Commentary by: Corey Latham ~ [email protected]
Winston Salem, NC(December 29, 2012) — As the year is up, I’d like to take a look back on the ten stories I thought were the biggest of the year. Of course this is just me and opinions are like…well you know……here it is.
10. Southern National Back In The Spotlight
While racing has had its share of negative things concerning race tracks, Southern National was a breath of fresh air. After being closed for three years it returned in 2012 full-force under new owner Michael Diaz. Just as expected, the track flourished in its first year back with strong car counts and great racing with Deac McCaskill winning 17 races and the track championship.
With the strong counts at Southern National, the National Championship stopped there numerous times as Lee Pulliam, Nate Monteith and CE Falk all made starts there. 2013 looks to be no different as they have already made news putting out their strong schedule with the addition of the “Dirty Dozen”, a separate points fund between the track and Motor Mile Speedway.
9. Matt Bowling Rises To The Top
We have Pulliam, Monteith, Falk, Morris and all the regular guys that win races on the regular. Matt Bowling had been running late models the past two years but hadn’t made much noise and, at times, he seemed out of place. 2012 was his breakout year though as the Ridgeway, VA native secured numerous wins and the track championship at South Boston Speedway.
More importantly, he showed his versatility as he raced at the front at numerous tracks including Kingsport and Martinsville with his biggest win coming in the Hampton Heat 200 at Langley Speedway. Bowling may not have gotten the number of wins that the others did but he most definitely was the most improved driver of 2012.
8. JR Motorsports Gets its First Championship
Yeah, it really shouldn’t be news but it is. A race team that runs under the Jr. Motorsports banner should have won a championship by now. They’ve been running for over ten years for goodness sake. But somehow, someway it hasn’t happened. That was all until Josh Berry got behind the wheel of the #88 at Motor Mile Speedway this season led by modified champion LW Miller.
While the team didn’t stand a chance on the higher level with the marketing stunt of Danica Patrick pretending to be a race car driver, Berry was the bright spot as he went into his third season at Jr. Motorsports winning one time and picking up 15 top-five finishes. It was rough at times but now he is at the top, he can polish his skills even more as everyone will be gunning for him next season. He will be back once again for the team in 2013 as he tries to repeat as champion.
7. The Fall of South Boston
Matt Bowling was a bright spot winning the championship at SoBo, but the obvious needs to be addressed. This season the track saw the worst car and crowd counts in maybe its entire existence as, at least in my lifetime, they had to have start and park cars to even get the car counts over ten. While just 5-6 years ago SoBo and Motor Mile boasted over 20 cars every week for Late Model and Limited as the strongest tracks in the region, SoBo rarely had over 15 for any race this season. I’ve heard from the drivers and I think there is more to it than what they say.
I know Cathy Rice is one of the best in the business; it’s just an odd situation. Luckily it looks like the track will have resurgence with the short schedule at Motor Mile Speedway and none of their dates conflicting. I really hope for resurgence because SoBo is the epitome of short track racing; it always has been. This year was sad to see what was going on.
6. Race Tracks Going Under
We hate these stories. Sadly, they could easily be avoided but sometimes the people with the deeds don’t have the desire or drive to make it work. First we have Ace Speedway; I really don’t need to get into that one. I’m pretty certain the owner has to use GPS to find the place when he comes twice a year. Now that he has ran off Brad Allen, who resurrected the track from the dead, who knows what will happen there. Also we had Concord Motorsports Park close down for 2013, well a few special shows but no weekly racing. This has been happening for some time; it just finally got to the breaking point. No promotion and no fanfare has put the track on the “outs” of the racing world for some time now which is very sad since it’s one of the most awesome tracks ever built.
Tri-County will have the UARA but it suffers the same fate as Ace. Out of state owners and race tracks never mix well at all.
5. Thomas Scott Making Martinsville
It may not be ground breaking news to some but to see the pure emotion that this act in racing caused would make anyone remember it forever. I know I personally will. Thomas Scott has never won a Late Model race and they race as a family, his crew is his dad Jerry and his mother Barbara and that is pretty much it. In a time when everyone gets parts at the highest level and motors from about 4 different engine builders they race on a lot of machined parts and motors built by his dad. They saved money all season just to attempt Martinsville; their goal was just to be there. Worst case scenario, they get to run 75 laps around the track in the heat race and last chance race. But Thomas stayed out of trouble and, on a late race caution, he used his experience from Ace Speedway where they use the cone restart every week and made the main event.
When I went to interview him he had tears in his eyes and just simply hugged me. You could tell that this whole racing thing, this was what it was all about. He had made the biggest race of the year and beat out over 40 other cars to do so. Then in the main event he came home with a respectable top-20 finish beating another of the top 24 cars in the Southeast. In the grand scheme it may not be big to some, but to Thomas it was his biggest moment ever. Moments like this are what keeps racing going and why people love it. It’s not all about the Morris’ and Pulliam’s of the world; it’s the little guys that keep the sport alive as much as anything.
4. NASCAR Camping World Trucks Back To Their Roots
Now just by reading that title above many of you are saying “Y’all don’t cover the truck series?” No, we don’t, but the effect of their new outlook is going to benefit the short tracks once more. I remember going with my dad when I was little to Orange County, hickory and South Boston watching Busch Grand National races, and by those races I wanted to go back to those tracks when I got older… and I did. If anyone hasn’t noticed, the attendance at the local short tracks is nothing like it was10+ years ago. They need something to give them a shot in the arm and get people interested again.
We have known this for a while at RACE22.com, but NASCAR is taking the “short track” approach to their lower series. It took them about six years too long but they realized nobody cared about the lower series at Kansas or Chicagoland. With the trucks going to Eldora next year, then Myrtle Beach and Greenville-Pickens in 2014, look for the interest of short track racing as whole to perk up. I’m willing to bet that one of the top three series will also be back at South Boston in the next five years. Yep, I’m calling a shot in the dark, let’s see if I’m right.
3. Tim Brown Makes History
It may not be Late Models but the importance is off the chart. I grew up at Bowman Gray, as a matter of fact I’ve been to the season opener for 32 straight years now, and I ain’t that damn old really. I’ve seen some of the craziest stuff ever at a race track happen there and I’ve seen some epic battles. People outside of the Bowman Gray circle turn their nose up at it, they say it’s not racing and they aren’t interested. Truth be told though, every track in America wants to be them. Nowhere can you go with nearly standing room only every single week with over 12,000 fans and over 24 cars in every division like they have.
It’s a culture, a lifestyle like no other, and there is a method to Its madness. Tim Brown has proved that for years and this season he broke the record no one ever thought would be broken, surpassing the legendary Ralph Brinkley to pick up his ninth modified championship at the quarter mile with eight victories to boot.
With the history there, the names in the program of winners, Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Wood, Allison, Johnson, Hensley, Radford, Worley, Flock, Evans, Cook, it looks like an encyclopedia of auto racing history. And there sits Tim Brown above them all as he will go down as the greatest driver to ever race at Bowman Gray Stadium. Sadly for the competition Brown is only 41 years old so it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.
2. Lee Pulliam is the National Champion
While no one was surprised, what Lee did in such a short amount of time is amazing. He got in a Late Model four short years ago and it only took that long to become the best in the Nation. Lee has been on a tear the last two seasons, winning 41 races, 22 of them this season alone at numerous tracks across the region. That’s the part that I like the most about what he did, he and CE Falk took a page out of the Setzer, Blankenship, Beggarly days where they would race pretty much anywhere.
That’s something you don’t see any more as each track has regulars that test on a weekly basis. And we all know about the suspension at the first of the year that kept him out of NASCAR until May 1st. The road was not smooth by any means but in the end the best car won the title. And the way it all happened was one title adventure we will not soon forget.
1. Defending National Champion Loses Ride
Some might not think this should be the top story. To me, it shows what our sport has become. We know what the televised racing on Saturday and Sunday is all about but you would never think it would get to the level we deal with every week. Well it has. Philip Morris has been doing it for some time now; we all know who he is, Martinsville winner, numerous track championships and four National Championships. Yet just a few short months after winning the National title in 2011, Morris was without a ride. His car owner and Morris himself handled it professionally saying it was due to lack of sponsorship. We all can read between the lines though, Morris just got beat out by money, the same thing that happens at the higher levels of racing. I’ve wondered for years at the Cup level while kids that absolutely suck pay millions for a few seasons until they run out of money, why don’t the car owners take a chance on talent and that driver will eventually MAKE you money? I’m pretty sure it worked out with Denny Hamlin.
Anyway, for it to even be taking place on the local level is mind blowing, if I had told people 15 years ago that Late Model crew chiefs made six figures and drivers paid 200K to drive a car for someone they would laugh me out of the track. Sadly that’s what we have now. I know it is progress, I know that’s the way it is, that doesn’t mean it is right or that I have to like it. Talent just means nothing anymore and I hate that. It was pretty sweet justice to see Philip come back at the end of the year winning races and taking home another Martinsville clock in his own car though.