The guest of honor looks entirely out of place, but at the same time, completely at home.
This is an awards banquet at Talladega Superspeedway, the first and maybe only time such a gala will take place at a setting called Big Bill’s Garage, and it’s completely on-brand for the new ARCA Racing Series champion.
Bret Holmes is wearing jeans with a dress shirt and a sports coat, no doubt preferable to the tuxedo required for the usual series banquet held in Indianapolis every December, but not this year due to the pandemic.
The 23-year-old grew up 15 minutes down the road in Munford, Alabama. He spent his formative years watching his dad sling mud across the street at Talladega Short Track, and then followed in his footsteps before making the transition to pavement.
This casual shindig is more reflective of his racing roots, anyway.
His dad, Stacy, operates Holmes II Excavation in Munford, a concrete and construction business that has become a regional stalwart over the past 30 years.
The community has reciprocated by supporting the younger Holmes in his racing endeavors over the past decade, many state and local officials making the trip to Talladega Superspeedway to celebrate his accomplishments.
Holmes dutifully makes the rounds, moving from table to table to take pictures, shake hands and generally soak up the moment with his family and team.
Big Bill’s Garage is decorated in banners and photographs commemorating their championship season. The No. 23 superspeedway car is parked next to the stage alongside the bright neon ARCA Racing Series championship trophy.
The legendary Charles ‘Red’ Farmer was one of the keynote speakers. We think he’s 88 years old, but no one knows for sure, especially since he’s still an active competitor in the Crate Late Model division at Talladega Short Track.
Finally, after a short speech of his own, and once everyone has started to leave, Holmes walks over to a table at the front of the room for an interview. The track staff is starting to flicker the lights to encourage everyone to go home.
We can’t quite oblige.
“Sorry to make you wait so long, we’re going to be the last ones out,” Holmes said, pulling up a chair. “I just wanted to make sure I thanked everyone for being here. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them and I wanted to make sure they knew it.”
There was one person who couldn’t make it, and Holmes has either already made that phone call, or will later.
“The one person I hate couldn’t be here today was Lynn Phillips,” Holmes said. “He owns the dirt track, and you know, it all started there.
“My dad would come over here when the Allisons were testing and that’s when he fell in love with the sport and started racing at the dirt track. I grew up watching him, started racing on the kart track, and we always dreamed about ‘racing across the street.’
“That’s what we used to say about the big track, so I hate we haven’t won here yet. We finished third in June, but to come out with the ARCA championship and have the track be this supportive of us is just really cool.”
Holmes earned his first series victory in July at Kansas Speedway and backed it up with 14 top-5s and a 4.6 average finish in 20 starts — capturing the championship by 12 points over Michael Self of Venturini Motorsports.
He isn’t the stereotypical modern ARCA contender, either.
He isn’t a teenager on a manufacturer development deal. Holmes doesn’t drive for a multicar team. It’s a program owned by his dad and managed by crew chief Shane Huffman in a shop located in Mooresville, North Carolina.
This was Holmes’ fifth season in ARCA, and it had taken time to build a program capable of winning races and a championship.
“When we walked into Daytona last year,” Huffman recalled. “Bret had his head down. Wouldn’t look up. When we came into Daytona this year, he had his head up, and there was confidence about what we’re capable of.
“I saw the improvement coming, and there were a lot of folks who didn’t, but part of my job was getting him to the point to where he could believe in himself again. From there, to where we ended up has been amazing.”
Holmes turned heads in his first partial season, driving cars from the GMS Fabrication shop with fellow Alabamian Grant Enfinger on the pit box. That was the same season he captured the highly competitive Pro Late Model track championship at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola.
When Enfinger left to race in the NASCAR Truck Series full-time, it took awhile to get Holmes’ equipment back to that level.
That’s why Huffman was retained.
“When I first started working with Bret, he already knew how to take care of his stuff,” Huffman said. “He knew how to race. The problem was that he was given some pretty undrivable cars over the past two years before I got here. I don’t mean to talk negative about anyone, and I’m not, but I’m trying to explain that I knew the kid had talent, because driving those cars, it was pretty rough.”
There were moments in those previous two seasons that Holmes even started to question himself. He said 2017 and 2018 were the “roughest years of my life” and that he wondered if this was “becoming a big waste of time.”
Holmes says “the light flip just switched” the moment he started to drive cars prepared by Huffman.
“It took me this second year with Shane, because it took me a year to trust the cars Shane was giving me,” Holmes said. “I had to tell myself that it was okay to have confidence it car, that I could get up on the wheel again, drive like I was in Late Models.
“That change was really hard mentally, and yeah, I came into Daytona with a lot more confidence because I knew what we had under us.”
When the season resumed from the spring shutdown in June, he rolled off eight top-five finishes in nine starts to take the championship lead. They only decided to run for the championship a few races into the resumption of the season.
The original plan called to run 14 ARCA races and for a handful of Truck Series appearances, but that never materialized due to the pandemic. The elder Holmes says they are less than a month away from finalizing their 2021 plans, which is expected to include the Truck Series.
Certainly, it helped to win the ARCA championship, not that it is ever enough to silence all the critics.
Even after a night of celebration, Holmes hasn’t shaken one slight he heard after the race at I-44 Lebanon Speedway, a tight short track that produced all the requisite fender-banging and resulting tempers back in September.
“Someone told me that, you know, it didn’t matter what I did because I would be out of the sport in three years anyway,” Holmes recalled, his voice cracking. “That I’m just like any other driver who is here for a little bit and disappears.”
At this point, he couldn’t hold back the tears.
“He said it doesn’t matter what I do because I will be running a backhoe or a dozer for the rest of my life anyway.”
After a lengthy pause, Holmes gathered himself back up and issued what has essentially become his credo moving forward.
“So, I said it after we won the championship at Kansas, that if that is what I have to do to keep driving race cars for a living, I’ll do it.”
Holmes and Huffman hope to stay together next year and beyond. Huffman admits that he likely doesn’t make as much as his championship caliber peers, but he has also been welcomed into their family in a way that transcends the usual crew chief assignment.
Huffman sees opportunities to work with the Holmes once he is ready to get off the road. Holmes is also supporting Huffman’s teenage son as he eyes a Late Model stint.
“Success breeds opportunity, right,” Huffman said. “If something comes up, the first phone call I’ll make is to Stacy. I’ve committed to Bret and Stacy that I want to remain with them and progress through whatever comes next …
“I think we’ll definitely do a mixed bag of ARCA and Truck Series stuff. That’s not a press release, but that’s my gut feeling, and I think Bret or Stacy would tell you the same, and I’m certainly looking forward to being part of it.”
Holmes spent a lot of time at the banquet reminiscing.
His dirt Late Model crew were amongst those invited to the event, and a lot of pictures and memories were shared throughout the night, leaving Holmes reflective on how far his entire family team had come.
From feature winner at The Hornet’s Nest to taking the green flag at The Biggest and the Fastest, Holmes believes he’s ready for NASCAR.
“My dream has always been making it into the top three series of NASCAR,” Holmes said. “And that’s that what I’ve said from day one, making it there is the ultimate goal.
“Winning at the ARCA level proves I can do it, proves that I can get to that level. Getting there and winning is a whole other leap, but I feel like this year has taught me a lot. I’ll never forget this.
“And knowing where it started, my dad racing across the road, to where it’s evolved from to now has been crazy. I’d like to make it a lot further and make some more people proud before I say I’m content with anything.”
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