Christian Eckes has signed with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing for the upcoming NASCAR Truck Series season. (HHP/Chris Owens photo)
CONCORD, NC — As the 2022 NASCAR racing season concluded and preparations for the new year commenced, Bill McAnally was searching for two drivers with the potential to bring McAnally Hilgemann Racing to the next level.
As a longtime team owner and ex-ARCA driver, McAnally has been sharpening his sense for new talent since his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team came together in 2019. He’s had an array of promising drivers under his banner since then — including Colby Howard and Derek Kraus — but has yet to secure a race win or series title.
He believes his luck is looking up with MHR’s two-driver roster. Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia have signed on as full-time drivers in the Truck Series and are ready to hit the ground running.
“Just being around a team that hasn’t won as much as they’ve wanted to, and I being in the same kind of boat, we both have the potential to grow,” Eckes said.
Eckes has spent the last two seasons driving a Toyota truck for ThorSport Racing, collecting a single win and 10 top-five finishes during that period. However, the week after Thanksgiving, Eckes was informed that his spot at ThorSport had been filled.
A text from McAnally came at the opportune time, offering Eckes a seat in the No. 19 Chevrolet, and the rest quickly fell into place.
“We signed the papers this morning,” McAnally said at the MHR driver reveal on Dec. 6. “We were looking at opportunities for drivers that could help move our team to the next level, who have won races and been there and made the chase. Christian’s name was at the top of that list.”
Eckes will act as the veteran driver on the team and will remain focused on bringing results to the MHR stable. On the other hand, 17-year-old Garcia is starting with a blank slate.
“I’ve been wanting to drive in NASCAR my whole life,” Garcia said. “I’m excited to make the most of it.”
He handled a quarter midget as a youngster, moved up to full-size midgets at 11 years old and ran his first late model race at 13. Garcia’s varying success in all classes helped him catch the eye of McAnally, who has now handed him the wheel of the no. 35 Chevrolet Silverado.
“I want Jake to learn as much as he can from Christian and just strengthen his abilities,” McAnally said. From the team owner’s perspective, the ideal year for Jake would involve a steady progression from top 10s, to top five’s and eventually to a win.
The young Georgia native shares in McAnally’s ambition, noting he has plenty to offer as a driver, despite his lack of experience.
With his history of late model racing, Garcia has been able to develop practical skills — such as effective tire-conversation strategies — that he believes will carry over nicely to the Truck Series. The transition is only remotely daunting to the rookie.
“I’ve been the youngest in about everything I’ve ever driven … It’s just a matter of time to earn the respect of others,” Garcia said. “I’m excited to be able to give this truck some success.”
As his 18th birthday is not until the second race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 35 truck will be handled by a stand-in driver, who is yet to be announced, at the opening round at Daytona Int’l Speedway. McAnally boasted a wide smile as he shook hands with the two young talents in front of their newly unveiled trucks, the blue-and-black NAPA Auto Parts paint schemes clashing with the cloudy North Carolina skies.
“We’ve had almost trucks, and I think if we can be there at the end and not tear trucks up, we can win some,” McAnally said. “Together, I think we can get it done.”