ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Dec. 14) — In winning Thursday’s inaugural Race of Champions at the VP Racing Fuels Gateway Dirt Nationals presented by Karl Performance, Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., overcame one of short track racing’s steadfast maxims.
“They always say the race ain’t won on the first lap — but hell, that one was,” Babb said with a hearty laugh after his $5,000 victory in a 20-lapper at the fifth-mile oval inside The Dome at America's Center.
The third-starting Babb took advantage of polesitter Don O’Neal’s miscue heading for the green flag, slipping underneath to take command and lead all the way. Babb fought off a last-ditch charge from a higher-running O’Neal in a special 11-car event that opened three days of indoor Late Model racing.
O’Neal dropped by Babb’s nearby hauler afterwards and shared a few laughs with Babb about the initial green flag that surprised the Martinsville, Ind., driver.
“I can’t believe they turned us loose,” O’Neal told Babb.
“I think when you fueled up, you pushed,” Babb said, drawing an affirmative reply from O’Neal. “I luckily had my whole car turned, and I just went.”
Babb drew away from outside front-row starter Billy Moyer and Batesville, Ark., and then O’Neal — both former mates of his from the Petroff Posse 15 years ago — for his second victory at the Dome. Babb added the triumph to a $5,000 preliminary victory during last year’s inaugural Gateway Nationals.
O’Neal finished seven-tenths of a second back as the runner-up with Moyer in third. Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., was fourth and ninth-starting Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, rounded out the top five.
The lone caution appeared on the 12th lap when Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., spun in turn four a few laps after giving his best shot in the high groove.
On the restart, Babb, slipped up exiting turn two while O’Neal used the high groove to take second from Moyer. O’Neal continued to pressure the low-running Babb but couldn’t find a way around in a high groove that didn’t quite provide enough traction.
“I was watching the track,” Babb said. “(The track prep crew) went out and worked the top before we went out there, so I thought the top was going to be a little bit grippier than the bottom. And I think it was. But I hadn’t made any laps up there, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to move.
“But I seen Don up on the outside (via the track’s jumbotron) and he was creeping up on me and creeping up on me, and I got to watching him and I started going a little bit too low and got my skidplate on the curb on the inside and made my car push a couple of times and lost some ground. I thought, ‘Man, you better straighten her back up and roll around normally.’
“Anyhow, the laps go by fast here. Twenty laps went by pretty fast. It was pretty cool.”
O’Neal simply slipped up when he got on the gas.
“They watered the racetrack and they just didn’t get it run in good enough,” O’Neal said. “I thought they was gonna turn us loose and let us make a lap or two before we started, but they didn’t. We come down the backstretch and they said, ‘Lights out, green!’ and I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is gonna be interesting.’ Then it just shoved the nose real bad (off turn four).”
In making his high side charge later in the race, “it was just too dirty out there and I'd lose too much ground,” O’Neal said. “Coming off (turn) four there was a little bit something there and you could get a run on him, but you just couldn’t leave off (turn) two. It was still fun. Little bullrings like this are a lot of fun.”
Babb had fun, too.
“Hell, with Don O’Neal starting on the pole, I damn near wrote the race off,” he said. “I figured I’d be following him the whole time. With O’Neal and Moyer starting on the front row, they’re really tough to beat, and you didn’t know what was going to happen. Especially at this place you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Race of Champions marked the first wheel-to-wheel competition for the Late Models, which will continue action Friday with two complete programs between the split field of 93 Late Models. Jason Welshan of Rockford, Tenn., and Hunter Rasdon of Jonesboro, Ark., were the quickest qualifiers among Friday’s heat race polesitters.
Heat races, consolations and 20-lap main events paying $5,000-to-win apiece will make up Friday’s action. Modifieds are also in action with consolation races and a $5,000-to-win main event.
Saturday’s action includes a whopping $30,000 payday for the Late Model feature winner and $10,000 to modified winner.