Zack Riddle claimed his second late model title at Madison International Speedway last season with a lot of help from his friends.
Riddle, a Brooklyn native and third-generation driver, spent a chunk of time during the winter of 2017 prepping his car to run at the half-mile asphalt oval in the town of Rutland.
“We all decided we were going to put in a good strong offseason,” Riddle said. “We would work 20 to 30 hours per week. It’s preparation of everything. Every little thing. Whether it’s on the car, on the trailer, equipment. It’s hard to run out of things to do.
“Last year was just nice and consistent, and we were towards the top every week. I don’t know if there was any dominance, but there was zero struggle.”
That effort yielded the ultimate reward as Riddle, behind the wheel of his No. 14 late model, posted three feature victories in 11 events at MIS, including the final race of the season to clinch the championship.
Riddle and his crew begin their quest for another title when the 2019 regular-season racing slate begins Friday at MIS.
Riddle, 29, works a full-time job as a crane operator, but racing has been a major part of his life since he got his first go-kart at age 10. He traveled across the country competing in go-karting at a national level, at outdoor and indoor tracks.
He switched to cars and joined the late model ranks at MIS at 16. The early years were a family affair, with father, Steve, working as crew chief, and other family members lending a hand with the car and team.
Riddle has grown to respect MIS regulars Bobby Wilberg and Jeremy Miller, and said what separates the best racers from the rest is a fast car and behind-the-scenes work.
“The races aren’t won at the track, they’re won in the garage,” said Riddle, who also won the 2015 MIS late model title. “I don’t think I or anyone else is special as far as turning a steering wheel. That time in the garage and knowing where to spend your time is a big deal.
“There’s a big struggle with the fact that you only have so much time. Where do you want to put it kind of separates the guys who are successful and not successful.”
A handful of the friends who helped Riddle to success in 2018 work in mechanical fields with their day jobs. Riddle said their relationships are strong due to the fact that they weren’t built through racing.
The group includes Nick Valentine and Wes Arndt, who have been Riddle’s friends since middle school.
Valentine has worked on Riddle’s team for four years. The Oregon native also spent time tinkering on race cars when the pair were teenagers.
Valentine, who does HVAC sheet metal fabrication full time, oversees chassis adjustments for the race team. Arndt is in charge of tires.
Valentine said that the crew gets as much satisfaction in building success as the driver. Besides the regular Friday night feature events at MIS, the team went to Slinger Speedway and won two features in 2018.
“A lot of race fans don’t see that, and how much time and hard work it takes to get everything on the right track,” Valentine said.
“Everybody knows when it’s crunch time and we need to get there, get it done and get ready, so we’re on top of our game.”
Riddle said they’ve worked equally as hard during this offseason, and he’ll be disappointed if a repeat championship is the end result. The same five crew members who worked on the car on race nights return for a second consecutive year.
“We have to act like we didn’t win last season,” Riddle said. “We’ve had other seasons where we had the fast car at the end of the year.
“I don’t know if we were relaxing in the offseason. Maybe we were. We have to try and not relax and act as if we didn’t win.”