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Remarkable consistency lifts Lanigan to WoO title

November 4, 2008, 3:32 pm
By Kevin Kovac
World of Outlaws Late Model Series
Darrell Lanigan and his team celebrate his WoO championship. (erikgrigsbyphotos.com)
Darrell Lanigan and his team celebrate his WoO championship. (erikgrigsbyphotos.com)

Darrell Lanigan understands why many observers might be surprised that he emerged as the 2008 World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion. “I guess because I haven’t been in the top two or three in the points before,” said Lanigan, whose best previous finish in the renowned tour’s points standings was fifth, in 2006. “I’ve never really been a points racer.” | Video interview with Darrell Lanigan

But that changed this season. Lanigan, 38, of Union, Ky., collected points in a manner unmatched by anyone in WoO history, putting together a remarkable run of consistency to end the campaign with a record championship-winning margin of 160 points over 20-year-old Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va. When Lanigan clinched his first career WoO title Oct. 31 by simply starting the first 50-lap feature at the Vault World Finals at the Dirt Track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., his already ample national profile took one more giant step forward.

Lanigan has accomplished plenty during his dirt Late Model career — including victories in the $100,000 Dirt Late Model Dream and Dirt Track World Championship events in 2003 — but nothing surpasses a WoO crown on his personal bucket list.

“Winning the World of Outlaws championship just puts you in a different category,” said Lanigan, who has followed the tour since its reincarnation in 2004 under the World Racing Group banner. “Are you able to travel and run good at different tracks? When you win the World of Outlaws championship, it shows you can. You gotta show up and run good everywhere to win this deal. It’s a real challenge — and there aren’t very many people who have done it.”

Lanigan certainly wasn’t considered a favorite to join that select list of champions when the 2008 WoO schedule kicked off in February. Coming off a frustrating 2007 campaign that saw him fail to record a top-five finish until mid-June and finish a distant seventh in the points standings, Lanigan was effectively running under the radar. In fact, a preseason poll that asked nearly two dozen media members to predict the top-five finishers in the ’08 WoO points standings yielded just a single fourth-place vote for Lanigan.

The first eight events of 2008 gave little indication that Lanigan had raised his game. He was steady but not spectacular, finishing no better than sixth but also no worse than 13th. Then came the ninth race on May 4 at Monett (Mo.) Speedway. Fifth in the WoO standings and a season-high 64 points behind the leader entering the event, Lanigan finished fourth to register his first top-five placing of ’08.

Little did Lanigan, or his rivals, know that his run at the third-mile oval in southwestern Missouri would set him off on an unprecedented two-month streak. He went on to compile 15 consecutive top-five finishes — including two victories (May 29 at Delaware International Speedway and June 25 at Big Diamond Raceway in Minersville, Pa.) and two runner-up finishes — before an early tangle left him with an eighth-place finish July 18 at Brown County Speedway in Aberdeen, S.D. By the end of the streak Lanigan was atop the WoO points standings by 62 points and well on his way to the crown.

“Anytime somebody has that many top-fives in a row, they’re gonna be hard to beat,” said Lanigan, whose streak tripled the season-best run of five consecutive top-five finishes that Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., put up en route to winning the 2007 WoO championship. “That stretch was definitely the key (to the title). We just got on a great run and had some luck on our side.”

Of course, there was still plenty of racing left after Lanigan’s record-setting stretch, but the Bluegrass Bandit never faltered. When he closed the month of July with a second-place finish worth $17,667 in the Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa., his lead had ballooned to 146 points and it was clear only an epic collapse could derail him.

Not surprisingly, the famously low-key Lanigan steered clear of any premature championship talk as he continued piling up consistent finishes down the stretch to keep Francis’s comeback hopes at bay. He refused to stop worrying right up to the Vault World Finals, even knowing that all he had to do was start Friday night’s Finals A-Main to secure the title.

“Everything fell into place for us all year and went good,” said Lanigan, who grabbed sole possession of the points lead for the first time after a fifth-place finish in the season’s 14th event, on June 20 at Ohsweken (Ont.) Speedway, and never relinquished it. “The new crew guys (Chris Burton and Thomas McDowell) I brought on this year clicked. We pretty much ran the same car all year. We didn’t fall out of any (full) points races. I don’t remember changing a motor on the road (because of a problem). And honestly, I don’t remember putting a freakin’ front bumper on the car all year because we were in a wreck and it was bent.

“But still, you don’t know when you’re gonna have a bad night. You still can have a problem. That’s why when I saw Gerald (Newton of Arizona Sports Shirts) up there wanting to sell championship T-shirts (at the start of the Vault World Finals), I said, ‘No, it’s not official. We don’t have it yet, not until we start that race.’”

Actually, maybe Lanigan had reason to worry because Lowe’s Motor Speedway was about the only track at which good fortune abandoned him this season. In four WoO events held at the 4/10-mile oval in ’08 he had only a single top-10 finish — a seventh in Saturday's Vault World Finals event. He finished 11th in Friday night’s feature after using only his second provisional of the season to get in the starting field, and he dropped out of the Armour Vienna Sausage Showdown on Oct. 29 (motor woes while running third and finished 22nd) and the Circle K Colossal 100 on April 19 (broken rear end while running second with 10 laps remaining).

Fortunately for Lanigan — and proving the karma he had on his side in ’08 — his DNFs at Lowe's didn't hurt him because they came in events that offered only WoO showup points. What’s more, they were the only WoO features he failed to finish all season.

Lanigan’s sparkling ’08 stats show two wins, 25 top-five and 36 top-10 finishes in 43 A-Mains, plus one fast time honor and 17 heat-race wins. He led 168 laps and completed 2,254 of a possible 2,285 laps, with only three of the 31 laps he missed coming in full-points races. (He finished three laps down in the Oct. 7 event at Fayetteville, N.C., due to an extended pit stop.)

Surely Lanigan would have liked to win more features, but he did record five runner-up finishes. He also continued a trend — only once in the WoO’s five-year modern era has the tour’s winningest driver also captured the championship (Scott Bloomquist, 2004). Checkered flags or not, Lanigan was just too solid, too steady, too prepared, to be beaten in 2008.

“There’s so many different variables that go into winning the championship,” said Lanigan, whose WoO resume boasts 10 career victories and additional points finishes of seventh (2005) and 11th (2004). “You’ve gotta have a good program, a good crew, good maintenance, good cars, parts, motors — everything’s gotta be right. And you’ve got to be able to adjust your car to the conditions at the different tracks you go to, adapt to them. We’ve worked hard to build a team that can win a championship and this year everything finally came together.”

And making the season even more special, Lanigan did it his way. His father, former car owner and 2008 Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame inductee Porter Lanigan, got him started in Dirt Late Model racing as a teenager, but Lanigan has been fielding a full-time team on his own for nearly a decade.

“He helped me out at the beginning and got me going, but everything is mine now,” Lanigan said when asked about his 75-year-old father. “He hasn’t really pitched in for the last eight, nine, 10 years, and I haven’t really asked him. We’ve been doing well enough on our own where I didn’t have to. It just makes me feel better when I can do it on my own. There’s not too many teams like us out there anymore, so it definitely makes you more proud to win a championship.”

Lanigan couldn’t have gotten his operation up-and-down the road so successfully without the help of many sponsors, including Fusion Energy, which debuted on his always spic-and-span car in late-August; gottarace.com; Indiana Decal Company; PRC Racing; Rocket Chassis; and Cornett Thunder Engines.

All those backers will certainly be the focus of Lanigan’s acceptance speech when he receives his $100,000 championship prize during the WoO banquet Dec. 11, at the International Plaza Resort and Spa in Orlando, Fla. — if the quiet, reserved driver is able to get himself on that stage for a moment in the spotlight. You see, Lanigan has been taking plenty of ribbing about having to deliver the keynote address to the banquet attendees.

“I’ll tell you what, doing that speech at the banquet is about the hardest part of winning the championship for me,” said Lanigan, whose overall 2008 earnings on the WoO will reach nearly a quarter-million dollars, including his points-fund take and the Winner’s Circle bonus cash he received throughout the season. “Some people can get up there and talk all day, but not me. I don’t have a problem doing interviews, but when you get everybody sitting there and looking at you, it makes it hard on me. I guess I’ll be all right, though. I can do it to get that 100-grand.”

“Winning the World of Outlaws championship just puts you in a different category. Are you able to travel and run good at different tracks? When you win the World of Outlaws championship, it shows you can. You gotta show up and run good everywhere to win this deal. It’s a real challenge — and there aren’t very many people who have done it."

— Darrell Lanigan

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