Ben Schaller had experienced winning a track championship at I-80 Speedway in Nebraska, but his title in 2020 felt different.
I-80, a NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series track in Greenwood, Nebraska, only held six races for their weekly series, a cut of about a third of what they usually run. A shorter season, cut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, meant every race was even more important. And at a track with a lot of talent in the super late model series, Schaller had to be on his A-game every night.
“Last year was decent. We had some ups and downs. Mostly ups for the local series so that was good,” said Schaller. “It felt a little different just because with the longer season things tend to happen, and I just happened to not have anything really negative happen in that stretch of races.
“Every time out with this group of guys, if you have one bad night winning the championship is kind of out of there because we have a lot of competition. There’s probably eight to 10 guys that can win at any time.”
Schaller had one win and five top-five finishes in those six starts, winning the track title and the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Nebraska state championship by six points in each.
Schaller has been racing since he was nine years old. His dad owned racecars before Schaller was born, and he would go to the track to watch races, idolizing his dad’s drivers.
“I just made an off-hand comment to my dad like, ‘Hey I want to race those cars like him someday.’ And within a few months he came home from working in a town that was probably about an hour away from us and there was a go-kart in the back of his truck,” Schaller said.
Schaller raced that go-kart at a track in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, and said his racing career just took off from there.
He eventually moved up to racing a grand national series and other series across the midwest.
Growing up around racing helped Schaller learn what all goes into being a driver. His dad taught him from a young age that if he was going to be the one behind the wheel he was also going to be the one making sure the car was ready every week.
“From the time I was 11 or 12 I spent my summers out working on my stuff,” he said. “My dad started his own business around the same time I started racing, so he didn’t have the time to mess with the go-kart stuff. When he got a little overstretched trying to get his business running he said, ‘Either you’re going to be working on the stuff or we’re not not going to be able to do it because it’s basically a waste of time for us to go if we’re not prepared.'”
That same hands-on mentality is still part of Schaller’s mindset today. Schaller owns a shock building business now to work on race shocks for other drivers in the area. He also knows how to work on engines from years of working with his dad.
“There isn’t really much on the car that I don’t know how to do,” he said.
The difficult comes in the fact Schaller’s car is housed at his dad’s house in Norfolk, about two hours from Schaller’s home in Omaha. During the winters he drives to his dad’s house on Fridays or Saturdays, and during the season he spends the majority of his off days there getting the car fixed and ready to go.
“We’re also very particular. There’s not a lot of stuff that is left off of our list checking the car from week to week,” he said.
The long drives back and forth make it more difficult, but Schaller said it’s allowed him and his dad to remain close and have extra reason to spend time with each other.
“Obviously when you’re younger, early 20s kid, you think that you know way more than you do so there’s butting of heads that has happened in the past, but at the end of the day it’s a lot more fun to do with your dad than with just someone random you don’t know,” Schaller said. “You get to share a lot of different things that no one else would. With how busy his shop has been throughout the years if i didn’t have the racing with him I don’t know how often I’d see him.”
The family aspect of racing, building a bond with his competition and people at the track, is one of the many parts of the sport that keeps Schaller in it.
“Obvious it’s a very competitive family and you all want to beat each other on the track and that sort of thing, but you do have a group of people that you go and see and you miss them in the offseason,” he said. “These are people you spend a lot of your summer with.”
There’s also the competitive aspects – knowing there’s always room to improve, and how to be better even when he’s winning.
Schaller’s love of tinkering around on cars at a young age hasn’t left as he’s gotten older. He loves learning new things and new ways to make the car faster.
“The technology part of the sport and how the cars function has always interested me,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those deals when if I don’t have racing my brain just kind of goes in cruise mode and I don’t really try to think outside of the box too much. So for anyone it’s good to have something you care about and you want to learn about, that way its keeps you sharp.”
Schaller’s plan for the upcoming season is to do some races at I-80, but focus more on a regional series and hit more open shows. I-80 will host its annual silver dollar nationals again this year, and he would like to qualify for that on speed rather than a provisional entry like in years past.
Most of all, Schaller wants to branch out and find more wins against new competition.
“It’s more of getting the hang of going to different tracks and different conditions. You have different styles, different driving styles,” he said
“When you win all the time you don’t have to try very hard. It kind of takes some of the spice out of the racing part of it so it’s good to go out and get beat on occasion so you don’t get too high on yourself.”