WISCASSET — It is a rare marquee auto racing event, in that it always appears so early on the schedule. The Coastal 200 at Wiscasset Speedway, Maine’s most lucrative standalone Late Model race, arrives almost as soon as most area tracks have opened their gates to begin a new season.

In many ways, competitors say, it adds to the allure.

“It’s the biggest race of the year for me,” said 2017 Coastal 200 winner Andrew McLaughlin of Harrington. “I’m sure it is for (2016 winner Chris Thorne) and other guys, too. It’s early in the year for a big race, but I like it.”

There are advantages to holding a $5,000-to-win race early in the season, particularly one which draws so heavily on weekly Wiscasset Speedway competitors.

Annual operating budgets for small teams haven’t yet been blown through by unforeseen damage or trips to other races during a long summer. The playing field is equalized as competitors may or may not have yet hit on the best way to configure their cars for optimum performance. For most teams, it’s their first chance to try something out of the norm.

But there are also curveballs thrown at teams because the race comes before the end of May.

For starters, Late Model teams at Wiscasset have only two races under their belts this season. Weather, too, is typically vastly different for the Coastal 200 — though Sunday’s forecast calls for overcast skies — as it’s typically the first warm day to greet race teams on the coast after racing on cold evenings in the early part of the schedule.

“You pretty much have to treat it as a standalone event, as far as setting the car up,” said Thorne, a four-time track champion from Sidney. “Last year, I thought I was going to be good and I was terrible. The year before, I wasn’t really that great the first couple of races (of the year) and then at the Coastal the car was awesome. Honestly, we didn’t even change that much.

“A lot of it’s the weather. It’s tires. You’re on a whole set of different tires for the Coastal. Everything’s new.”

Some things, however, don’t change, no matter the weather or the scheduling. The last four Coastal 200 winners all have significant experience at the .333-mile oval. Prior to McLaughlin and Thorne, Dave Farrington Jr. of Jay (a multi-time winner at Wiscasset who began his career at the track) and Josh St. Clair of Liberty, whose grandfather Dave St. Clair owned the track for nearly two decades, won the Coastal 200.

“You get the car going the best you can the first couple of weeks, but that race is a different breed,” Josh St. Clair said. “It’s long. You’ve got to be there at the end. There’s lap-leader (bonus) money, but the end’s where it’s at. Slow and steady.”

McLaughlin, the most recent Late Model feature winner at the speedway, said he focuses little on the stopwatch during the first couple of weeks of the season. He’s simply trying to get the car to go the way he wants it with an eye on 200 laps this Sunday afternoon.

“I think getting the car comfortable still goes a long ways,” McLaughlin said. “This time of year, I kind of throw the stopwatch in the dump and just get the car feeling good. … I just try to work to make the car feel comfortable no matter what conditions, then based on what we’ve learned over the years on experience, we adjust to whatever we need to do on Sunday if it is warmer or whatever.”

Though Thorne typically likes early- and late-season racing at Wiscasset, he’s learned over the years that there’s little you can prepare for in extra-distance events. He thought he had a better chance at winning in 2017 than he did when he won the year before, but a broken bleeder valve rendered his car virtually undriveable.

“It’s kind of hard to go around in circles with half the air in your tires,” Thorne joked.

For Josh St. Clair, he nearly became the first driver to win the Coastal 200 back-to-back before he crashed with Nick Hinkley while racing for the lead in 2015.

McLaughlin, St. Clair and Thorne all agree on one thing. Being there at the end is the only chance you have of winning the biggest race on their calendar.

“You’ve got to be calm,” McLaughlin said. “You get all this information during the day, and you try, with what you know, to translate it into being there at the end of that day.

“Even a year later, you saying me winning it still gives me a chill. My father raced for years, and his big goal was to win a 100-lap race. It was always my goal to win a big race. I’m kind of searching for more goals now, because I’ve won that. My only goal is to win it again.”

The normally unflappable and soft-spoken Thorne was emotional in Coastal 200 victory lane in 2016. If there’s anything that gets him animated, it’s the opportunity this weekend to become just the second driver in history to win the Coastal 200 a second time.

“I still want to win it just as bad,” Thorne said. “It’s still the biggest race. For a Late Model around here, it’s still our biggest race anywhere. Plus, it’s five grand to win it. I’d like to have that.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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