The Lucas Oil Modified Racing Series, presented by 1 800 Loan Mart, returned to action, April 28th, at the always challenging Lucas Oil I 10 Speedway in Blythe-California for the running of the General Tire 75. When the checkers flew in the air, it was Lake Havasu City-Arizona driver Chris Gerchman who parked his open wheel modified in the Sunoco Race Fuel victory lane. It wasn't an easy task to accomplish. Gerchman had to defend his position against a hard charging Austin Barnes during the final laps of the race. The result was an exciting finish from a racing series that specializes in on track excitement.
The Lucas Oil I 10 Speedway is a tightly wound, bullring shaped, quarter mile paved oval where passing has to be handled very carefully. That meant that pre race track position, from the Saturday afternoon qualifying session, was extremely important to the 29 race entries who ran the two laps against the stop watch.
When qualifying began, all eyes were on driver Austin Barnes largely due to the practice times he posted during the series' test and tune session held the night before. On his first qualifying lap the Escondido-California driver ripped off a lap of 14.435 second and everyone agreed that time was going to be very difficult to beat. It only took Barnes a matter of seconds to prove everyone wrong because his second lap, 14.326, was even faster.
With 29 modifieds vying for 22 starting berths in the General Tire 75, a 20 lap B main featuring ten cars was a necessity. P J Menga Jr won the race while Josh Gross, Chris Cook and Vanessa Robinson completed the four transfer spots.
The starting field for the General Tire 75 was now almost set. There was still the matter of the pre-race inversion ceremony held during the driver's meeting. Austin Barnes did the honors and drew the number seven which meant he had his work cut out for him during the race. During the March 24th season opener, Barnes set fast time and then drew an eight for the inversion and had to work his way through the field for the win.
When the green flag fell on the race, Tim Morse came off of the front row to take the lead. The Burbank California driver led the first 17 circuits of the race before Chris Gerchman made what would turn out to be the race winning move.While the new race leader was busy clicking off the laps in the race, Barnes was working his way through the field and, by lap 41, moved into second and began the process of eradicating the asphalt real estate between himself and the race leader.
Prior to the final restart, following the fifth yellow flag of the race, there was the presence of a lapped car positioned between Gerchman and Barnes in the official line up. It was a factor that Gerchman took full advantage of when green flag racing returned. It only took Barnes a matter of seconds to pass the lapped vehicle and just a handful of laps to run down the leader. Once again the battle between the two drivers was on. However, time and laps just simply ran out. Gerchman crossed under the checkers with Barnes literally glued to his bumper. Las Vegas drivers Doug Hamm and Aaron McMorrin finished third and fourth while Jim Mardis completed the top five.
The top five finish turned in by Mardis was especially noteworthy. During the Friday night test and tune session the reigning, and two time, series champion spun into the turn one wall. The impact created significant damage to the car's left front suspension system. However, a race team that wins two consecutive championships doesn't back down to adversity. Team Mardis spent a long Friday night repairing their race car and the reward was a top five finish.
Late last year Chris Gerchman moved to Texas, got married and launched a new professional career. However, despite the travelling distance, he does plan to race in as many Lucas Oil Modified Series events as possible with his family owned race team. After parking his Peggy's Sunrise Cafe/G&G Automotive modified in the Sunoco Race Fuels victory lane, Gerchman was asked if his evening in Blythe was worth the plane ride from Texas. With a big smile on his face, he replied "absolutely, this is what we come out here for. We really work hard on our cars especially my parents and Dakota who worked all week to get this car ready for me to drive. I really want to thank them, and STR (Short Track Race Cars), for making it all worthwhile."
Commenting on the temporary buffer created by the lapped car late in the race, Gerchman said "I look for things like that. When I see a lapped car close enough in front of me I try to pass it if I can because I know if there's going to be a caution flag that car is going to line up between us. That's always been a strategy of mine."
While Austin Barnes would have preferred to finish the General Tire 75 one position higher, he was very happy with the performance of his team and the race car they gave him to drive. Commenting on a rock solid weekend in Blythe, the young driver said: " We practiced good all weekend and during qualifying we got our tenth pole position in a row while breaking my own track record. Drawing that seven for the inversion kind of sucked but we quickly started working our way through the field in the race one car at a time. I got to second and started following Chris for about ten laps but couldn't do anything so I tried the high side but there was nothing available either. We were able to keep up with him, but we just ran out of laps. Our 1 800 Loan Mart, MasterCraft Safety, STR Race Cars was spot on tonight. (Crew Chief) Steve Teets sets up the best car plus our I have former series champion Jimmy Dickerson spotting for me and he's the best in the business. It was a solid night for us. We got second and came home with good points including two bonus points for setting fast time and we're still going to leave here leading the points standings."
Las Vegas-Nevada's Doug Hamm was very happy with his third place finish. Two years ago, Hamm admitted that the Lucas Oil I 10 Speedway wasn't exactly his favorite track on the series' schedule. However, that changed last year when he scored his first series win at Blythe. After finishing in the top three, during the General Tire 75, Hamm said: "oh yeah, this place is getting on my good side." Expressing appreciation to his team, Hamm added "I've got one hell of a crew chief in Jimmie Parker who really makes this car turn. I'm just grateful that team owner Sonny Wahl has given me the opportunity to drive his car. He really works hard on it and I'm just privileged to drive it. There were a lot of things that went right tonight and we brought it home third. I'm thrilled to death to be up there running with the fast teams." Commenting on the high level of competition in the race Hamm said it way typical for this series adding "everybody out here is a competitor and they're all hard on it. Nobody is going to give you anything all through the field. You've just got to work, work, work and hopefully you come in on the good side of it. This is a tough group to race against and it's tough to pass them."
In the series' bonus categories Chris Gerchman picked up two E3 Spark Plug bonus points for winning the race. He also collected 1,100 for the winning including the $100 winner's bonus from J E Pistons and Roush Performance Parts. Austin Barnes won the $100 Budweiser Fast Time Award along with two bonus points that comes with it. Tim Morse collected $200 for winning the Dart Machinery Trophy Dash. Doug Hamm picked up a $100 bonus and two bonus points for winning the Optima Batteries Hard Charger Award while series newcomer David Lord collected $100 for the GEICO Clean Pass Award.
Lucas Oil Modified Series Race Director Bill Rozhon was thrilled with the show the teams gave the fans. "You know, round two came to Blythe, one of the toughest race tracks that we have in our series. Our guys did a really good job tonight. There were a lot of new faces we've never seen before from all over the southwestern states with some of them even being dirt racing teams. It was good to see Chris Gerchman getting back into the groove again, Awesome Austin is just relentless and then there was Doug Hamm who had a good run tonight. A lot of the guys had good runs. This was one of those races that if you got aced out of a racing line you were going backwards. What a show, I think the fans really got their money's worth tonight," Rozhon said.
Series General Manager Greg Scheidecker was thrilled with the show and the fact that the race had 29 entries. "We had a ten car B Main tonight and I congratulate all of the drivers who raced hard to earn a transfer spot into the big show. For the one who didn't transfer then I suggest they go home, do their homework and we'll really welcome you back, we need you. We really appreciate the efforts of everybody tonight. We had representatives from four different states in our car tonight along with eight different track champions. The race was highly competitive tonight. On this race track if you got shuffled out the line you went backwards at least five spots. The racing was nose to tail and very very hard. My hat goes off to Chris Gerchman and Austin Barnes. Those two guys worked their way through the field to the front and right now they're the cream of the crop. They're both flexing their muscles and it's showing up, they're getting results. The level of competition in this series is just unbelievable. Look at the spread in the qualifying times for tonight's race. It's very amazing and we've got a lot of cars doing their homework. Our starting fields are getting tighter and tougher with each and every race."
The series returns to action on May 12th with the running of the E3 Spark Plugs/GEICO 75 at the Las Vegas Bullring. This lucrative events features a $10,000 purse, $1,500 to win and a guaranteed $300 for starting the main event.
The Lucas Oil Modified Racing Series, presented by 1 800 Loan Mart, is powered by a highly potent marketing concept known as "Team Lucas." Team members include: Lucas Oil Products Inc, E3 Spark Plugs, General Tire, GEICO, CANIDAE All Natural Pet Food, MAV TV, Speedco Truck Lube and Tires/Firestone and Optima Batteries.
The series is also strongly supported by a group of associate sponsors featuring: Eibach Springs, Hoosier Tire West, Budweiser, Blue Water Resort & Casino, Sunoco Race Fuels, Frank's Radio, Racing Plus, Roush Yates Performance Parts, J E Pistons, Dart Machinery LTD, Go Pro Cameras and 1 800 Loan Mart.