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Bubba Raceway Park

Eckert hopes to recapture Ocala success

February 13, 2013, 1:54 pm
By Kevin Kovac
World of Outlaws Late Model Series
Rick Eckert is looking for more success in Ocala. (Tony Hammett)
Rick Eckert is looking for more success in Ocala. (Tony Hammett)

Rick Eckert wouldn’t mind seeing history repeat itself during this weekend’s Bubba Army Late Model Winter Nationals at Bubba Raceway Park.

Last year, of course, Eckert captured the big-money finale of the inaugural World of Outlaws Late Model Series tripleheader at the 3/8-mile track. This year he’ll try to duplicate his feat in an even bigger-money Winter Nationals headliner — a race that stands as the richest Dirt Late Model event of 2013 Florida Speedweeks.

Track co-owners Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and Tom Bean have posted a $20,000 first-place prize for the winner of the 75-lap Super Sunday Showdown on Feb. 17, which caps three consecutive evenings of Winter Nationals action. The meet also includes a 35-lap feature paying $7,000-to-win Friday and a 50-lapper with $10,000 victor’s check Saturday.

Eckert, 47, of York, Pa., would love to sweep the weekend, making him the first driver in WoO history to win three consecutive A-Mains in as many days at the same track. But even if he falls short of that lofty achievement, a triumph in the marquee race of the Winter Nationals — and all of Florida Speedweeks — would certainly satisfy.

“It meant a lot to us to win the big show last year,” said Eckert, who earned $12,000 for topping last year’s 60-lap Winter Nationals finale. “It would mean even more this year. Getting that 20 grand would really help our team get through a long trip and keep going down the road.

“It’s cool to see somebody boost up the purse and have a real big race in Florida,” he added, hailing Clem’s move to enhance the second annual Winter Nationals at BRP with a true attention-grabbing special that represents the first Florida Speedweeks event since 2002 to pay $20,000 or more. “We’re all glad Bubba is doing it — and he’s a guy who can do it. He can pull down some sponsorship and get everybody talking to make it happen.”

Eckert has fond memories of the 2012 Winter Nationals finale, which served to bust him out of his struggles at the awkwardly-shaped Ocala oval. He had never scored a top-five finish in his five previous starts there, including a pair of lackluster efforts (10th, 11th) in the first two features of last year’s Winter Nationals.

“The racing was really aggressive the first couple nights last year and we struggled,” said Eckert. “Finally, for the third night, (the track) slowed down enough and changed the racing a little bit. I don’t know if we got any better or if the racetrack just came to us, but something clicked. We kept working and changed a lot of things, and then, when the track got more slippery and you had to drive a lot straighter than you had to the first several nights, we ended up being real good.”

Eckert emerged triumphant in an exciting, down-to-the-wire 60-lapper, a race that was hailed as the best Dirt Late Model feature of 2012 Florida Speedweeks. He worked hard for his money, falling back from his sixth starting spot before rallying during the second half. When Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky., slid high in turn two moments after passing Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., for the lead on lap 43, Eckert vaulted past both drivers to assume command and later survived a last-lap challenge from Marlar, whose bid ended against the turn-three wall.

“The track got slippery, but you still had to be up on the wheel,” Eckert recalled. “It turned out to be great racing. I lost some spots early but was able to get back up through there. There were a couple incidents where guys got together and I slipped by and then I held on. It was pretty wild.”

Unpredictable racing has become a hallmark of the Bubba Army Late Model Winter Nationals at BRP. Eckert attributes much of the action to the fact that BRP is “shaped like an egg.”

“It’s a fun racetrack,” said Eckert. “It has a half-mile (type) corner and quarter-mile (type) corner, and the straightaways just meet ‘em up. It makes it interesting. It’s hard to get your car really good at both ends, so you basically gotta pick your end to try to be at your best.

“It is challenging,” he continued. “I enjoy racing there, because any racetrack that makes people make mistakes is easier to race on, easier to pass. If it’s just a big, smooth circle, it can be really hard to pass. But Ocala is hard enough to get around — you gotta change directions in (turns) three and four compared to one and two, and that makes people make mistakes and opens up opportunities to pass.”

Eckert is hoping his Team Zero by Bloomquist car, which sports a more black-dominated color scheme this year, will allow him to make winning moves at BRP. He wasn’t happy with his performance during last weekend’s season-opening Winter Freeze doubleheader at Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga., where he finished 18th in Friday’s 40-lapper (after using a provisional) and seventh in Saturday’s 50-lapper.

“I’m gonna have to improve a lot from where I’m at right now to be at my best again for that last race (at BRP), let me tell ‘ya,” Eckert said prior to Saturday night’s program at Screven. “We had some motor trouble in practice (last Wednesday night at Screven) and got our backup car out (for Friday’s program), but we were missing something. We changed everything but the seat and steering wheel coupler (on Saturday afternoon) to try to get things right.”

Eckert did improve on Saturday night at Screven, but “we still need to get better,” he said.

There will be plenty of hungry drivers for Eckert to deal with at BRP, including red-hot WoO regulars Shane Clanton of Fayetteville, Ga., and Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., who enter the Winter Nationals tied for the points lead after both scored a win and a runner-up finish at Screven.

Besides other WoO regulars, the event is expected to draw other standouts including Marlar, Jimmy Mars of Menomonie, Wis., Brady Smith of Solon Springs, Wis., Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., Don O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky., and Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill.

A three-day grandstand pass for the Winter Nationals is available for $90. General admission will be $35 on Friday and $40 on both Saturday and Sunday, with pit passes $40 on Friday and $45 on Saturday and Sunday.

After an open practice night on Thursday, pit gates are scheduled to open at 5 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and noon Sunday with spectator gates unlocked one hour later each day. Racing is slated to begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and 7 p.m. on Saturday, while the Super Sunday Showdown schedule will start earlier with hot laps at 3 p.m. and racing at 4 p.m.

“I enjoy racing there, because any racetrack that makes people make mistakes is easier to race on, easier to pass. If it’s just a big, smooth circle, it can be really hard to pass. But Ocala is hard enough to get around — you gotta change directions in (turns) three and four compared to one and two, and that makes people make mistakes and opens up opportunities to pass.”

— Rick Eckert

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