By Phil Whipple,
RaceOnTexas.com Staff Writer
Photo By: Matt Townsend
NATCHITOCHES, Louisiana — Just as the summer heat starts to build in Bayou country, one young dirt late model driver with racing and crawfish in his blood is getting red-hot on the short tracks.
For 21-year-old Brandon Hightower, summer kicked off a little early in mid-May. The versatile driver earned a solid sixth-place finish in the LA Late Model Series race on May 17 at Showtime Speedway in Many, Louisiana, and followed that up with a victory the next night at nearby Chatham Speedway.
That elusive first win of 2019 (where he had to hold off the hard-charging Patrick Daniel) capped a successful two-night effort and proved to all this team and driver are headed in the right direction. Now in his seventh year of racing, things are looking good for a strong season ahead.
“We've had an up and down year so far, with our fair share of heartbreaks,” Hightower said. “Last year, we started off and won just about every race. This year, we started off by rolling the car over. After the crew rebuilt the whole car, we went out the next night and qualified really well.”
At that early juncture, it appeared as though things were improving. Fate, however, had other ideas.
“We blew the transmission out in the Heat race. It kind of continued on that bad luck cycle, but we hadn't finished outside of the top 10. Last weekend was the first time we had two consecutive nights with no bad luck or failures. It was simply huge for us, we really needed that confidence booster.”
Hightower said the early-season run of tough luck got to his crew a little, yet they never waivered. Not even once.
“We kind of wanted to give up at one point, but you just can't. We knew if we kept our heads down and worked hard, the results would improve. We finally made a bunch of changes to the car, and we hit it just right. On Friday night, the car was absolutely perfect. It sure helps when the car handles like that.”
Part of the package at any dirt race is your pill draw to establish qualifying order. Hightower says that procedure never goes well for him.
“I'm the one person that can have a bad draw no matter who draws for me,” Hightower said. “Whether it's me or somebody else, we'll have a bad draw, period. We started dead last in our heat and finished third. I could put the car about anywhere and find traction. Those nights are priceless.”
Most drivers have a particular line, or groove, they prefer to run on the track. Known affectionately as 'High Side Hightower,' back when he first started racing dirt late models, Hightower says some nights, you go where the situation dictates.
“We were passing for fifth place at one point and I went up to the top groove, by accident. I didn't even go up there on purpose; I went up there because I ran out of tear-offs. I knew I had to do something, the roost on the bottom was serious. Wiping my shield off every few seconds just wasn't cutting it.”
The gifted racer has a tremendous amount of experience for his age. He's driven just about everything with four wheels, including a Sprint car, NASCAR Trucks and Xfinity cars, and even an ARCA car.
That experience at the sport's highest levels taught him a great deal about the business side of racing. It also made him a better driver, no matter what he's wheeling. In today's ultra-competitive world of dirt Super Late Model racing, those skills are put to the test every time out.
“It's very difficult to win races in this tough division and keep the entire program moving forward,” Hightower explained. “When I'm in the shop, I'm by myself. At the tracks, I have one reliable crew member who is really good. We call him 'Lug Nut,' and now everybody knows him by that name.”
Chassis setup is key for these touchy Super Late Models, so hightower says he pays attention to details.
“I do the setups myself, while Charles Isaac handles the tire preparation. If I get the handle right, I can pass cars like I did last weekend. I'm making gains with that, it just takes some time to get right.”
Along with ample talent, one of Hightower's biggest assets can be found under the hood.
“My Dad worked for Alan Kulwicki back in the day, he was one of his engine builders. We have our own machine shop here that is connected to our race shop. It's called Advance Performance Engines, or APE. So we have world-class horsepower and reliability in our car, just like those big bational teams.
“Right now, we're runnng an all-aluminum LS440 engine. That's 440 cubic inches of raw power that produces well over 900 horsepower. My Dad is amazing when it comes to building race engines. And it saves us from having to buy them, which really helps with the budget.”
Hightower says of all the different cars he's driven, the current SLM mount is his absolute favorite.
“I really love driving the dirt Late Model,” he said. “I love Winged Modifieds and all that other fast stuff, but there's nothing like the feeling you get in one of these. When you get it up on the bar, it's like, holy crap, you just need to hold on. You know you are going for a ride.”
While it might be a relatively small team, Hightower says there are a few key folks critical to his sucsess on the racetrack.
“I could never do this without the incredible support I get from my father, Kevin, or Chromedome, as I call him, and my mother, Sandy,” he added. “They've made sacrifices for me and I truly appreciate all they do. I also need to thank Charles, Brittany Allen, Rayce Allen, Tony Teer, and Gabby Richards.”
Along with a dedicated, supportive crew, Hightower is also blessed with a handful of world-class marketing partners.
“We're fortunate to have some wonderful and highly-respected companies on board the 52 car this year,” he explained. “We could not compete at this level without support from FV Recycling, Allgayer, Inc., Timmons Truck Center, Swamp Daddy's Restaurant, Cane River Brewing Company and Legacy Construction. I'm proud to represent these folks and hope we can get some more wins for them.”
With the busy schedule ahead, Hightower says he and the team are feeling optimistic.
“I think we're on an uphill swing right now, and we'll work hard for it to continue,” Hightower said. “Our performance is getting back to where it needs to be, like it was last year. The whole team is excited about the summer. It'll be hot, for sure, but if we're winning races, we'll all be thrilled.”