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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Of the drivers honored during the Grand Champions Awards Friday morning at the Charlotte Convention Center, none was more surprised to be a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state champion than New York's Amy Catalano.
Following a 2010 season littered by an absence of top-five finishes and an abundance of DNFs, Catalano roared through 2011. At Holland Speedway and Spencer Speedway in Williamson, Catalano scored five wins in 24 Modified starts and finished outside the top five only once.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Catalano, who joined Erica Thiering as women to earn a U.S. state or Canadian provincial championship this year in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Thiering claimed the Alberta championship with nine wins in 16 races at Edmonton International Raceway.
“Actually, I'm shocked we had a good year,” Catalano said. “We came off a real good year in '09, and then we got into 2010 and had an absolutely horrible year. In 2011, we hoped to turn it around and have at least some Top-5s.”
Catalano recognized the importance of being one of only two women to win championships this year at the state level, though she said winning the New York title probably meant the same to her as it did to any of the men who collected hardware this week.
“I hate to point myself out and say, 'I'm a female. I'm a woman. I'm racing,” Catalano said. “Truly, I like to be one of the guys. It's probably as big of a deal to me as it all to all of the guys. I think it's huge to have won the state championship.”
Thiering just completed her second year in Edmonton's Late Model division after three years in a four-cylinder class. She, too, said she was surprised to have had such an accelerated learning curve.
“I didn't think I'd do so well for my second year,” Thiering said. “I'm a really quick learner. Once I get the hang of it, I get the hang of it – and that's it.”
Thiering is working on advancing to the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in the next couple of seasons. She said that will be an adjustment, considering she's spent the last several years racing only at Edmonton.
Her familiarity with the race track has helped her find success on it, though it will present a new challenge when she's faced with learning new tracks week to week.
“I think it's easier (to race weekly at one track),” Thiering said. “I think over the long run it will be a little harder to try something new – but it's easier for right now. I know the track, I know it inch-by-inch, so I know what I need to do.”
She also has racing in her blood. Her father, she said, has three decades of experience on Canadian short tracks.
“It's my turn,” Thiering joked.
Like Thiering, family involvement is a big part of Catalano's career. Beginning in 2012, she will compete in the Modified division against both her husband and her son.
“Racing against family members is a lot of fun,” Catalano said. “Truly, out on the track – we talked about this last night – I think we all take it a little bit different. To me, myself, there's not a family member out there. There's not a friend out there. I'm all about me. When I race, it's all about me.
“It's a lot of fun, we have a lot of fun in the shop and a lot of laughs about racing against each other.”
TOP ROOKIE: In six month's time, Travis Braden went from no ride at all to an Ohio championship and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National Rookie of the Year presented by Jostens.
“We came a long way in such a short period of time, and that was just awesome,” said Braden, who competed at both Columbus Motor Speedway and Kil-Kare Speedway in Xenia. “To be here, I never expected anything like this. It's really cool. I can't thank my car owner and my whole team enough for everything they've done, and my parents, too.”
Braden proved a quick learner from Legend cars to Late Models, even after his debut at a test with his new team before the season didn't go according to plan.
“We started out the season, and I called (my car owner) in late February – never met him before in my life – because I heard he didn't have a driver,” the 17-year-old Braden said. “We went to Columbus to practice in mid-March. We went out for practice and just about totaled the car. I was going just a little bit too fast, lost control and hit the wall. I thought I destroyed it. I'm thinking, 'What does this mean? This could be my whole career just ... gone.'
“I was worried about what he was going to say. He came over and was like, 'OK, we're going to fix it. This isn't the first time.' It was just amazing... That was really just the tale of the whole season. When something went wrong, nobody panicked. They'd been there before, even though I hadn't. They knew how to handle it.”
Braden would go on to win 13 of his 32 starts as a rookie in 2011 with a jaw-dropping 29 top-five finishes. While he's eyeing moving up to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, he's also enjoying the proving ground that NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is proving to be.
Every track has its own superstars, its own newcomers and its own character.
“It's racing against guys that have raced there – some for 15 years, some for 50. You have all these different styles,” Braden said. “It's like you're racing against a track's Darrell Waltrip or a Dale Earnhardt, and then you're racing against a Kyle Busch, too. This year, weekly racing, it wasn't so much learning to drive the cars, but how to race the other competitors. That was really the biggest thing for me.
“It was just one of those years, everything worked perfect. It wasn't one particular thing. I can't even describe – literally everything we tried to do, we did and it worked even better than we thought it would.”
DIVISION FINALISTS: NASCAR recognized the finalists in several of its divisions during the Grand Champions Awards on Friday morning.
Recognized were: Division V Asphalt finalists Doug Schmitz of Raceway Park and Danny Field of Thompson International Speedway; Division V Dirt finalists Blaine Peterson and Bill Gibson of Adams County Speedway; Division IV Asphalt finalist Jack Nugent of Colorado National Speedway; Division IV Dirt finalist Matt McAtee of Adams County Speedway; Division III Asphalt finalists Matt Galko of Stafford Motor Speedway, John Ketron of Kingsport Speedway and Shawn Murray of Barrie Speedway; Division III Dirt finalists Tony Hardisty of Adams County Speedway and I-80 Speedway, Jason Rold of Adams County Speedway and Brad Derry of Adams County Speedway and I-80 Speedway; Division II Asphalt finalists Dan Gilster of Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway and Shawn Balluzzo of Langley Speedway; Division II Dirt finalists Dennis Cook of I-80 Speedway and Chuck Schutz Jr. of Grandview Speedway.
ROOKIES: NASCAR also recognized its state and provincial Rookies of the Year.
The following drivers accepted their Rookie of the Year awards: Lyndon Fritz of Alberta, Taylor Miinch of California, Jesse Runkle of Colorado, Jeff Pohlman of Idaho, Dave Carlisle of Iowa, Adam Vanavery of Michigan, Shawn Natenstedt of Nevada, David Sanborn of New Hampshire, Ron Proctor of New York and Vermont, Austin McDaniel of North Carolina, Lexi Wilson of Pennsylvania, Will Burns of South Carolina, Paul Nogradi Jr. of Tennessee, Zachary Hausler of Texas, Michael McGurire of Virginia, Doni Wanat of Washington and Nick Clements of Wisconsin.
TRACK CHAMPIONS: The following drivers were honored as NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track champions: Paul Glendenning, Adams County Speedway; Ronald Proctor, Albany-Saratoga Speedway and Devil's Bowl Speedway; Ron Quesnelle, Barrie Speedway; Bill Rodgers, Beech Ridge Motor Speedway; Burt Myers, Bowman Gray Stadium; Brad Brinkley, Caraway Speedway; Rickey Hanestad, Cedar Lake Speedway; Jimmy Zacharias, Chemung Speedrome; Dan Savage, Colorado National Speedway; Travis Braden, Columbus Motor Speedway; Bobby Measmer Jr., Concord Speedway; Andrew Gresel, Delaware Speedway; Erica Thiering, Edmonton International Raceway; Naima Lang, Evergreen Speedway; Jesse Lefevers, Hickory Motor Speedway; Amy Catalano, Holland Motorsports Complex; Zachary Hausler, Houston Motorsports Park and Thunderhill Raceway; Bill Leighton Jr., I-80 Speedway; Lester Siebert, Junction Motor Speedway; Phil Bozell, Kalamazoo Speedway; Donald Mahaffey Jr., Kil-Kare Speedway; Nate Monteith, Kingsport Speedway; J. Herbst, Lacrosse Fairgrounds Speedway; Keith Platz Jr., Lake County Speedway; Glenn Gault Jr., Lake Erie Speedway; CE Falk III, Langley Speedway; Wayne Helliwell Jr., Lee USA Speedway; Todd Sherman, Limaland Motorsports Park; Jeff Pohlman, Magic Valley Speedway; Kirk Alexander, Monadnock Speedway; Lee Pulliam, Motor Mile Speedway; Justin Milliken, Myrtle Beach Speedway; David Polenz, Old Dominion Speedway; Chad Walen, Raceway Park; Shawn Natentstedt, Reno-Fernley Raceway; Justin Bonsignore, Riverhead Raceway; Ryan Carlson, Rockford Speedway; Philip Morris, South Boston Speedway; Kevin Timmerman, Spencer Speedway; Ryan Preece, Stafford Motor Speedway; Michael Graham, Stockton 99 Speedway; Keith Rocco, Thompson International Speedway and Waterford Speedbowl; Brandon Davis, Toyota Speedway at Irwindale; Bradley Eddy, Tri-County Motor Speedway.
STATE CHAMPIONS: The following drivers were recognized as NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state and provincial champions: Erica Thiering, Alberta; Brandon Davis, California; Dan Savage, Colorado; Keith Rocco, Connecticut; Jeff Pohlman, Idaho; Ryan Carlson, Illinois; Paul Glenenning, Iowa; Bill Rodgers, Maine; Andy Bozell Sr., Michigan; Adam Royle, Minnesota; Bill Leighton Jr., Nebraska; Shawn Natenstedt, Nevada; Wayne Helliwell Jr., New Hampshire; Amy Catalano, New York; Burt Myers, North Carolina; Travis Braden, Ohio; Ron Quesnelle, Ontario; Jeff Strunk, Pennsylvania; Anthony Anders, South Carolina; Nate Monteith, Tennessee; Zachary Hausler, Texas; Ron Proctor, Vermont; Philip Morris, Virginia; Naima Lang, Washington; J. Herbst, Wisconsin.