Volusia Speedway Park
World of Outlaws ready to launch '09 season
By Kevin KovacDirtonDirt.com chief writer
With the 2009 World of Outlaws Late Model Series set to kick off Thursday during the 38th annual Alltel DIRTcar Nationals by UNOH at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., there are plenty of stories fans will be watching closely.
The Feb. 12 opener pays $10,000 to the winner and will be followed by the Feb. 14 Volusia finale, also paying $10,000.
Can he repeat?
Darrell Lanigan put together the most spectacularly consistent campaign in WoO history in 2008, rolling to his first career championship by a record points margin not because of regular victory lane stops (he won just twice) but thanks to his steadiness (including an unprecedented streak of 15 consecutive top-five runs). So the question is: Can the 38-year-old standout from Union, Ky., continue avoiding DNFs and posting top-five finishes at an amazing clip with the turn of the calendar?
Lanigan is certainly ready to take his shot at becoming the first driver to repeat as WoO champion since the tour was rekindled in 2004 under the World Racing Group banner. He hasn’t rested on his laurels during the off-season. Rather than return to defend his title with his self-owned, Fusion Energy-sponsored team status-quo, he’s made a noteworthy change with his engine program, switching to Chevy powerplants after being a Ford devotee for more than a decade. Lanigan’s longtime engine builder, Jack Cornett, said the move isn’t a gamble for Lanigan because development advances now allow him to build Chevy and Ford motors with virtually the same horsepower numbers.
The next step
All the preseason buzz has centered around Josh Richards — and that was even before he made himself the hottest driver in the country entering with three Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victories over the past week at East Bay Raceway Park near Tampa.
The Shinnston, W.Va., driver, who sheds his Kid Rocket nickname when he turns 21 on March 22, took a giant leap forward in 2008 by sharing WoO top-winner status with Steve Francis (six wins apiece) and placing a career-high second in the points standings. He won the season opener (at Volusia) and finale (at Lowe’s Motor Speedway), and his October victory at Fayetteville (N.C.) Motor Speedway came from the 18th starting spot — the longest rally of the season.
Richards seems to be the hot pick to break through as the 2009 champion, and why not? He has the equipment (his father Mark’s Rocket Chassis house car, which sports a new color scheme in ’09), a strong crew (his dad, Jimmy Frey and Matt Barnes) and experience (he’s entering his fifth full season on the tour). What’s more, he has proven to be the most consistent qualifier on the WoO over the past two seasons, using just a single provisional spot in the last 102 tour events.
What will put Richards over the top in 2009? Eliminating those small setup errors that left him with a few too many finishes outside the top 10 last year.
Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., failed to repeat as WoO champion in 2008, but a third-place finish and a share of the season win lead wasn’t too shabby for his first year as Maryland car owner Dale Beitler’s hired gun. He also became the tour’s winningest driver since 2004, pushing his career checkered-flag total to 20.
Back for another run down the Outlaws road with Beitler, the 41-year-old Francis is confident he can regain the crown he earned for the first time in 2007. The team has made no major changes in equipment or manpower, giving Francis a great comfort level. He’s just looking to avoid the mid-season lull and late-season misfortune that proved fatal to his title hopes.
Shane Clanton announced his arrival as a big-time WoO star in 2008, winning four times — all in the last 17 races of the season — and falling just short in several other events after making thrilling bids for victory.
But the 33-year-old from Locust Grove, Ga., finished fourth in the points standings, leaving him to wonder what might have been had he not gotten off to such a horrible start. Mechanical malfunctions knocked him out of the two season-opening events at Volusia Speedway Park while he was in contention, putting him in an 84-point hole that he couldn’t recover from.
Clanton spent the winter months preparing his Ronnie Dobbins-owned Rocket cars with a complete season in mind. With a career-high finish of second in the WoO points standings under his belt (2006), there’s no doubt he deserves serious consideration in any championship talk.
Looking to rebound
The 2008 season was totally unsatisfactory to Chub Frank. Eyeing a title after leading the tour in A-Main wins and finishing a career-high second in the points standings in 2007, the Bear Lake, Pa., star won just once and tumbled to fifth in last year’s points battle.
Frank, 47, returns this season without Lester Buildings sponsoring his team after a four-year association, but he’s bullish about his chances for a strong comeback. He felt he built some momentum late in the ’08 campaign and expects to carry that speed into the new year.
All eyes on him
Perhaps the most intriguing WoO regular in 2009 will be Rick Eckert of York, Pa., who will look to regain his ’06 magic (a tour-leading eight wins that year but only one since) with a switch to Bloomquist Race Cars.
Easily the most veteran, accomplished Dirt Late Model driver to join 2004 WoO champion Scott Bloomquist’s Team Zero group, the 43-year-old Eckert and team owner Raye Vest have hopped between MasterSbilt, GRT and Rayburn machines since leaving the Rocket fold following the 2006 season. He’s searching for a combination that will return him to championship contention after a disappointing seventh-place finish in the 2008 points standings.
There wasn’t a WoO regular who ran a Bloomquist Chassis in 2008, but the chassis brand nevertheless ranked second on the tour’s manufacturers’ win chart with five victories among four drivers.
Looking to 2009
All the long hours Clint Smith and his crew put in during the off-season at his Senoia, Ga., shop were focused on erasing memories of a frustrating 2008 campaign.
After contending for the ’07 WoO title before settling for a career-high third-place finish in the points standings, Smith, 43, slipped to eighth in last year’s rankings. He won just once, down from his four victories the previous year.
The driver known as Cat Daddy will once again take his own GRT cars into battle, making him the standard-bearer on the tour for the Arkansas chassis manufacturer.
Stronger and faster
Tim Fuller had his moments in 2008, specifically, a two-race win streak in North Dakota and Wyoming in July, but a ninth-place finish in the points standings fell short of the ’07 Rookie of the Year’s expectations.
Fuller, 41, of Watertown, N.Y., candidly conceded that he struggled to find consistency because he wasn’t prepared quite enough for last year’s WoO grind. He’s retooled for ’09, remaining with John Wight’s Gypsum Express team but with a pumped-up engine program and a bigger crew.
This year Fuller is also serving as a mentor for teenager Tyler Reddick of Corning, Calif., a budding talent who is moving into the Late Model ranks after running sprint cars and midgets last season. Reddick plans to spend the 2009 season following the WoO alongside Fuller, perhaps as a Rookie of the Year contender.
Vic Coffey didn’t begin the 2008 campaign with specific plans to chase the entire WoO schedule, but he ended up missing only a handful of events en route to winning the Rookie of the Year Award.
Coffey, 37, of Caledonia, N.Y., returns this season much more prepared for the grueling test of man and machine. After running much of the ’08 sked with only one car available from the Sweeteners Plus Racing shop, he has two new Rocket machines ready to go. He also will no longer have to find hotel rooms following events because his hauler now sports living quarters.
Hitting the road
Brady Smith proved he can win on the WoO last season when he captured back-to-back Wild West Tour events at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, N.D., and Estevan (Saskatchewan) Motor Speedway.
But can the 31-year-old from Solon Springs, Wis., make similar noise as a full-time follower of the WoO? He’ll take a shot in 2009.
Smith has made plans to hit the road with a national tour for the first time in his young career. A Bloomquist Race Cars campaigner, he’s applied to compete for the Rookie of the Year Award.
The upstate New York-based JIR Motorsports team was the unexpected addition to the 2008 WoO, a newcomer to the Dirt Late Model world that jumped right into the fire, following virtually the entire national tour and entering as many four cars in an event.
JIR Motorsports is returning to the WoO scene in ’09, but with what team owner (and possible Rookie of the Year contender) Jeff Isabell Sr. calls “a stronger, more organized effort.” Gone from the team are DIRTcar big-block Modified legend Danny Johnson and Sean Beardsley, who both ran roughly half the 2009 schedule.
Instead, JIR will be all family this year, with Isabell’s sons Joe, who was runner-up in the ’09 Rookie of the Year battle and finished 11th in the overall points standings, and Jeff Jr., who began entering WoO events in June, the focus of the operation.
With the team now concentrating on running Rocket cars, Joe Isabell, 19, and Rookie of the Year hopeful Jeff Isabell Jr., 17, will have greater access to setup information on the road. Jeff Isabell Sr., who turned 38 on Jan. 21, also plans to race in more than the handful of WoO shows he entered in ’08.
Stepping it up
Dustin Hapka of Grand Forks, N.D., got a taste of life on the road with the WoO when he followed the Wild West Tour last summer, an eight-race stretch that marked his debut in full-bore Dirt Late Model racing.
The 25-year-old has decided to go full-time with the WoO in 2009. The first North Dakota driver to chase the tour since Fargo’s Rick Aukland in 2004, Hapka will pursue the Rookie of the Year honor with his family-operated team.
Joining Hapka, Brady Smith, the Isabells in the large crop of potential Rookie of the Year candidates are 19-year-old Russ King of Bristolville, Ohio, who has designs on becoming the third straight driver with big-block modified roots to capture the WoO Rookie honor; Brent Robinson of Smithfield, Va., a former Carolina Clash Series Rookie of the Year; and Chuck Hummer of Ottawa Lake, Mich., and Chas Shellenberger of Winfield, Pa., two unheralded drivers who are hoping to live out their dreams of touring with the WoO.