Coming back to Martinsville brings back childhood memories for NASCAR Cup Series rookie Matt Tifft. He remembers sitting up in grandstands as a fan in Turns 3 and 4.
Tifft, a 22-year-old Fairfax native, began racing as a kid, and quickly moved through NASCAR's Truck and Xfinity Series starting in 2014.
But the road to the Cup Series wasn't without its difficulties. Tifft was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in June 2016, immediately putting his racing career on hold.
“It was crazy there because I was told I wouldn't drive a race car again,” Tifft said at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday.
It was about three months after the initial diagnoses before Tifft started to feel better and a full year before he was able to defy doctors' original diagnoses and get back behind the wheel of a car.
Those 12 months were filled with neurological exams, a seizure study where he sat in a room for five days with 26 probes hooked up to his head, another neurocognitive exam with a full evaluation of his brain similar to what commercial airline pilots have to go through, and test at tracks in stock cars and late models to make sure he was up to NASCAR's standards and could be safe on the track, not just for himself but for those he was competing against.
“At first it was shocking and then it was kind of frustrating and it turned into determination to find different answers,” he said.
“So being here, competing at NASCAR's highest level, it's really special. I try to make sure I make the most of the opportunity.”
Tifft has now made helping others suffering from brain tumors a central part of his offtrack life. He regularly works with the National Brain Tumor Society, participating in the Charlotte Brain Tumor Walk and 5K in his new home of Charlotte, N.C., and advocating on Capitol Hill for expansions in research and funding.
To him, knowing he was one of the lucky ones makes him want to fight harder for those who aren't.
“When I was diagnosed, and the news came out, and I was going in for surgery, I had this huge influx of support from brain tumor patients and families and people who had gone through it. It was so nice that they reached out, but at the same time I realized there were so many people who had it worse than I did.
“That was kind of my deal on it was I knew I was actually one of the lucky ones for catching it when I did and getting treatment and moving on. I think there was a reason I was put in this spot and able to hopefully try to help some of those people out.”
Tifft now has a bigger platform too racing on NASCAR's highest level. He has felt the typical issues of a rookie, like getting comfortable with his team and crew and building up a notebook for all the tracks. But having raced at all the Cup Series tracks in either the Xfinity or Truck Series gives him a little added comfort. Plus, with NASCAR's new rules package, he believes most all drivers are starting on equal footing when it comes to getting used to the cars.
“The first couple weeks was kind of a learning experience of the longer races and new race team and stuff like that. So working with everyone was kind of a challenge the first couple weeks,” he said. “But I feel like the last couple weeks we've started to hit our stride more and start to compete with our Front Row (Motorsports) teammates.
“That's what it's all about is just trying to build each week, especially the beginning part of the season. As we move kind of closer to the Easter break, that's when we kind of turn the corner of being solid each time we unload it for practice. We've been able to do that the last couple week, so I feel like that's been a positive change. But it's been a lot of fun thought. This certainly has been a challenge. The Cup Series is so competitive and so tough so you've just got to be on it. On all fronts, from myself to the team to strategy to just everything has to be right on top of everything so you cant miss. It comes back and bites you so fast, for sure.”
Tifft will start 32nd for Sunday's STP500 at Martinsville Speedway. In five races this season his highest finish is 20th at Phoenix, a place he said he has been able to take notes from and apply them to Martinsville.
“This place has always been special to me,” Tifft said of The Paperclip. “I've always loved Martinsville. Watching when I was little and getting to run here in the Truck Series, I always liked it a lot.”
This first weekend in Martinsville as a Cup Series regular has been “crazy” for Tifft, but in a good way. The first couple of laps during Saturday's practice was about knocking the cobwebs off after having not competed here in three years.
“This is such a rhythm racetrack because it's so small and it goes by so fast you have to be on it,” he said. “It's been fun though, I really enjoy racing here. It's a lot about finesse and kind of a chess game of being smart and not tearing up your equipment and being more disciplined than other guys. I've always like that about Martinsville a lot."
After his struggles the last couple of years, he's not taking advantage of what he has.
“I was a long process for sure. Getting back was obviously the goal, but now being here it certainly was all worth it,” he sa