Keith Graham, owner and promoter of the Carolina Pro Late Model Series, is approaching the second year of the straight-rail tour faced with an age-old question that baffles many at the helm of a racing organization.
How does one keep racers happy while still controlling the show? It’s a question he has thought about a lot this winter.
“I’ve got to get into this sophomore year and see if I can continue to pull this thing off without making too many mistakes, because I’m a rookie promoter and I’m learning as I go,” Graham told Race22.com.
Yet despite its leader’s humility, the first year of the series saw strong car counts (Graham estimates he averaged 17-18 cars per event) even as it was run in the shadow of a global pandemic. Graham credits ignorance as a promoter in many ways for the series’ success thus far, but he is also a student of the sport with a well-formulated plan.
Graham, who originally hails from Pensacola, Florida, and now resides in Statesville, North Carolina, has spent years around the racing world. A truck driver by trade, he moved his family to the Charlotte area nearly two decades ago to pursue the motorsports dream. He’s worked driving trucks for Cagnazzi Racing in NHRA, as well as for Red Horse Racing and JR Motorsports in NASCAR, and has spent time behind the wheel on the racetrack.
He was racing on occasion with the 602 Super Limiteds Tour when other racers approached him about forming a new Pro Late Model series for 2020. Around the country, Pro cars are powered by crate engines as opposed to the high-dollar built power plants found in Super Late Models. The Carolina Pro Late Model Series is the only Pro option in the Carolinas, as the class is more often seen at tracks in the Deep South and Midwest. Graham runs the series with his wife, Wendi, who serves as co-owner and administrator.
“The guys I’m shooting for are the guys that have these old straight-rail cars sitting in their shop and they can’t afford to go run these Super tours, but they can pull it out of the shop, put a crate motor in it and go racing with me,” Graham said.
Per the series website, the rules package currently allows for GM 602, 603 and 604 crate engines, an Upgrade GM 604, the Ford 347 SR/JR and the McGunegill 425. Aside from that mandate, the rules are fairly open, with no shock, brake, transmission or ride-height rules. In Graham’s words, “A thick rulebook costs money.”
His primary focus is under the hood, where he’s spent much of the offseason tinkering with carburetors and putting engines on the dyno to level the playing field. His goal is to make the least expensive engines – the box-stock 602 and 604 – the option of choice for competitors.
His schedule is designed to keep costs manageable as well, with the tour originally slated to take on 12 races this year from February through October.
“My goal is to try to keep the travel within three hours because I like to run one-day shows,” Graham said. “Obviously, two-day shows cost people money.”
Nearly half of the races will be at Hickory Motor Speedway, with two scheduled for nearby Tri-County Motor Speedway and one for Orange County Speedway. Before rain forced its postponement though, the season was set to open at South Carolina’s Dillon Motor Speedway in late February to give winter-weary Northeastern racers the opportunity to compete.
Aside from Dillon, events at Florence Motor Speedway on Mother’s Day Weekend and Carteret Country Speedway over the Father’s Day holiday are the only other potentially longer trips on the docket. The final date on the schedule will take the series to Franklin County Speedway in Callaway, VA.
Graham credits Hickory general manager Kevin Piercy with giving the series a place to race during the challenging 2020 campaign when many tracks were closed, and if they weren’t, often were forced to run with limited or no fans in attendance. Hickory, however, was at least able to utilize trackside parking for much of the year.
“Kevin at Hickory Motor Speedway stepped up, gave me an opportunity to race and we only had to really drop one race last year that we had scheduled,” Graham said. “So that’s what he did for us.”
Graham notes he was impressed with his car counts and believes his series turned some heads; in a strange way the lack of competition helped the series get established earlier than it might have otherwise, starting with its first race at Dillon last May. In addition, this year he will be adding the Carolina Crate Modified Series.
Still, he admits to feeling pressure, in particular related to rules, believing he may have posted the rules package for this year too early in the offseason.
“I’ve been having a lot of stress over some of this stuff,” he said. “I just want people to know that this is not easy, and the racers to know that this is not easy.”
The racers in the first year were a mix of up-and comers aspiring to move up the ranks and veterans looking for an opportunity to go straight-rail racing on a budget. Regardless of the driver’s intent, Graham is committed to keeping costs low all around. Series champion Carson Kvapil won six of eight races en route to the title and was of one of several next-generation stars in the mix.
Tony Cosentino meanwhile represented both the driver looking to compete on a budget and the development side of the series.
A racer originally from Mansfield, Ohio, chasing his own NASCAR dreams, Cosentino has worked for both Stewart-Haas Racing and Rick Ware Racing, while also competing in the ARCA West Series and in Late Model Stocks. He recently founded his own company, The Gutter Team, and runs Tony Cosentino Driver Development. Cosentino plans to race with the Carolina Pro Late Model Series again this year alongside development driver EJ Tamayo.
“I love the series, it was actually my first time driving these straight-rail cars,” Cosentino said. “I liked it more than I had anticipated. The Late Model Stock stuff is getting out of hand price-wise … the Carolina Pro definitely offered a much more budget-friendly way of going racing with very cool cars and fast cars.”
He believes it’s possible to buy a used race car for five or six thousand dollars, add a brand new 602 crate engine, and be in a race-ready Late Model for under $10,000. Few other divisions provide that price point.
In part due to the affordability, Pro Late Model ranks around the country are dotted with young drivers competing with veterans racing on a budget. That has been known to cause problems between youngsters and seasoned racers, but Cosentino sees the mix as a positive, as well as a measuring stick.
“I think especially in the Carolinas you’re always going to race against the younger people trying to be NASCAR drivers so there’s nothing new there,” he said. “They’re learning and they’re learning in really fast cars here. This series is a very affordable way for a lot of guys to get their approvals, to get up into ARCA and stuff like that.”
As for Graham, he enters the new year with high hopes but a realistic approach, asking for an opportunity to continue to prove himself. He sees it as important to let racers know that since he’s trying to keep costs down, all the money from sponsorships goes back into the series.
“I’m not making any money doing this. At all. Zero,” he said. “I still work a 65-hour week full-time. I’m doing this for the love of the game because I love racing. I don’t have any intentions to try to make any money off this thing.”
Cover photo by Corey Latham.