INDIANAPOLIS – Being a rookie on the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series trail is a challenge on many fronts for any driver who takes on the task of a full season for the first time.
Facing stiff competition and several successive nights and weeks on the road, away from home, are a way of life. It’s to be expected during a rigorous schedule that ranges from coast to coast across the nation.
Mix in the aspect of trying to learn a completely new discipline by shedding the wing and going without one, and the learning curve becomes a little more obtuse.
That’s the battle Paul Nienhiser has taken head on this season.
Nienhiser, the 2019 Midwest Open Wheel Ass’n champion in winged sprint car racing, made the move during the offseason to take on the USAC schedule with Owensville, Ind., based KO Motorsports.
Thus far, the Chapin, Ill., driver’s first 11 races with USAC have looked like a Richter scale, with some peaks and some valleys, as well as high-water marks and humbling nights.
It’s all part of the process to reach the top of the heap.
Nienhiser enters this weekend’s pair of USAC National Sprint Car Series events at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., fresh off a career-best performance at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway on May 8.
He finished fifth in that feature and ranks ninth in the current series points, second among rookies behind only Tanner Thorson in seventh.
Nienhiser’s first non-winged sprint car win of any kind came a week after Eldora during a non-sanctioned race at his home track, Jacksonville (Ill.) Speedway.
Not only was it a notable triumph for Nienhiser personally, being that he lives within a stone’s throw from the quarter-mile race track, but it symbolized a plan that’s beginning to come to fruition.
“A win is a win; they’re great anywhere,” Nienhiser said. “It wasn’t a USAC win, which is at the top of our list, but I think it gave me a little justification to myself that I can do this.”
One factor Nienhiser has displayed regularly is resiliency. In April, during the second round of Keystone Invasion at Big Diamond Speedway in Pennsylvania, a disastrous night saw him crash in the first turn on his qualifying run.
If that wasn’t a rough enough start, after pulling out the backup car, Nienhiser biked in the same exact spot during his heat race, resulting in a hard flip through turns one and two.
The team called it a night and decided to regroup for the next race on the tour, after a season of hard lessons were packed into less than an hour for Nienhiser with where the limits of the race car are.
“(I learned) how hard you can push the issue in, say, qualifying, and on a heavier track,” Nienhiser said. “In a winged car, you’re carrying more speed and I’m trying to find that threshold, for lack of a better term. I think I found it at Big Diamond after really trying to throw off a burner in qualifying.
“I kind of realized I had to dial it back a little bit.”
Nienhiser and KO got dialed back in the next afternoon at BAPS Motor Speedway in York Haven, Pa., rebounding with a solid ninth-place result in the feature following a setback during a heat race incident.
To start the year, Nienhiser remarked that the biggest thing for him was when he looked at the USAC schedule and realized how many tracks he was going to be visiting for the first time.
His best performances show him as a quick study, one who, in time, can pick up the pieces of past experiences and continuously improve his showing.
For example, Lawrenceburg (seventh) and Eldora (fifth) are his two best performances of the USAC campaign – two high-speed dirt tracks that Nienhiser has previously competed at with a wing, giving credence that the deeper he gets into the USAC season and returns to tracks for repeat visits, he could rise from competing for top fives and top 10s to contending for feature wins.
“At the beginning of the year, there were about three-quarters of the tracks I’ve never been to in my career,” Nienhiser recalled. “I’m looking forward to going back to them after our first run. I feel confident in myself in how we ran the first time around, and that we’ll be really strong the second time out, now that we have a place to start as far as the chassis goes.”
Nienhiser notes that on-the-fly adjustments are a critical part of the game, as is having to learn and re-train his brain from the instincts and habits that were ingrained in him during his time behind the wheel of a winged sprint car for several years.
“Everything that I think of in the race car seems to be backwards,” Nienhiser admitted. “As far as shock setups and things, especially in the longer races where the track changes a lot, I’m not as adept at changing my shock knobs inside the car, but I think I’m getting better at that.”
With his first win without a wing and first career top-five USAC finish in his pocket by mid-May, Nienhiser feels his stock is on the rise.
“The trend looks pretty good for us so, hopefully, we’re past most of those growing pains and we can just be making tweaks from here on out. It’s just a testament to where we’re at and I think it’s only going to get better.”