BAKERSFIELD, California -- When I first learned that “Racing West” was going to sponsor the NASCAR Late Model portion of the 27th annual October Classic at Mesa Marin Raceway I automatically knew that something special was coming.
They didn’t disappoint us. First off, they set up the richest purse for a late model race in Mesa Marin Raceway history. It was a wonderful way of giving the late model drivers their proper due for all of the Saturday nights they spent entertaining us.
Secondly, they set up a pool of freelance writers and photographers and asked them to cover an individual driver in the line up of the Racing West 125. This innovative idea presented the media with a rare opportunity to get personally involved with the process of covering the race. More importantly, it provided the individual driver the press coverage they rarely get, but deserve, from the sports sections of their hometown newspapers.
When “Racing West” contacted me to tell me which late model driver I would be covering I was thrilled. I called Miss Vicky, my racing assistant and life partner, and told her “we did good with the writer’s pool, we did really good.”
We were assigned to Mesa Marin late model driver Eric Richardson from Bakersfield. Having already covered a lot of late model action in 2004, I was very familiar with Eric’s driving talents and the fact that he was an 18 year old phenom with a very bright future in racing.
I called him to do a telephone interview and came away from that experience extremely impressed with this young man. Not only was he busy with his commitments with a family owned racing team, Rich Pak Motorsports, he was also a full time student, at Bakersfield College, majoring in agriculture business. Like I said, we did really good with this writer’s pool.
We arrived at Mesa Marin Raceway late Friday morning, October 15th, and I made it a point to introduce to Eric and to let him know that I planned to monitor everything without getting in the way of the important business of preparing for a very important race.
We observed the Rich Pak team from a distance and watched the flow of a group of professionals, during the course of a practice session, making little adjustments here and there to squeeze out an extra second on the stop watch. I recall saying to Miss Vicky “our car is looking good out there today.”
Then it hit me. Maybe that’s what “Racing West” had in mind when they paired up individual writers and drivers. Just maybe they wanted us to experience the feeling of becoming emotionally involved in a stock car race. From that point on Eric Richardson, and Rich Pak Motorsports became “our driver, our car and our team.”
Saturday morning brought another practice session for the late model teams before qualifying. The “Racing West 125” had a unique format in the fact that the drivers had to run the traditional two laps against the clock just to get a starting berth in the twin 40 lap qualifying races. The finish position in the qualifier determined where, or if, they would start in the big money main event the following day.
We were carefully watching Eric Richardson during the practice session. The Rich Pak Chevrolet was diving off of the backstretch and heading right to the low line of turn three just like a well turned, and set up, race should. I was feeling pretty good about the qualifying process.
Eric turned a really good qualifying time and wound up sixth fastest on the field. He lined up in the second 40 lap qualifier and finished third with a very solid performance. That meant he would be starting on the outside of row three in the 125 lap main event.
Eric and the team were all smiles. He told me there were a few minor adjustments to be made for Sunday’s race but, other than that, they were ready. He also told me patience and good tire management were going to be the keys to the race due to the extra laps. All season long the Mesa Marin late models ran main events 50 to 75 laps long. A 125 lap race was going to present the teams with some extra challenge.
Later that night I observed Eric speaking with a friend, and fellow driver, from the NASCAR Autozone Elite Division Southwest Series. Just as the other driver was preparing to get into the car, Eric shook his hand and said “okay let’s get ‘er done.” It occurred to me that if any phrase suited the professional flow I had observed from the Rich Pak team members then “let’s get ‘er done” was a perfect choice.
Sunday race day brought beautiful weather and a break from the wind gusts from the day before. I was all revved up for 125 laps of some of the best late model talent assembled at the same race track. I was also revved up to watch “our car, driver, and team” work their way to the front. I had actually already planned my victory lane interview.
Then it happened. Somewhere around lap 15 “our car” got caught up in a racing deal. Someone decided to make a three wide move and the result was “our car” ended up being in the middle of a crash. I was stunned. It was almost like someone had just punched me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me.
Once I got past the amazement of it all, I became livid over the thought that someone would pull such a move that early in the race and cause that crash. I felt Miss Vicky’s hand touch my arm. I heard her say “please don’t write down those words you just said. NASCAR might dock Eric 25 driver’s points and I know for a fact we can’t afford the $10,000 fine.” She was, of course, right. In the grand scheme of things the only thing that mattered was the fact that “our driver” quickly dropped his window net and climbed out of the car uninjured.
With an expression on his face that clearly said “I really don’t feel like talking to anyone right now”, Eric walked over to the turn two pit rail to take in some quiet time and shake off the sting of what just happened out on the race track. Meanwhile the Rich Pak team sprang into action to see if there was any way the car could be repaired to get back into the race. Sadly, the damage to the front end of the car was severe. “Our team” was done for the day.
Eric Richardson, and Rich Pak Motorsports, will be back to race another day and will be a force to be reckoned with during the 2005 racing season. We will be there to cover a lot of those races next year but something will be different. We will now be finding ourselves keeping a close eye on the #40 Rich Pak Motorsports Chevrolet. I won’t be the least bit surprised if I hear myself saying “Okay Eric let’s get ‘er done.”