ELLINGTON –A murmured buzz rose from patrons in the bar area of The Hidden Still restaurant in Ellington Tuesday evening.
And while customers took in the baseball game on the big screen in the bar area, behind the bar it wasn’t “The National Pastime” that the establishment’s owner Max Collins wanted to talk about when it came to sporting endeavors.
While his staff scurried about keeping the popular restaurant/bar looking effortlessly operated, Collins was flashing pictures of racecars. The racecars he’s been competing in.
Like the Senior Champ division Kart he’s been racing this year on Monday evenings as part of the Ceric Fabrication Wild Thing Karting Series at Stafford Motor Speedway.
“See that, I just painted the motor cover gold over the weekend,” the 24-year old Collins said as he flashed a picture of the kart he races adorned with the logo of his restaurant. “It’s pretty sharp. Six weeks into up there and I’m up in the lead pack drafting with the fast guys there. It’s pretty cool.”
And then there’s the Street Stock that Collins is currently racing part-time. No, it’s not a ride he’s racing at a Connecticut short track, but rather one he’s competing with in the heart of NASCAR country, at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton, N.C.
Collins, a Norwalk native who now lives in Tolland, spent 10 years in competitive karting as part of the Norwalk Karting Assocation before getting away from the sport to go to college and start his own business. Now he’s ready to work his way back into the game on the local weekly level, though he’s taking a unique approach to it.
“When I was 18 my father said ‘This family is never going to be able to put you in a racecar.’” Collins said. “He said ‘We’re not going to be able to keep doing Karts and stuff. He said it was too much money. He said you need to go out and figure out how to make some money and then if you love racing you can get back into. He told me ‘It’s either that, or make your whole life about racing right now.’ I said, ‘I’ll go with option A and go learn about a few things and then come back to it.’
“And that’s what I’m doing now. So I have my Kart at Stafford and every Monday I’m there running in the Senior Champs [division]. And I’m shopping around for an SK [Modified chassis] to run SK Light [Modifieds] for next year. And that’s getting to be very real. And I also did this deal down at Hickory … ”
Collins, a 2012 UConn graduate, opened The Hidden Still in August of 2013.
“It’s one thing I was good at,” Collins said. “I was always a bartender growing up, ever since I was 18 years old. Before that I worked in a couple of restaurants. I moved up here to finish up a business degree at UConn. I had to be in Storrs for the last two years. I didn’t know anybody in this area but I loved it. I tried to do some real estate for a while, then I found this restaurant that was for sale and I figured, ‘I’ve worked for a lot of people, made a lot of money for a lot of other people, maybe I can do this myself.’ And its still going and it’s going well.”
When Collins decided he wanted to get back into racing he decided to start by attending a driving school. It led him to Chris Lafferty Motorsports out of Concord, N.C. In April he went to Hickory Motor Speedway to test in Lafferty’s ARCA Racing Series car.
“I went down and it was reasonably priced to turn a bunch of laps in an ARCA car basically,” Collins said. “That’s his test car. It was a crazy experience because it’s a big truck-arm car that has no business being at Hickory in the first place. But it’s kind of cool. The first stock car I ever drove was an ARCA car, which is radical.
“We sat down and I said, ‘What’s next?’ And he said ‘My goal would be to get you to start in a [NASCAR Camping World Truck Series] race in the future.’ I said, ‘Ok, really, what’s next?’ And he said he had a few racecars sitting around and I could do Street Stocks or I could do Late Models. He said the Late Models is going to be a little cooler, but the Street Stocks is going to be a little more of an honest racing experience because there’s a lot less rich kids and I’d get to race against the hard-working guys who don’t want to bend up their equipment, they want to race you. I said ‘That’s who I am, let’s go.’ So he put together a Street Stock and I went down to test and turned a bunch of laps.”
On June 28 Collins made his debut in competition at the .363-mile Hickory oval. He qualified 11th and finished 10th in the 14-car field.
“I made a couple good passes and then I whacked the wall pretty good with about four laps to go. I got a little overzealous and I was faster than the two guys in front of me, but I got into the throttle a little too early coming out of [turn] two and slammed the whole right side of the car into the wall and limped it past the start-finish line and lost all the spots I had picked up during the race. … But to go down there and not finish last in my first race was cool with me.”
Collins will race two more times this season at Hickory, on Aug 9 and Sept. 13, while continuing to also focus on running full-time in his Kart at Stafford.
Collins’ former roommate, Sean Foster of Willington, is a regular in the SK Modified division at Stafford Motor Speedway. Collins said his hope is to be in the pits with Foster racing full-time in the SK Light Modified division at Stafford in 2015.
“I wanted to kind of skip that whole awkward phase of the first time in a racecar in front of everybody I know,” Collins said. “… So I went to Hickory, I don’t know how to drive through the pits, everything is weird. I’m just learning how to be in a racecar. And to get out of my comfort zone is very huge too. I can imagine how much easier everything would be if I were at home. All the resources and friends I have here, to not have any of that is kind of a cool way to learn how to go racing. I know it’s way outside of my comfort zone, but if I can have any sort of steady improvement and progress down there then I’ll know if I have any business trying to race in the first place.”