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Carolina setback dashes Ferguson's high hopes

May 2, 2016, 7:38 am
By Kevin Kovac
DirtonDirt.com senior writer
Chris Ferguson signs a T-shirt at Carolina Speedway. (ZSK Photography)
Chris Ferguson signs a T-shirt at Carolina Speedway. (ZSK Photography)

Chris Ferguson couldn’t wait for the April 29-30 World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series swing through his home state. One year ago, after all, the Mount Holly, N.C., driver pulled off a magnificent sweep of the national tour’s mid-spring doubleheader in the Tar Heel State — and this year he was well aware that his de facto home track, Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, had replaced Friendship Motor Speedway in Elkin as the site of the weekend’s first event. | RaceWire

This was a twinbill that was like a pitch grooved right down the middle of the plate for Ferguson, a perfect opportunity for the 26-year-old talent to shake off some early-season bouts with misfortune and return to the form that saw him enjoy a 12-win career year in 2015.

“I felt like we were going to run good both nights,” Ferguson said of a WoO weekend featuring 50-lappers at Carolina (a track less than 20 minutes from his home near Charlotte) and Fayetteville Motor Speedway (a 4/10-mile oval in the eastern part of the state where he’s won two Carolina Clash Super Late Model Series events as well as last year’s WoO show). “I was really excited for both races.”

Ferguson’s eager anticipation for the familiar-turf double-dip ultimately turned to despair, however. In one anguished moment Friday night at Carolina, an accident ended his bid for victory and damaged his family-owned Longhorn Race Car so thoroughly that he had to skip Saturday evening’s program at Fayetteville.

“Definitely not the way we saw the weekend going,” Ferguson mourned during Sunday phone interview.

Things started off well enough for Ferguson at Carolina’s first-ever WoO event. He registered the overall fastest time in qualifying and won a heat race, and on lap five of the feature he sailed past Johnny Pursley of Clover, S.C., through turns one and two to assume command.

Alas, before Ferguson could even officially lead a circuit, disaster struck. Between turns three and four he rammed virtually full-bore into the rear end of the car driven by Ricky Weeks of Rutherfordton, N.C., who was limping slowly along at the top of the racetrack. With Ferguson’s machine sustaining heavy right-side damage, his hopes for a repeat of his 2015 WoO magic were done.

“We caught all those lapped cars in (turns) one and two and Johnny kind of messed up so I drove right under him (for the lead),” Ferguson said, replaying the incident. “We went down the backstretch and I was running in on the lapped cars pretty fast and they were running right around the bottom, so I decided to go in high (in turn three) because I was gonna try to pass them around the top.

“Well, when you pull out to the outside of somebody after being behind two cars like I was you can’t really see ahead of ‘em — especially when the track was throwing up as much mud as that place was — and at the last second I seen a car stopped there. By that point I was already halfway down the straightaway, so the only thing I could do was basically slam on the brakes and try to slow down as much as I could. I pitched the car as hard as I could to try not to completely hit him going full speed, but I still hit him a ton.

“I’ve had a few harder (crashes), but this one was kind of nerve-racking because the right side of the car is not made up of too much,” he added. “There’s just a few door bars and aluminum, where in the nose you got the whole nose rack, the hood bar, the hood, and in the back of the car you got all the cage and the fuel cell. That was probably the scariest thing … like, the (crushed) bodywork got all the way to where the cockpit is — it buckled the cockpit around the seat — and (Weeks’s) spoiler made it all the way to my cockpit. Luckily they (Longhorn) build a safe piece, though, because I hit pretty hard and it didn’t hurt me.”

Ferguson could only stare at his mangled mount afterward and wonder what could have been.

“I felt good the whole night,” Ferguson said. “We qualified about two- or three-tenths quicker than everybody and in the heat race we were about two-tenths quicker than everybody, so I really felt like we were gonna have a strong car (in the feature). Then, that first lap, when we pulled up under (Pennsylvanian Jason) Covert (to grab second place after starting fourth) and then I run Johnny down in like a lap-and-a-half — and Johnny was really good too; he led like 16 laps or whatever (before experiencing left-rear wheel problems) — I really felt we were gonna have a dominant car.

“But you never know … it could go one way or the other throughout the main event. We know that track I think more than a lot of the other people did and we were a little bit tight at the beginning so that probably meant we were gonna be good at the end, but …”

Indeed, there were still plenty of variables Ferguson would have faced over the final 45 laps of the feature — most notably the challenging track conditions, which presented drivers the rare combination of wet, rough and dust that bounced cars around, created visibility problems (a red flag was thrown on lap 24 so competitors could replace their mud-caked helmets or add more tearoffs) and contributed to 12 caution flags slowing the action.

“I was kind of surprised with the track,” Ferguson said. “The way they had the track prepared, they had it real dry around the top and real muddy around the bottom. You do usually get a little bit of mud around the bottom there, but they never touched the bottom (with equipment) the whole night until the main event and it got rough. Normally Carolina’s not rough — hardly ever have I been there and it’s been rough like that — but the problem was, they left that bottom muddy the whole night and never packed it in, and basically, when you leave that stuff real soupy like it was and then the sun goes down, it’s not gonna dry up so it’s just gonna get rough. And on top of that, you’re just gonna throw mud up, so you you’re gonna have dry spots from where the track is wore out and dry and you’re gonna have the muddy wet spots where the bottom half of the track wasn’t touched.

“The groove got so low, even down the straightaway, you had to pull tearoffs virtually every lap,” he continued. “It’s definitely not the worst thing that can happen, but it definitely wasn’t fun. It was real tough out there because I just think they didn’t get the track evenly prepared all the way across the surface.”

Ferguson didn’t have the chance to see if he could survive the distance. The crash also kept him away from Saturday night’s program at Fayetteville and left him uncertain when he will make his next start. He has just a single car in his modest arsenal and he said the impact effectively “killed the frame” of the vehicle.

“It got pretty much everything around the center of the car,” Ferguson commented. “The front end is really important, but the center of the car is just as important because it’s what connects the front and back and it was pretty bad. It bent the fifth-coil shock, and it actually tore a couple of the bars out in the center of the car too — it got the bars that go to the hoop around the cockpit, the halo.

“Our next plan is basically to get a new chassis. We actually put a deposit down on a new Longhorn last year but we haven’t gotten one yet, so we’re waiting on them because I just don’t think we can straighten this thing out. Fortunately, though, besides the center of the car most of the other stuff is pretty much OK — the rear end, the transmission, the front end, all that stuff I didn’t really touch, so most of that we can bolt on to a new chassis once we get one.

“It’s kind of frustrating because we planned on building a second car with our sponsorship from Champion (he recently was announced as the winner of the Champion Spark Plug Search for a Champion contest and received $50,000 from the company), but this deal kind of wiped that plan out,” he added. “Right now we’re just gonna focus on getting a new car ready and getting back racing as soon as we can.”

It’s unlikely that Ferguson will have a car prepared for competition this weekend, which is especially disappointing to him. He had all intentions of hitting the road to tackle a MARS DIRTcar Series-doubleheader in the Midwest.

“If we would’ve ran good this (past) weekend — like I think we were going to — we were going to (Illinois’s) Farmer City (Raceway) and Fairbury (American Legion Speedway) next weekend,” Ferguson said of the May 6-7 events at Farmer City ($5,000 to win) and FALS ($10,000 to win). “We got the sponsorship from Champion so we can go do some traveling to races like that, so we were like, ‘Let’s go show up there and not even tell anybody.’ We love to run good around home and win races, but I’m not gonna lie to you — we were really excited about that trip next week because we thought we had a really good shot at winning or at least running top-five both nights.

“That was our whole plan, to go out there … but now we don’t have a race car to do it.”

Ferguson won’t let this setback deter him from continuing to expand his Dirt Late Model horizons.

“When we get the new car done we’re still gonna try to hit-and-miss the big races and still run our regional races that are close,” Ferguson said. “We want to see what we can do at some bigger races. We’ve talked about it a million times — we don’t have anything to prove around here, so I feel like the next step is going out there and running good at the big races and tracks we’ve never been at.

“Our goal is to be more than just a regional driver. The goal is to be like (Chris) Madden (of Gray Court, S.C.), where you might not run a national tour but can go to Eldora (Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio) or wherever you choose to show up and you can run good, whether it be a national race or a regional race outside of your area. If you want to run a $10,000 race in Pennsylvania, you can go up there and run good.

“That’s our goal,” he asserted. “We want to be able to travel and run good everywhere, and make it as high as we can and be as good as we can.”

Ferguson said his most realistic target for a return to the cockpit is the June 2-5 Ultimate Super Late Model Series-sanctioned Colonial Clash — if not all four nights of the minitour, then at least the centerpiece $20,000-to-win Aaron’s King of the Commonwealth on June 4 at Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica. He won’t race the weekends of May 13-14 and May 20-21 because he will attend his girlfriend Olivia Riggins’s graduation from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and then join her on a cruise vacation, so he will likely look to gear up for a strong comeback at the start of June.

Perhaps the break from competition — both planned and unplanned — will help turn around Ferguson’s luck. He seems to be snakebit this year; he’s consistently running up front, but tough breaks have continually prevented him from visiting victory lane like he did in 2015. To date his lone triumph this season was a $6,522 score in the April 16 Ultimate-sanctioned Jack Starrette Memorial at Modoc (S.C.) Raceway.

“It sucks because we’ve led four races this year but didn’t win any of them,” Ferguson said. “At Screven (the Georgia track’s WoO show Feb. 13) we got a flat. At Carolina (a Carolina Clash event  March 12) I broke a control arm. I technically led Smoky Mountain (an April 2 Ultimate feature at the Tennessee oval) for about a quarter of a second before I spun out. And now Carolina …

“It’s a little frustrating because I feel like I’ve had a shot at winning two Outlaw races and a few other races, but we haven’t been able to capitalize. Still, even though we’re not running as good as we were last year, we’ve still been in contention for a lot of wins. Last year we won 12 … it’s May now and we’ve got one win and had a shot at winning five races, so I can’t be too mad.”

Nevertheless, having a legitimate shot at a $10,000 WoO checkered flag at Carolina Speedway slip through his fingers will take him a while to get over.

“Carolina is literally in my backyard, so that’s truly my home track,” said Ferguson, who was inundated by well-wishers throughout Friday night’s program. “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe how many fans we had there! I felt like Scott Bloomquist at the track because every time we were in the pits there were 20 people standing around our car. It was really cool … like, ‘Holy crap! This is cool to have a little bit of a crowd around!’ Even during driver intros, it was cool having that support.

“All my friends and family who usually don’t get to watch me race came out to that race, so to have something like that happen, it’s unfortunate. But it’s part of it. We buy helmets and suits and head-and-neck restraints for accidents, so you can’t plan on not having something happen.”

All Fergy can do is press on — and the dedicated young racer surely will.

“I think if we keep working as hard as we do, we’ll be OK,” Ferguson said. “I feel like we’re at that level now where we’re right there on the verge of winning some big races again if we keep working hard at it. I’ve had a tough year so far, but that’s part of it. We just gotta keep working hard.”

“It’s kind of frustrating because we planned on building a second car with our sponsorship from Champion, but this deal kind of wiped that plan out,” he added. “Right now we’re just gonna focus on getting a new car ready and getting back racing as soon as we can.”

— Chris Ferguson, Mount Holly, N.C., driver

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