On The Move

Driving stock cars isn’t just for the young.Chasing the Checkered FlagThe need for speed drives Lin Mitchell on historic sportscar racing circuit

By Kirsten Olsen

Merlin “Lin” Mitchell is a Tallahassee business owner – one with the heart of a stock-car racer.

Owner of The Blueprint Shop and City Blues, Mitchell has been involved with Tallahassee’s construction industry for more than 27 years. But he loves taking a break from his workday life to don his fire suit and slide behind the wheel of his race car. He is a licensed competitive stock-car driver racing on the Historic Sportscar Racing Circuit (hsrrace.com).

“Most people don’t envision me doing it,” Mitchell said. But he is fulfilling a childhood dream.

{mosimage} “Ever since I was 9 or 10 I’ve followed the stock cars,” he said.

He bought a stock car about 15 years ago with the intention of racing it someday. Then, when he turned 50, he decided he wasn’t getting any younger and it was “now or never.” So, as a birthday present, he sent himself to driving school to get his competitive driving license.

Mitchell has completed his rookie year on the circuit and said he loves competing.

“It was far beyond what I thought it would be,” he said. “If you are an adrenaline junkie, or if you’re not, you quickly become one. You get in the car and you line up the race and you are sitting there waiting and it’s hot and you have a full fire suit on – all the requirements are just like NASCAR. It’s hot in the car, it’s noisy. The worst is when my ear gets folded up under the helmet and it just bugs me. But once the race starts, you could stab me with a knife and I wouldn’t know you did it. You are just so focused.”

He said his racing ability surprised him.

“That I could do it – that I was able to do it – that was a surprise,” he said. “That I actually ended up out there.”

Drivers of the historic stock cars race on well-known tracks around the country, including Daytona International Speedway, Sebring International Raceway, Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen International. For the first time, Mitchell is heading to Salt Lake City in early August for a race at Miller Motorsports Park, a brand-new race track opening this year.

Drivers race their restored cars on road courses against similar makes and models. In Mitchell’s category, cars are driven at near-professional speeds of 160 miles per hour. Winners for each year are determined by points, and there are no cash prizes. Mitchell raced in five contests in his rookie year last year and came in 14th out of 25 racers in his division. His only accident was a fender bender in the last race of the season.

Competing at this level takes a lot of time and dedication, Mitchell said. He had to obtain his competitive driving license, pass a flight physical, and buy and restore a vehicle to race. The vehicle he currently races is a 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix formerly driven by Chad Little for the John Deere racing team. Mitchell said cars racing on his circuit are actual race cars that were sold off by teams. With the quick pace of change on the racing circuit, any stock car more than 5 years old is considered historic and eligible for the Historic Sportscar Racing circuit. Racers are grouped on the circuit based on the age of the vehicle they are racing.

A race car is a unique piece of machinery, so Mitchell needed a race-car mechanic. That’s when he teamed up with fellow race-car enthusiast Mark Hunt.

“I’ve known Mark for years, since he worked for Eastern Automotive,” Mitchell said. “He’s one of the smartest people I know. He can fix anything – mechanical, electrical – he’s just a very intelligent person. He’s very meticulous that it has to be right. I’m trusting him with my life.”

Hunt has been working on race cars since he built his first Chevy when he was 13 years old, so he eagerly accepted the challenge.

In addition, he said, Mitchell clearly was someone who loved race cars.

“He would come down to the shop and hang out and help out and stuff like that and say he was going to get a car one day,” Hunt said. “Then about two years ago, he asked if I could put a car together for him.”

Hunt says working on race cars is challenging because it involves a lot of creativity.

“Everything is hand-fabricated. There’s not really a lot stock about a stock car,” he said. “The average mechanic that is not familiar with these cars could physically put the cars together, but he couldn’t put it together and make it work properly.”

For instance, on the Pontiac, Hunt had to make custom engine mounts that met the rules while giving the car the best ride. “I made the motor mounts so the motor sits as low as it possibly can without being too low. You have to make them, you can’t just buy motor mounts,” Hunt said.

He added that it’s important to work on the car with the overall goal in mind. “I try to make everything as accessible and easy to work on as possible,” Hunt said.

Hunt also tries to go with Mitchell to races when he can and help out. “Between races we have two to three hours, so we go through and check the tire pressures and the fluid levels. We look around for anything that might have gotten damaged or come loose … keep an eye on everything.”

Hunt said he loves to work on cars, but is happy to let someone else do the driving.

Mitchell said he is learning a lot from his mechanic.

“It’s a skill … that I’m just learning how to do. After the first year, I’m just understanding how to ask Mark what to make the car do,” Mitchell said.

Hunt likely will have plenty of work in the future, because Mitchell has other cars he purchased and intends to race, including the last car raced by Cale Yarbrough and a 1985 Buick driven by Ron Bouchard. Maintaining the race cars isn’t cheap, but Mitchell said it’s not as expensive as maintaining a NASCAR vehicle. He runs used race-car tires, which cost about $30, compared to $450 on the NASCAR circuit.

“I am able to keep expenses down by buying obsolete or used parts from Nextel Cup teams,” Mitchell said. He said vehicles range from free to very expensive, depending on condition. On autoracingtrader.com, asphalt race cars were listed from $8,500 to $60,000, depending on the age and condition of the car. Mitchell said you usually won’t find a famous driver’s car driven on the historic circuit, since those usually are bought for non-racing purposes such as museums.

Mitchell said his racing addiction has rubbed off on his children. His son Merlin Jr. is in the engineering program for auto racing at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. His daughter Mollie, a high-school senior, wants to go to driving school for her graduation present.

Mitchell said he likes to share his love for racing with Tallahassee’s young people. He has taken his Pontiac to at least two local schools so students could see a real race car up close.

Mitchell said he also takes with him a message for those young people that transcends racing: “You can’t go through life and not do something fun.”


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