Stu Laidlaw moved from dirt to pavement racing three years ago.
The first year he raced at Alaska Raceway Park he said it was “embarrassing.” He would get lapped sometimes two or three times in a 60-lap feature.
The second year, with more knowledge of set-up, he met his goal of just staying on the lead lap every race.
This year, in an attempt to continue building on what he and his team had learned, Laidlaw wanted to get to the podium for at least a couple races. It was a modest goal, but one he thought they could easily meet.
But even he was surprised by how many podium finishes he had, and how many points he accumulated.
Laidlaw won the late model championship at Alaska Raceway, a NASCAR-sanctioned third-mile oval asphalt track in Palmer, Alaska, and was the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Alaska Division I state champion. Even though he didn’t have any wins, Laidlaw finished in the top 5 in all eight ARP races, and won the state title by two points.
Being a low budget team, Laidlaw said his expectations were more moderate going into 2020, even with the improvements he had seen his team make. But where he said they lacked in speed, they made up for in consistency.
“My crew chief and the team were all about winning the championship,” he said. “And I never really bought into that. I didn’t want that kind of pressure. Then once it was about midway through the season when we were up there basically in the top two in points and not that far behind I was thinking, ‘We have a chance.’”… By midseason I thought, ‘Boy, we’re really doing something. We‘re moving in the right direction. We have a chance.’
“What I learned is being the most consistent wins championships, and that’s what we did.”
The team stayed on the lead lap in every race except one when they had brake issues. Laidlaw credited that consistency with his overall success in 2020.
“Really what we did right this year was not only through our hard work but through our learning process. It’s a science,” he said. “The littlest corrections, the little adjustments, make big differences. And we’re still learning that, but we got a lot better at it. Now it’s just being consistent and that consistency allowed us to win the championship.”
RELATED: Alaska Raceway Park Website
Laidlaw began racing on dirt in 2010, and stayed with it until a good friend of his was told by his doctor to stop dirt racing for health reason. When that friend told Laidlaw he was going to move to competing on pavement tracks, Laidlaw decided to follow him in support.
He initially bought a race truck, but there wasn’t a class for that at ARP unless he wanted to run it in the street stocks division. At the same time, the late model of the track’s championship team at the time came up for sale.
“I thought, ‘I can buy this car, it’s cheaper,’” Laidlaw said. “I didn’t realize how expensive a late model is compared to the street stock.”
Laidlaw was looking for something different when he moved from dirt racing, and he found that competing on pavement was quite a bit different. While his prior experience helped him with the driving part, there was a significant learning curve when it came to setting the car up for asphalt.
“All the science and documenting, tracking everything, making sure you write down what you did, where are things at, tire temps and pressures, you don’t have to do that with dirt,” he said. “You get your pressures and if the car’s not handling right the driver can pedal it. But on a paved surface if the car is not set up, I don’t care how good of a driver you are, you’re going backwards. And that was the main difference is just getting the car set up so you can actually drive it. You have that in dirt but it’s not as critical.”
The 2020 title was Laidlaw’s first championship in any level of racing. But, while he’s thankful for the opportunity to represent his track, he said it’s not just one person who wins a title. It takes “people to help you go around the track,” he said.
It was the help of his team that allowed Laidlaw’s car to continue to get better and move up the ARP standings. His crew has made sure to keep racing fun even with all the work that goes into it.
The sport is also a family event for Laidlaw. His teenage son works on his pit crew with him, and his wife supports him every step of the way.
His other son, who is 9, has also gotten into racing, and Laidlaw hopes they can get a bandolero for his youngest to begin racing this season.
While he has his real family on board with him, his team has become his family as well.
“I think maybe that drives me the most is just the team aspect, which includes my family,” he said.
“My team, from my audio visual camera people, to our social media and marketing people, to my crew chief and his assistant, I think what really will bring me back next year is what can we do together not only to repeat the championship but what can we do together to make the product better overall. What can we produce? I think that’s what drives me is more, better, faster, proficiency, and keep building and see what else we can do.”
As Laidlaw looks ahead to the next season, he looks forward to getting the opportunity to share the sport of racing with more young car enthusiasts in his hometown. He’s hoping to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and have kids come out to races, do some crew work, and be exposed to a new experience.
“You never know, it could be the next Kyle Busch or his tire changer,” he said. “Or could be the next CEO of a company that maybe you never know that’s what it was that lit the fire.”
As far as racing goes, Laidlaw hopes that after three straight years of progression, he hasn’t hit his peak just yet.
“Next year, I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “We’ve kind of hit the top here, but it’d be great to repeat it. That’d be a dream come true for us, but we’ll see what happens.
“Alaska, it’s small time up here. It’s a small market, but to have the competition we have and to be able to have the connections with the NASCAR family makes a difference because we are so far removed. So we’re thankful we even first of all got to race this year. Second of all to be able to win this championship, it’s truly an honor. I don’t know how to say anything less than that.”