspeedway.com
410 Sprints: Travis Jacobson
360 Sprints: Kelsey Carpenter
Sportsman Sprints: Steve Parker
Outlaw Tuners: Rick Young
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.