Fast Talk: Sailing from Golden Isles to East Bay
Here’s the latest edition of Fast Talk, a DirtonDirt.com feature each Monday sponsored by Out-Pace Racing Products. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Andy Savary gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who’s hot, who’s not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing. Regular contributor Ben Shelton subs for Michael today (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: We’ve had an appetizer of Speedweeks with three Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series programs at Golden Isles Speedway and a low-key event at North Florida Speedway. But before we get into the main courses — East Bay Raceway Park kicks off today for the first of six straight races — let’s recap the opening weekend.
Golden Isles gave us three winners with Jonathan Davenport, Chris Madden and Steve Francis. None of the three were contenders in any of the other two races, but you could argue Davenport and Madden had the fastest cars. Which winner impressed you the most?
Ben Shelton: I was most impressed with Davenport. Not only did he lower the track record, but he also claimed a dominant victory in his new ride in the No. 6 Rumley Motorsports Longhorn. Jonathan had zero to no learning curve with the chassis change, and looked impressive throughout the weekend, even though luck wasn't on his side in the final two races.
TT: I’ll go with you Ben. I think Davenport had the potential for a big weekend, but he was first derailed by a flat tire, and then by other issues, that kept him from showing his stuff.
Andy Savary: I'll also say Davenport, simply because he absolutely dominated the first Friday event. Davenport was fastest in hot laps, lowered the track record, cruised to victory in his heat race and led every lap of the feature. Every time he was on the track, he left no doubt.
TT: While we didn’t have a pass for the lead in any feature, Madden’s victory was noteworthy with his right-rear tire deflating over the final laps, and then him escaping in part because Don O’Neal was caught off-guard on the final restart. Quite a dramatic finish, wasn’t it?
BS: The Madden finish was made even more dramatic by a dead battery in the Raceceiver in O'Neal's ear that prevented him from realizing that the race was going back green on lap 48, and that allowed Madden to pull away 10 lengths coming back to the green flag. I've seen Madden lose some big races due to flat tires late in the race, so on this night I guess it was only fair that he got sweet redemption.
AS: It’s hard not to think back on all of the races Madden had lost down the stretch to flat tires in recent years — most notably the Topless 100 at Batesville. In a lot of ways, he had this one coming. A Raceceiver-less Don O'Neal falling asleep while salivating at Madden's right-rear tire and probably costing him the race had the press box in shock, to say the least.
TT: Golden Isles has a history of hit-and-miss Speedweeks races with different tours or even independent races. After skipping 2013 altogether, the track really got right back into the game — Saturday’s crowd was the biggest I’ve seen there since the track was shortened in 2007 — thanks to the Lucas Oil sanctioning and hard work by the track to overcome rain that postponed opening night.
The car counts weren’t overwhelming, never reaching 35 Super Late Models, but with Golden Isles announcing a pair of $10,000-to-win events for next year’s Super Bowl of Racing, this is an event that appears to be on solid footing as an intro to Florida’s annual action in February, doesn’t it?
BS: I absolutely love what the Golden Isles staff has done with the place. I haven't seen many good shows there in the past, but track modifications have resulted in a really nice shaped and sized facility that produces really good racing. Drivers and fans alike seemed to enjoy the place, and I think the Lucas Oil Series has found a really nice home to open their 2014 campaigns moving forward on their way to their mainstay events at East Bay.
AS: It does and I think it has earned its place. Golden Isles produced some of its best racing ever despite a major curveball from Mother Nature and I could tell that the drivers appreciated their efforts. I look forward to them bringing back the Lucas Oil Series for 2015 and seeing what happens.
TT: What else jumped out at you at Golden Isles? Longhorn Chassis logging three of the top four finishers in the opener? Three-time and reigning Lucas Oil champion Jimmy Owens struggling? Earl Pearson Jr.’s three third-place finishes putting him in the early Lucas Oil Series points lead? Or something else?
BS: The impressive performance by the Longhorn Chassis was a definite eye-opener. With more teammates — so to speak — to bounce information off, Pearson seems refocused, redetermined, and rejuvenated and his trifecta of third place finishes showed it. Billy Moyer Jr., while he didn't get all of the finishes that he had hoped to show for his efforts, was as impressive in hammer-down conditions as I've ever seen him with heat race wins in all three shows. Jimmy Owens definitely seemed to stumble a bit, but as we've seen in the past it usually doesn't take him and his team long to get things pointed in the right direction. Once he does it often spells trouble for everyone else.
TT: I think Pearson is an interesting study. He's not got more company in the Longhorn, and that can help him in two ways. As Ben noted, he’ll have more information to share among Davenport, the Moyers and perhaps others. And he’ll also have the motivation prove that his lean times in the early Longhorn years are over.
AS: It’s hard to miss that Jimmy Owens isn't the Jimmy Owens we've come to know, especially at Golden Isles, but the Longhorn stampede stands out for me. It's no secret that Longhorn struggled when they initially began their chassis business, but they've worked hard on it over the years, and judging by early-season action, they seem to have found something this year with their new additions. Everyone in a Longhorn had a moment at Golden Isles. Davenport dominated the opener, Billy Moyer Jr. won a heat race for all three shows and Pearson finished third in all three events. Kudos to Bobby Labonte Racing and the Rumleys. They stuck with it and their hard work may be paying off.
TT: North Florida struggled again to draw cars with just 13 entrants, but Darrell Lanigan probably didn’t mind in getting a chance to debut his new Club 29 Race Car with a $5,000 victory Sunday. Did you all have any doubts he’d be quickly up to speed in his chassis collaboration with Ronnie Stuckey?
BS: Darrell Lanigan is clearly a smart guy with a proven, on-track record. Ronnie Stuckey is clearly a future Hall of Famer as well with a strong knowledge of what does and doesn't work in this sport. Lanigan started developing these cars last year, and clearly he's done his homework. It will be fun to watch what he as well as his stable of clients can accomplish in the new cars this year.
TT: I couldn't help but notice Lanigan had a customer-focused speech in victory lane, immediately reflecting on how his success might help current and future Club 29 customers. That's a side of Lanigan we haven't seen before, but it's clear he's embracing the idea of being a team leader to help not only his own racing but having a successful business.
AS: I really had little doubt. Don't get me wrong, the off-season switch from Rocket to his self-designed cars is a major move, but Darrell Lanigan is a smart guy and he knew what he was doing. It was only a matter of time before he found victory lane and fortunately for him it came on the first night.
BS: I definitely think Lanigan is looking long-term at how building chassis could be his distant future in the sport after he decides to step away from the driver's seat.
AS: We should also give a shout out to Mark Whitener, who totally made Lanigan earn it for the second straight year at North Florida. Another great run for him.
TT: We’ll be at East Bay in a few short hours. Give me a solid prediction that might surprise some of our dear readers.
BS: After seeing car counts dip down last year, all indications are that it could be a much-bigger field than last year. I expect to see Gregg Satterlee open some eyes with strong performances this week in a rare East Bay appearance against a strong field of competitors.
TT: I think Dennis Erb Jr.'s Rayburn Race Car will be getting a lot of attention, and maybe a victory.
AS: I mentioned in a Speedweeks preview piece last week that I think Bobby Pierce will not only win a race at East Bay, but will also win the week-long points title — and I'm sticking by it. Pierce had a major breakout in 2013 and while this may not be a huge surprise to some, it'd be another big step for Bobby and his team.