NORMAN PARK, Ga. — Victory lane was a raucous, excitement levels were high, grandstands were full and a driver standing atop his car wildly waving a VP Racing Fuels checkered flag was leading Saturday's celebration with his own brand of postrace energy after claiming a $10,000 victory Crate Racin’ USA tour's Gene Maine Memorial at Needmore Speedway.
Welcome to Wil Herrington’s world.
And yes, he definitely owned it after leading from start to finish in the second annual event over Kyle Bronson, Mark Whitener, Russell Brown Jr. and Michael Page, collecting his second $10,000 score on the newly-established E-Z-Go $100,000+ Challenge, a collection of 10 five-figure tour events.
Hawkinsville, Ga.'s Herrington is popular with fans both in the region and at the Kelly and Mandy Walker-owned facility, and the youthful competitor wasn’t going to waste the celebration opportunity. He capped off the frontstretch party with a tender, appreciative moment, momentarily stepping to the grandstand fence to hand his bright purple Hoosier Racing Tires winner’s headband through the fence to a young, adoring fan who was standing mostly alone and away from the crowd. The happy youngster smiled big through the process as fans who saw the generous act cheered even more for the beloved son of former driver Glen Herrington.
“That young boy really didn’t say anything to me, but he was smiling pretty big when I handed the headband to him,” Herrington said. “Maybe he can go home tonight with a memory from the racetrack like I did so many times when I was a little kid and drivers would give me something, or even just speak to me. I remember being that age, and wanting to be around all these race car drivers. When we were all lined up and going across the scales earlier tonight in the pit area, there were four kids standing there waving at every car that passed ‘em. I was that kid a few years ago who was waving at everybody. I hope during my career that I don’t ever forget that.”
Herrington is a hot commodity in Crate Late Model racing these days, and he held off two of the division’s finest — Bronson and Whitener — to accomplish his team’s latest victory. Bronson was aboard a No. 18 machine normally driven by Michael Lloyd while Whitener was behind the wheel of his own Barry Wright Race Car.
Two major crashes during the early stages, one involving at least a dozen cars exiting the fourth turn, slimmed down a 31-car starting field. Once the dust settled and the race hit its rhythm, Herrington was able to maintain the advantage over Cody Overton, who was rarely more than three or four lengths from the leader’s rear bumper until suffering a flat tire with 17 laps remaining. He held the second spot until his troubles struck, ending a solid run for the Evans, Ga., driver, who returned briefly to the event but spun in turn two in finishing 19th.
It wasn’t long ago that Herrington would have been thrilled to be in the same race with Bronson and Whitener, let alone leading them to the stripe in a $10,000-to-win show. After Overton’s exit, both of them were attached to Herrington’s rear bumper on a couple of midrace restarts, but each time the youngster was able to fend off their efforts. Those were big moments not lost on the second-generation driver.
“When you can have a chance to outrun them two, it’s a really big deal for your team,” Herrington said. “Kyle is a full-time regular on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, and I personally believe Mark is probably the best in this area of the country. He can probably make a bathtub go fast, and as far as raw talent at being a race car driver, there’s not many better. I’ve raced these Crate cars against ‘em, and we were down there at East Bay Raceway Park during Florida Speedweeks this year and running those Lucas Oil races in our Super Late Model stuff, so I know first-hand how good all those drivers really are. Just to be able to race against those guys is a dream come true for me.”
While Herrington never relinquished the point on a track that steadily narrowed during 60-lapper, he knew his car wasn’t perfect. Perhaps a bit too loose on an abrasive track surface known at times to gobble rubber. Tire wear was indeed a factor, and that also worried him as the race neared its conclusion.
“We probably could have been a little better, I think,” Herrington said. “We weren’t quite tightened up enough, and with the aerodynamics and tire management concerns we had tonight. ... I was really worried about the tires. When you’re leading, you don’t really know how hard you need to run, and you know you have to be cautious on tires. We were about to have a flat tire in the late stages, and it maybe had 10 laps left in it when the checkered flag waved.”
The win occurred in a memorial event for Gene Maine, who died in a highway accident. Maine was a popular competitor who claimed the 1997 championship on the late Ray Miller’s National Late Model Series, setting a record for number of victories during his title-winning campaign.
While Herrington was too young to race much against Maine during the veteran competitor’s best days, he was tagging along with his father and has a few memories of the famed driver of the familiar No. 201 machine.
“I didn’t have a chance to race with him a lot, but one night at Cochran when I was running Late Models, I remember Gene won the race that night,” Herrington said. “It’s definitely a special deal to win a race like this one that was held in his memory. I remember he came over to shake my hand that night, and I thought that was the coolest thing. He was talking to people and I was listening to every word, and just to stand there and hear all those stories about the old times in racing was a huge deal for me.”