JAMAICA, Va. (June 15) — Brandon Overton wanted to win Saturday night’s 43rd annual USA 100 at Virginia Motor Speedway. Bad.
Racing just days after the tragic death of his crewman and good friend Billy Vacek in a camper fire, Overton knew a checkered flag in the 60-lap Ultimate Southeast Super Late Model Series-sanctioned event would be an appropriate way to honor his pal’s memory. And he got it — in dramatic fashion, no less.
Overton, 28, of Evans, Ga., grabbed the lead from Ross Bailes of Clover, S.C, on lap 21 and held off a furious last-lap challenge from Rick Eckert of York, Pa., to beat the former World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series regular by a mere 0.119 of a second, giving him the race’s $20,000 top prize and, on a more personal note, a touching send-off for Vacek.
“I was just hanging on there them last couple laps,” Overton said as he teared up in victory lane after climbing out of his Rum Runner Racing XR1 Rocket. “I guess Billy was riding with us tonight.”
Vacek, a 32-year-old resident of Mifflintown, Pa., who operated MBH Race Cars for two years after the April 2014 passing of his stepfather Huey Wilcoxon, first met Overton in 2015 when the up-and-coming youngster drove a MasterSbilt by MBH car from his shop. He reconnected with Overton in April when he decided to relocate south to join the Troutman, N.C.-based Rum Runner Racing as a full-time crewman, but, after experiencing two victories with Overton, Vacek perished in the overnight hours on Tuesday after the camper he was staying in at a campground near the team’s shop caught fire as he was sleeping.
“Man, I wanted to win Fayetteville the other night so bad,” said Overton, who in his first start after Vacek’s passing finished second in Thursday night’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event at Fayetteville (N.C.) Motor Speedway. “But I’d much rather take this 20 ($20,000 race) rather than the 10 (Fayetteville’s $10,000 check).”
Eckert, 53, settled for a heartbreaking runner-up finish in his self-owned XR1 Rocket, falling just short after climbing into contention from the 10th starting spot. The 29-year-old Bailes placed third after starting from the pole position and leading laps 8-20 in the Barry Wright Race Cars house car while reigning Ultimate Southeast champion Zack Mitchell of Enoree, S.C., finished fourth and Chris Ferguson of Mt. Holly, N.C., was fifth.
With Vacek’s brother, Steven, on hand watching the evening’s racing with his wife, Overton wasted little time moving forward from his fifth starting spot. He followed Bailes past Michael Brown of Pageland, S.C., who came off the outside pole to lead laps 1-7, and chased Bailes until seizing command on lap 21 when Bailes slipped out of the rubbered preferred groove off turn two.
After turning back Bailes’s inside bid to regain the lead entering turn one on lap 50, Overton ended up heading to the race’s final restart, on lap 54, trailed by Eckert, who shot by Bailes off turn two one lap before the slowdown. The final sprint to the finish saw Eckert dog Overton repeatedly and, exiting turn four with the checkered flag flying, duck to the inside and pull completely alongside the pacesetter.
But Overton had just enough momentum off the fourth corner to beat Eckert to the finish line by barely the length of his car’s nosepiece.
“I thought I gave it away down there in (turn) four,” Overton said of the final circuit. “I kept over-unning that corner. I was just so anxious to get done. I over-ran it (on the last lap), and when I looked down there and seen someone I said, ‘Man, that’s Rick, he’s good.’
“That’s where he shines right there, and I don’t know how I beat him back to the line. I thought for sure he was gonna drive right around me. I’m glad it fell the way it did.”
Eckert, who also knew Vacek well, remarked that his bid for victory came “a little too late.” He had to spend much of the race battling forward after starting the night slow.
“Hat’s off to my crew,” Eckert said. “I made ‘em change shocks and spring six times tonight. We struggled early in the night and I just got myself behind the eight-ball and we had to start 10th and ease our way up through there.”
But Eckert’s car “kept getting better and better,” he said, “and right there at the end Brandon got worse and Ross got worse and I got by Ross (for second).”
The final lap was certainly heart-stopping for Eckert, though he had an inkling that he didn’t have quite enough speed off the fourth corner to outrun Overton to the checkered flag.
“I know off of four I was ahead of him, but he was in the good lane and I knew he was gonna drive back by me,” Eckert said. “But I was giving it all I could give it. I was trying not to spin the tires and I could hear his motor digging, and I was like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna get beat.’”
Overton’s fourth career Ultimate Southeast triumph resulted in a tear-soaked post-race scene. He hugged his crew chief, Harold Holly, who spoke glowingly of the impact Vacek had made on the Coulter family’s Rum Runner Racing operation in his short time as a crewman. He shared a moment with Vacek’s brother and sister-in-law.
And, of course, Overton never stopped thinking about Vacek.
“It’s pretty damn special,” Overton said, his voice cracking. “He’s here with me no matter what, but I wish he was here to to see this. He would’ve been tickled to death.”
Overton paused. His next words provided evidence of how much the victory meant to him.
“I can’t help it,” Overton said, trying to compose himself. “I’m pretty emotional.”
Notes: Overton’s triumph was his fourth overall of his first season driving for Rum Runner Racing and the second $20,000 win of his career at VMS, joining his 2017 King of the Commonwealth success. … Bailes was a subdued third-place finisher after setting fast time, winning a heat and leading 13 laps of the feature. “I kind of let ‘em down I think,” he said. “Took the lead, everything was going as planned, and then I let (Overton) get by me in lapped traffic. Then I got beside him there at the end and didn’t capitalize on it. I think I just went a little bit too hard there at the end and used my tires up.” … Tyler Bare of Rockbridge Baths, Va., who won last year’s USA 100, finished one lap down in 19th in Bryan Klinedinst’s No. 43A. … Mason Zeigler of Chalk Hill, Pa., ran in the top 10 throughout the race’s first half before retiring on lap 38 and finishing 22nd. … Ultimate Southeast title contender Daulton Wilson of Fayetteville, N.C., ran in the top five in the feature but was towed off during the lap-54 caution period with left-front suspension damage. ... Six caution flags dotted the feature, all for slowing cars: Corey Gordon (lap seven), Russell Erwin (lap 21), Trever Feathers (lap 32), Casey Roberts (lap 36), Jamie Bathroom (lap 48) and Jeff Smith (lap 54).