BRISTOL, Tenn. – Not many 15-year-olds ever get the chance to compete at one of the toughest tracks in motorsports.
Sam Mayer is different. He knows the best part of the Bristol Motor Speedway experience.
The 15-year-old Wisconsin resident led every lap in Saturday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Zombie Auto 150 at BMS.
“I definitely came here wanting to win really bad,” Mayer said. “I felt like we had a car capable of winning, but I didn’t expect it to be like this at all.”
Mayer, who had not won in seven K&N starts before Saturday, fired some warning shots Friday by topping the speed charts in both practice sessions. He then shattered the track record in the Friday night qualifying session by posting a lap of 14.978 seconds at 128.107 mph.
Current Xfinity Series regular Noah Gragson set the old mark last April at 126.578 mph.
Former NHRA Pro Stock regular Tanner Gray, 19, joined Mayer on the front row in his Bristol debut, but the race outcome was never really in doubt.
“The car just came to me right away, and it never changed throughout the run,” Mayer said.
The most dramatic sequence came on the opening lap with a four-car incident on the frontstretch involving the cars of rookie Natalie Decker, Ruben Garcia, Gray and Riley Herbst.
After escaping that melee, Mayer dominated the action in his No. 51 GMS Racing Chevrolet until the mandated lap 51 break. By lap 140, Mayer had built almost a three car-length advantage.
For Mayer, the only mistake on the day came in his pre-race forecast.
“The race played out completely different than the way I thought it would,” Mayer said. “I thought it was going to be pretty solid on the top. But the top wasn’t there at all, it was pretty much all on the bottom.
“It was really good on the bottom, but once you got out of the groove to pass lapped cars you really had to feather the throttle and be easy into the corner.”
K&N Pro Series East regulars Chase Cabre and Brandon McReynolds finished behind Mayer.
“This was by far the best run we’ve ever had at Bristol,” Cabre said. “I’ve had a lot of bad luck and dumb moments here, but today was good.”
It was the second straight third-place K&N effort for McReynolds, son of former NASCAR Cup crew chief and current Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds.
“I was a little disappointed with how far we got behind in practice Friday. But to come home in third and to keep all the fenders on it, especially when you only have one car in the shop, is good,” McReynolds said.
Rookie Drew Dollar and Spencer Davis rounded out the top five, with Gray settling for 10th.
The 19-car field featured some of the top young prospects in the sport, including 17-year-old Haile Deegan from Temecula, California. Freestyle motocross legend Brian Deegan was in the pits to watch his daughter. Deegan was forced to start from the back of the field after her car blew an engine in Friday’s final practice session.
While most drivers stuck to the bottom of the track in the early part of the race, Deegan dared to venture to the upper groove where she executed many passes en route to joining the lead pack.
Deegan finished 16th and 37 laps off the pace after her No. 19 Bill McAnally Racing Toyota was damaged in an incident with the car driven by rookie Brittney Zamora.
The only drama for Mayer came in Victory Lane.
“Thunder Valley is one of the coolest places on the planet,” Mayer said. “To come out here and win like this means a lot.”
So was Mayer able to drive home after realizing a dream of many teenaged racers?
Well, not exactly.
“I do have my learner’s permit,” Mayer said.