Spark to a Flame

Spark to a Flame

SportsCar Magazine, June 2019

From professional racing to Spec Miata, it’s intense competition and a drive to win that fuel Dillon Machavern

We’ve all seen them on the grid…. The drivers full of nervous energy, bouncing around, doing little dances. Then there are the ones that are in their cars early, helmet on, doing their best to shut out the world – the racers hyper-focused on the task at hand.

Dillon Machavern, meanwhile, is neither of those.

Composed, by all appearances quite relaxed, like he’s about to go out for a Sunday drive rather than start in the second row of one of the most competitive racing series around, the TA2 class of the SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series Presented by Pirelli, Dillon is a breed of his own. His pre-race tradition is simply going about the business of getting earbuds, balaclava, helmet and gloves neatly arranged on the top of his Liqui-Moly/Prefix Ford Mustang. These are his final preparations before cars roll out for a couple of pace laps and 100 miles of racing around Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta during the second round of Trans-Am’s 2019 season.

That might be attributed to growing up around racetracks, watching his father Dave Machavern race GT-1 and win a Grand-Am GTS title. It could be from years of racing karts, or Spec Miata in the ultra-competitive Southeast Conference that has produced many National Champions in recent years. It could stem from the fact that he has already won a couple of professional titles, in Lamborghini Super Trofeo in 2014 or Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in 2017, so he knows how to get the job done.

Wherever it comes from, Machavern goes about his business with a quiet fortitude.

“I tend to take a pretty slow, methodical approach to the weekend,” he explains. “I like to work up to it. I don’t do anything crazy in practice, just kind of feel everything out and know where I’m at. In the race I tend to just try and be really precise, really consistent, because especially in these longer races, even if you’re not the fastest car – you could be just that little bit off – but if you’re consistent and do the same lap time every single time, you are going to end up in a pretty good spot.”

When Machavern first started racing, it was as it was with many, in karts as a kid. But growing up in Vermont, where his father owns car dealerships, there’s a good bit of the year were racing outdoors isn’t an option, and not a lot of tracks close at hand. Fortunately there was F1 Boston, and indoor kart track. But then he left racing for a while, playing baseball and other sports, until a kart track sprung up closer to home and he took it up again. He’s never left it since.

Then came a Skip Barber school, which at the time had Mazda MX-5s. That led him, naturally enough, to Spec Miata along with some races in his father’s GT-1 car. He raced in the Southeast because his father always raced with Tommy Riggins out of Florida. If you know Spec Miata in Florida, then you know names such as Andrew Charbonneau, Preston Pardus, Andrew Carbonell, Selin Rollan, Danny Steyn and Michael Carter – drivers that have won national championships, big races, or have found careers in professional racing.

As has Machavern. He been racing in the pro ranks for several years now, since 2014 when he started in Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (CTSCC, now the Michelin Pilot Challenge) and Super Trofeo, But he kept racing Spec Miata, and only recently sold his SM car.

“The schedule for pro racing is pretty limited. You’re going to get some extra testing, but budgets in pro racing, especially the cars I was driving, gets pretty crazy if you’re testing a lot. You know in the Club stuff there’s always an event going on. It’s always good racing, especially in Spec Miata, so it gave me the ability to keep my skills sharp in some of the long breaks from the pro series. After the 24 and the 12 Hours, you’ve got months off where you’re not doing anything, so it’s always good to brush up on your skills. The more you’re in the car, the better you’re going to be no matter what. I think anybody in racing can tell you that,” he says. In other words, Machavern used Spec Miata like some of us use iRacing – to keep our skills sharp when we’re not in the regular racecar. But there’s also more to it.

“Spec Miata is always such close competition. You learn a lot of racecraft in that and it carries over into anything that you are doing,” he adds.

In the years since, he has won a TA2 race every year except 2018, when he ran only a couple of races. He won the CTSCC Grand Sport class championship. And he took his first victory in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD class driving a Turner Motorsport BMW M6 in the six-hour race at Watkins Glen last year. For 2019, he will be partnering with Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley in the Liqui-Moly Turner Motorsports M6 GT3 for the four IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup races as well as TA2 and some Pilot Cup Challenge races. At the same time, though, he’s taking a step back as he gets more involved in the family business, which includes a Ford dealership and a couple of Toyota stores. The 24-year old earned his Bachelor’s in Business Administration from High Point University in 2017 and is looking to put that degree to work.

“Now that I’ve graduated and am really stepping into work for the family business, I do need to focus a little bit of my time in that. I think last year I was gone 73 days … it’s finding that balance between learning the business and pursuing racing. There has to be a little bit of give-and-take there,” he explains, though he also mentions that in his sales position, he can pick up and go without leaving anyone in the lurch. “But sometimes it’s a little difficult to switch gears all the time like that. There are times when you get home for a little stretch and it’s nice to just relax and not be running around all over the country. But it’s something you live for.”

In the case of TA2 and Trans-Am in general, there’s a certain rawness to it that Machavern likes. It’s the polar opposite of the GT3 and GT4 cars that he’s driving in endurance racing.

“It’s just the car and driver. There are not a lot of extra electronic aids and aerodynamics that limit the true racing of it. You really have to go out there and drive these cars hard. That’s what a lot of drivers live for; they really want their skills on display rather than what the computer will let you do sort of thing.

“And being single driver makes it really interesting as well. There are a lot of factors to these races. There’s a lot of strategy involved even though you are not doing pit stops and stuff like that, you still have to manage the race. The cars are just a blast to drive, and being a spec class, it keep the competition really tight. On any given weekend there are eight to 10 guys that could win the race, which makes everybody push harder to be the best you possibly can. You can’t let up at any point during the weekend,” Machavern insists.

Wait … was he talking about TA2 or Spec Miata? We lost track, because everything he says seems to pretty much apply to either, give or take 350 horsepower. What it boils down to is competition, and the love of it. He even goes so far as to say that once you get beyond the additional pomp and circumstance of pro racing, when he’s looking through the windshield, there’s really not a lot of difference between club and pro. It’s all about passing the cars in front and keeping the ones behind, behind. The way he describes the workings of his team, Stevens-Miller Racing, even sounds a lot like a club racing paddock.

“Marc and I have a fair amount of experience in a lot of different types of cars,” he says, referring to Marc Miller, a driver of some renown who has raced everything from stock cars to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and who finished second at Road Atlanta ahead of Machavern’s third-place finish. “We also have some fairly fresh guys who are newer to this type of car and newer to professional racing, so there’s a lot of data shared. There are a lot of conversations had on what we can do to improve and it really is a nice team atmosphere where we are sharing a lot of information. There’s nothing that’s really off limits, which is nice.”

That atmosphere may contribute to Machavern’s apparently calm demeanor pre-race. But while many of those on the grid with him dream of moving to the top tier of Trans-Am, Machavern says he doesn’t see that happening for him, even if he does love the speed of the very similar GT-1 cars he’s driven. There’s something about the whole package of TA2, especially the intense level of competition and the hard-fought, door-to-door racing, that’s appealing to him. The way he talks about his love of on-track battle reveals that while he may be relaxed on the grid, there’s definitely a spark inside that explodes into an inferno once the green flag drops.

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