Whitwell aims for more success after Tucson win
By Joshua JoinerDirtonDirt.com staff writer
With his victory in Saturday’s Winter Extreme opening round feature at Tucson International Raceway, R.C. Whitwell made history by becoming the first home-state driver to reach victory lane during the 11-year history of Arizona’s annual January stretch of all-star Super Late Model action. But even though his breakthrough performance came against a stout field that include national touring stars like Billy Moyer, Jimmy Mars and Shane Clanton, Whitwell is reluctant to call his victory an upset.
“I guess I kinda surprised a lot of people by winning it,” the 28-year-old Tucson, Ariz., racer said of his $3,000 triumph in the first of six races for Tucson’s NDRL-sanctioned Winter Extreme miniseries. “But I know it wasn’t that crazy at all. I mean, we’ve ran pretty good in these races before.” | Complete Winter Extreme coverage
Indeed, Whitwell has acquitted himself well in Tucson’s January action. Early in his Super Late Model career, Whitwell, a multi-time open-wheel modified champion at Tucson, burst on to the Late Model scene at Tucson in 2011 with an impressive three runner-up finishes in six races. Without a Late Model ride, Whitwell didn’t compete in the 2012 version of the event, but he came back strong with three top-five finishes in 2013.
“I think everyone expects those guys to dominate and they come here expecting to run up front,” said Whitwell, who added another top-five finish in Sunday’s second round feature with a 10th-to-fifth run. “They probably don’t expect a guy like me to give them much of a run, so it feels pretty good to surprise a lot of people and show them that we can beat those guys.”
Whitwell’s surprising (but not improbable) victory is part of an impressive start to this year’s Winter Extreme by West Coast-based drivers. Along with his victory and fifth-place finish, California drivers Tony Toste of Pismo Beach and Clay Daly of Watsonville added to the West Coast contingent’s accolades by finishing second and fourth respectively in Sunday’s feature.
And again, while the group’s strong collective performance may come as a surprise to many, Whitwell has plenty of confidence in the West region’s representatives. The Tucson area specifically has been a hot bed for drivers in many different dirt track divisions with Tucson natives Jeremy Payne and Jerry Coons Jr. each finding plenty of success in the open-wheel ranks.
“There’s a lot of talent that’s come from out here,” Whitwell said. “Jeremy Payne is from here and he’s made it pretty big as a professional racer. Jerry Coons Jr. is an awesome USAC racer. Close to here, you’ve got a lot of good modified racers from New Mexico like Johnny and Stormy Scott. This area has produced some good talent. I’m just glad to kinda carry it on a little bit and do my part.”
Like Payne and Coons, who have both left Tucson to find launch successful racing careers from the eastern half of the country, Whitwell also hopes to one day take his talents east.
Whitwell enjoyed a brief taste of racing back East in 2011 when he raced with the MARS DIRTcar Series in the Midwest. Thanks to his stellar performance in Tucson’s January action that year, Whitwell landed a ride with Poplar Bluff, Mo.-based car owner Steve Rushin for the season and once again impressed with one victory and a third-place finish in the MARS championship chase, and also added a victory on the COMP Cams Super Dirt Series.
Whitwell was forced to part ways with Rushin following the 2011 season and return to Tucson — where he’s since added more than 15 Late Model special event victories over the past two years and claimed the Championship Dirt Motorsports championship in 2013. But he would relish the opportunity to once again head east to race.
“It was the time of my life to go out and race on the road,” Whitwell said. “I’d do it for free if I could, but you don’t want your house to foreclose or anything like that, so it was just a tough decision I made to come back. I’ve got myself freed up now, and I’m just in a better situation where I could leave to go race and not have to worry about all that stuff.
“I’m a lot more mature as a driver too. The more you race, you just learn a lot more. From where I was then to now, it’s a world of difference.”
Whitwell’s ultimate goal is to one day compete on Dirt Late Model’s national level, and given that right opportunity, he’s confident he could compete against the sport’s best drivers.
“I think I could be competitive with these guys week in and week out,” Whitwell said. “I know it’s a whole different animal, but it would be nice to try if you could get the right personal and the right team behind you.
“In a situation with good equipment and somebody to help you out and build your confidence up, I think we could run with just about anybody.”
Whitwell knows first hand how much a difference a solid team can make from his experience in his current ride with car owner Jeff Manka. Since joining the team late last season, Whitwell has been nearly unbeatable with three victories in four races that, along with his impressive Winter Extreme performances this week, featured a $7,500 sweep of Tucson’s Carl Trimmer Classic doubleheader on Thanksgiving weekend.
Whitwell credits much of his success with Manka’s team to the strong working relationship he’s quickly built with new crew chief Craig Parker.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had a crew chief,” Whitwell said. “Craig Parker’s been working on Late Models for years, and he knows a lot about the car. It’s nice to have him to bounce ideas off of. Normally, I’m having to making decisions on my own. It’s just so nice to have someone else to work with. I think he gives me so much more confidence.”
Whitwell’s confidence with his new team has been on full display during the first two nights of the Winter Extreme, but as the miniseries returns to action Wednesday night, he’s hoping for even more success before Sunday’s $10,000-to-win finale.
“I’m more confident now this year than any time, especially working with this team,” Whitwell said. “I’m just going out there and try to make the main events first of all and hopefully get some luck to start near the front. You never know how thinks can shake out with this deal, but I definitely think we can maybe win another one this week if we just stay out top of the setup and get a few things to fall our way.”