WoO championship long time coming for Eckert
By Kevin KovacWorld of Outlaws Late Model Series
Rick Eckert had never experienced a moment quite like the one that immediately followed the final night of the fifth annual Lowes Foods World Finals presented by Tom’s Snacks, Coca-Cola and Nature’s Own at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. But of course, no one around Dirt Late Model racing had ever seen anything like it.
After Eckert clinched his first-ever World of Outlaws Late Model Series championship on Nov. 5 in dramatic fashion — when Josh Richards slowed with a flat tire on the final circuit of the tour’s season-ending 50-lapper, Eckert swooped by to snatch the title — an unforgettable scene swept over the facility. The resolution of a tense, nip-and-tuck points battle had come so suddenly that emotions — from Eckert, from Eckert’s team, from Eckert’s fans, from every last person in the capacity crowd of over 14,000 — simply exploded with a nuclear bomb’s ferocity.
Eckert, 45, of York, Pa., was mobbed by well-wishers when he stopped his car on the homestretch for the postrace ceremonies. Tears of joy flowed freely among those closest to the veteran driver, whose own eyes welled up a bit after he came to the realization that he had not only pocketed a $100,000 points-fund check for his self-owned team but finally reached the pinnacle of a series he has followed religiously since 2004 when it was relaunched under the World Racing Group banner.
“It means a lot to win this thing because we were here since the beginning,” said Eckert, who became the seventh different driver in eight years to raise the WoO championship trophy. “Not everybody who’s been here (since ’04) has won a championship, but after doing it for so long I was like, ‘I’d really like to win this before we can’t do the whole series anymore.’
“Truthfully, there would’ve been a void if we never won it. It feels great to finally put one of these on our list.”
The significance of Eckert’s accomplishment was written all over his face when he emerged from his car. Wearing a smile wider than his orange race car hauler, he pumped his fists in the air to acknowledge the roar of an energized crowd — all of whom had risen to their feet as the race’s last lap unfolded — and was then swallowed up by a mass of humanity.
Like a basketball player who won a championship with a buzzer-beating jumper, Eckert found himself in the middle of a raucous hugfest. His wife, Kristal, grabbed him while sobbing uncontrollably — and admitted later that the final lap happened so fast, she had to be told that her husband had won the title. His 22-year-old daughter, Courtney, wept as she thrust her arms around dear old Dad. His chief mechanic and longtime friend, Bob Miller, and his quiet crew member, Danny White, who joined Eckert’s team on a full-time basis in 2011, bear-hugged their driver. And his army of family members and supporters who had watched from the grandstands and the suites also joined the celebration, including his father Junior, a former racer who faithfully follows his son’s racing exploits; his mother, who attended the race while battling cancer because her doctors postponed a scheduled chemo treatment; and Barbara Vest, the wife of Eckert’s former car owner Raye Vest, who passed away during the 2009 World Finals.
More than a half-hour after the checkered flag had fallen, Eckert was still on Charlotte's homestretch, savoring the electric atmosphere.
“This is cool,” Eckert said in an interview for WorldofOutlaws.com while standing amidst dozens of people. “This is cool that they do this on the front straightaway so all these fans can come down.”
Seconds later Eckert was inundated — on camera — by four screaming fans from Pennsylvania who were dressed up as Teletubbies, those colorful characters that were once the stars of a show for pre-schoolers. Shortly thereafter Eckert climbed back in his car and drove to his trailer in the pit area, where he received a hero’s welcome and then partied until the wee hours — with a group that, of course, included the costumed Keystone Staters.
While Eckert’s championship would have been popular regardless of how he secured it, the unique circumstances that brought him the title on the final lap of the season’s final race made it truly historic. While his championship margin of 14 points over Richards only tied for the fourth-closest in WoO history, no points battle was ever decided in more dramatic fashion and in front of more fans.
Eckert entered the World Finals doubleheader with a 14-point advantage over Richards, who was seeking his unprecedented third consecutive championship. The difference shrank to just two points after Richards finished sixth and Eckert was 12th in the weekend’s first 50-lapper Nov. 4, setting up a Saturday-night showdown in which the driver who placed highest would win the crown.
“Me and Josh were talking before the (Saturday night) race, and he says, ‘Can we make this any harder?’ ” recalled Eckert, who mentored Richards early in the 23-year-old driver’s career. “I said, ‘No, there’s no possible way. We’re making it great for the fans, but usually what’s great for them isn’t good for us.’ ”
After both drivers struggled in qualifying, Richards started 17th and Eckert took the green flag from 20th in the feature, bunching them together for the deciding event. They proceeded to run the entire distance always in sight — and often within inches — of each other.
Eckert moved ahead of Richards at midpack for the first time on lap 25, two circuits after the race’s first caution flag flew. Richards briefly fell three spots behind Eckert before tossing his father Mark’s Rocket Chassis house car to the outside of the 4/10-mile oval and regaining the upper hand on lap 28.
When a caution flag flew on lap 37, Richards sat 14th and Eckert was 15th — a dead-heat in the points race, though Richards held the tiebreaker with his series-leading nine wins versus Eckert’s three. They resumed their battle on the restart but later that lap were nearly swept up in a multi-car tangle between turns three and four. Eckert escaped the incident unscathed on the outside while Richards pressed on despite clipping the sliding car of Darrell Lanigan with the right-rear corner of his machine.
Richards and Eckert were 11th and 12th, respectively, for the ensuing restart, but two circuits later Richards was up to 10th and Eckert had fallen to 13th. Richards picked up another spot on lap 42 and, with Eckert still wallowing in 13th, settled into a groove that seemed likely to bring him a championship threepeat. While Eckert hadn’t given up the fight, he knew his title dreams were drifting away.
“I had burnt my stuff down, burnt my tires off,” said Eckert, whose previous best WoO points finish was third in 2005. “I knew I just had to race hard from the drop of the green. Normally in a condition like (Charlotte was) where it’s wearing tires, I would’ve driven a little easier early and had tire left at the end, but I couldn’t do that. My personal opinion was that I needed to get in front of (Richards) and stay in front of him in case the racetrack locked down. I did get by him at one point, but the track never really locked down in a single lane and he came back by me.
“I was still running as hard as I could, but I didn’t really have anything left and I knew we were running out of laps.”
Alas, fortune was on Eckert’s side. As Richards slid through turns three and four with the white flag flying, his car suddenly lost speed. A flat right-rear tire was visible as he passed the flagstand and slowed drastically through turns one and two.
“I seen him slip off of four there,” Eckert recalled of the championship-turning moment. “He slipped up the racetrack, and I thought, That’s an odd place to slip up the racetrack like that. Then he went down the front straightaway and he started lifting the left front, and I was like, ‘Holy s---, I think he’s getting a flat!’
“The flagstand at (Charlotte) is really high — you have to look up for it — so after I looked at (Richards) I looked up and I seen the flagman was throwing the white (flag). I was like, ‘If he’s getting a flat I have to get after it.’ So I floored into the top of one and two so I could cross him back over as he went up the racetrack. I went by him off two and then all I could think of was that I might blow out (a tire) in three and four.”
Eckert made it to the checkered flag, finishing a distant but very rewarding 12th as Richards limped to an 18th-place finish. In barely a 20-second span, Eckert’s emotions literally flipped from dejection to elation.
“I was happy when I crossed the finish line,” said Eckert. “Then I started thinking, Did this really just happen?”
“If you had told me coming into the (World Finals) weekend that we could’ve run 12th twice and won the championship, I would’ve said you were crazy,” said Eckert. “I was figuring I would have to be in the top three both nights because Josh is so good (at Charlotte).
“But you never know what can happen,” he added. “We got lucky, but I’ve always said I’d rather be lucky than good.”
The finale was a virtual microcosm of the 2011 WoO season, which followed a familiar script: every time Richards appeared to be on the verge of overtaking Eckert for the points lead, a bad break would push Richards back.
Richards topped Eckert in all the major statistical categories during the 32-race World of Outlaws campaign, including victories (9-3), top-fives (22-16) and top-10s (26-25). But after Richards ceded the points lead to Eckert following the May 7 event at Swainsboro (Ga.) Raceway — Eckert won his first race of ’11 that evening while Richards lost eight laps repairing a folded front bumper and finished 19th — the rivals remained one-two in the standings for the remainder of the season.
The difference? Eckert was solid and indestructible, finishing worse than 13th just once (a 16th-place run on Aug. 20 at Michigan’s Merritt Raceway) while completing all 1,637 possible laps in the season’s 30 full-points events. Richards, meanwhile, experienced five subpar finishes (14th, 16th, 18th, 19th and 21st) and completed 1,597 of 1,637 laps in full-points races.
“We didn’t win nearly as many races as we would’ve liked to, but we were consistent,” said Eckert, whose only blemishes on an otherwise sparking performance record came in the two WoO events that offered show-up points (mechanical trouble left him with a 21st-place finish the USA Nationals on Aug. 6 at Wisconsin’s Cedar Lake Speedway and he failed to qualify for the 16-car Black Diamond 125 headliner on Sept. 3 at West Virginia’s Tyler County Speedway). “We didn’t drop out of races and we ran in the top five a lot more than we have the last couple years.”
The most startling aspect of Eckert’s best WoO season since 2006 (when he won eight races but finished sixth in the points standings) was that he wasn’t even sure he could run the entire schedule. Coming off a rough ’10 season that saw him face the financial realities of fielding his own equipment after a 15-year run driving for Vest, Eckert conceded that ’11 could be the end of his stint as a series regular.
“If I was a betting guy, I would’ve bet against me finishing the season out,” Eckert said when asked about his mindset entering 2011. “So with that said, it really was unexpected for us to end up winning the championship.
“At the beginning of the year I looked at the (WoO LMS) schedule and it wasn’t as geographically friendly to where I live as it had been in the past. I made up my mind that we would see where we were at in the points before the Wild West Tour (in early July), and if we weren’t good then we’d just fall off and not make that whole trip.”
When that moment of truth arrived, however, Eckert found himself sitting atop the points standings. Hot off a superb three-night visit to Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa., for the Firecracker 100 weekend (runner-up finishes in the two semifeatures and a third-place run in the 100-lapper) and a fourth-place finish in the Outlaw Sizzler 101 on July 3 at Tazewell (Tenn.) Speedway, he understood that he had to press on.
The holiday-weekend run at Tazewell, in fact, had provided Eckert his first inkling that something special was brewing with his 2011 season.
“I’ll be honest, the first time it struck me that we had a shot was when we were at Tazewell,” said Eckert, whose primary sponsor in ’11 was his brother-in-law Joe Darrah’s J&K Salvage. “Tire wear was really an issue there, and during cautions I saw that Josh’s dad kept stopping him (having him pull low and drive slowly) to look at his right-rear tire. I was like, ‘Man, they should know better than that, because when these tires are about bald the last thing you want to do is slow down like that because they’ll start to go flat.’ Well, after the third caution he did it and when he pulled back out in line his tire was going flat.”
Richards slowed with a flat tire and finished 16th after running fourth for most of the distance at Tazewell. Eckert moved up to place fourth, expanding his points lead from 16 to 40 points with one of those quiet but crucial types of performances that every champion has on their resume.
“We probably had a seventh-place car, but Josh and some other guys got to blowing out tires and we got to fourth,” said Eckert. “I was like, ‘If we can keep pulling this off, if things can keep going our way like this, we might have a shot.’ ”
Eckert did the three-race Wild West Tour. He came home from Gillette, Wyo., with an even larger edge of 52 points over Richards, who suffered a 21st-place finish July 15 at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, N.D., while Eckert placed a steady fifth.
For Richards, the deficit would be too much to completely overcome. He was the hottest series driver of summer and early fall, winning seven times in the 15 events leading into the World Finals. But Eckert didn’t wilt under the pressure; maintaining his focus, he registered four of his six overall runner-up finishes in a six-race stretch in late July and early August and scored a critical victory on Oct. 6 at Rolling Wheels Raceway Park in Elbridge, N.Y., a triumph that not only got him back in the winner’s circle for the first time since May 12 at Delaware International Speedway, but also extended his points lead from 16 to 22 markers.
One month later, Eckert was sitting on top of the World of Outlaws universe. If there is such a thing at Karma, then Eckert had it in 2011.
“I believe in it,” said Eckert, who is fourth on the WoO victory list since 2004 with 24 career victories. “Sometimes you work hard and things work out, and sometimes you run terrible. This year things seemed to work out for us. It was our year.”
Perhaps Eckert even had some assistance from above that made his championship drive possible. Two years after Vest — a man Eckert considered a second father — died at his home during the World Finals, Eckert could feel Vest riding with him in the season-ending race at Charlotte.
“Any time we won Raye would say, ‘Man, I’m tired. I was helping you drive the whole race,’” Eckert said with a smile. “Well, I’m sure he helped me win that championship.”