By Dustin Albino

Collin Fern remembers the first time he visited Watkins Glen International. The year was 2000 and Steve Park won his first race at the Cup Series level. That was just the beginning. 

A native of Norwich, N.Y., just over two hours away from The Glen, Fern went to the track annually for NASCAR‘s visit. His favorite memory was getting Matt Kenseth‘s autograph, albeit on his Jimmie Johnson t-shirt. He recalls camping out in the infield while watching Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton‘s battle in 2001, and Tony Stewart‘s reign of dominance beginning in 2002. 

“Those are some of my first childhood memories,” Fern told

Fern worked for Brandonbilt Motorsports for seven years, dating back to the 2016 season. This year, he wanted to start his own Xfinity Series team, taking over the chassis left behind from Brandonbilt. 

The team only planned on running a sparse schedule in year one. It was set to debut at Richmond Raceway, but rain canceled qualifying and sent Fern‘s No. 96 entry home with no owner points. The team bounced back for the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway, when Kyle Weatherman qualified the car into the show and was running inside the top 20 at times in the race. The team finished 52 laps down with a suspension issue. 

Throughout the Xfinity Series garage, Fern is known. He hopes to grow his team like Sam Hunt did while in his 20s, so that it will soon be a competitive force in the field. It‘s his dream. 

“I‘m trying my damnedest to follow Sam Hunt,” Fern said. “I think Sam has done a phenomenal job from starting out with nothing and turning his race team into a competitive, top-10 threat every single week. I think following Sam and getting experienced guys to come in and head the program is important.”

Next month, Fern will return home to the heart of the Finger Lakes with Max McLaughlin as the driver of his No. 96 car. McLaughlin has won three big-block modified races throughout the northeast and lives just outside of Syracuse, N.Y. He‘s never made laps in an Xfinity Series car, and has just one Craftsman Truck Series start at Eldora Speedway — on dirt. 

Fern called up McLaughin a few months back to express interest. The duo are friends away from the track. McLaughlin was also in the Toyota pipeline a few years back, competing in the ARCA Menards East Series with Hattori Racing Enterprises. His first win came at Watkins Glen in 2019. 

“Every time I‘ve watched Max race, whether it‘s in a dirt modified, an ARCA car, an asphalt modified and even his lone truck start on dirt, he‘s always fast,” Fern said. “No matter what, he‘s fast and gets everything out of the racecar. He‘s won quite a few dirt races this year, and finished third in the asphalt modified at Richmond. 

“The fact that he‘s living an hour-and-a-half from Watkins Glen and I‘m from two hours from there, it‘s a cool thing to merge our two worlds and give him a chance at something that he might not be able to do again; we don‘t know. I think it‘s cool to give him that opportunity, and I‘m in a position now that I‘m able to provide that.”

McLaughlin remembers Watkins Glen being his favorite track to compete at while playing video games. He‘s spent a bunch of time on the simulator figuring out the famed road course, and he‘s excited to hit the track next month.

“I know that place like the back of my hand,” McLaughlin, son of six-time Xfinity Series winner, Mike McLaughlin, said. “I can run a lap in my mind with my eyes closed at that place. It was awesome to get my first [ARCA] win there. It‘s a prestigious place and cool to our family.”

Mike won at their home track in 1997. Max‘s win 22 years later came unexpectedly as it was his first start on a road course. But for the Xfinity Series race in August, he couldn‘t pass on Fern‘s offer.

“I would like to have made my first start before this, but never got the opportunity,” McLaughlin stated. “Collin is giving me this. It‘s cool we get to do it in New York. Our families both have a lot of connections with New York. We both grew up here. I will have family around that weekend, for sure.”

Because McLaughlin has recent experience at Watkins Glen, he expects to be comfortable when the race weekend approaches. He‘s preparing for the race by making laps on iRacing and watching as much tape as he possibly can. 

The debut became real for McLaughlin two weeks back, as the FRS team, which is made up of mostly workers from Young‘s Motorsports, poured his seat insert. But when the weekend gets here, it will be babysteps for the team as the No. 96 car will have to qualify into the show. 

Your chariot awaits @MaxMcLaughlin_ @NASCAR_Xfinity | @TeamChevy | @WGI

— FRS Racing (@FRSRacingTeam) July 12, 2023

“It would be amazing, there‘s no other way to put it,” Fern said of the idea of fielding a car at Watkins Glen. “I think the car is more than capable. This equipment has run well just about everywhere and has a couple of top 10s on road courses.

“The goal is to make the race, and once we make the race, that goal changes to a top 20 pretty quick. If we can just make the race, standing on the grid pre-race would be an emotional feeling.” 

Following Watkins Glen, FRS plans to fill out its remaining schedule with races at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and Martinsville Speedway, the penultimate race weekend of the 2023 season.

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