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Published on Wed, Nov 19, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


Every Sunday, racing fans plop in front of their TVs to watch stars like Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, and Michael Waltrip dice for position on short tracks and superspeedways from California to New Hampshire in hopes of race wins and the ultimate stock car prize, the NASCAR Winston Cup. They may or may not realize that before drivers get to the biggest of the big leagues, many go through an apprenticeship program which starts them on local "bullrings" before letting the best graduate to the top series (including Craftsman Trucks, Busch, and Winston Cup).

Gabriela Moya photograph This season, things got more interesting for the guys on the lower rungs of the racing hierarchy as NASCAR decided to reward those who had finished the highest in the feeder series with an all-star race held at the Irwindale Speedway just east of Los Angeles on November 6-8, with practice on Thursday, qualifying races on Friday, and the big show on Saturday night starting at 5 local time to accommodate a national television audience.

Racing took place in two divisions. The Elite Division featured late-model cars which compete in four regions across the country. The Grand National Division was for Busch North Series and Winston West Series cars.

The action on Saturday night started with Darrell Waltrip, former Winston Cup Champion and Daytona 500 winner, yelling "Gentlemen, start your engines!" to the thrill of the thousands of spectators on hand.

Forty Elite Division cars fired up with a roar and were off for seventy-five laps to determine which team (based on driver's region of origin) would come out on top and be awarded big cash, including $2000 per driver for the winning group. After a ten-minute rest period, the cars raced another twenty-five laps in a shootout for cash and merchandise prizes to be awarded to drivers individually based on finishing position.

The Grand National Division worked the same way, except that the race lengths were 100 laps for the team title and twenty-five for the individual awards. And no one on hand could say that these drivers didn't take the event seriously.

The Elite Division race saw Jim Pettit from Prunedale, CA, jump out to an early lead, but Ron Breese, Jr. was challenging by lap 20, diving under Pettit in turns 3-4, running with a ride height so low that he had sparks flying from underneath the car on every exit. On lap 23, the two caught and split a lapped car, with Breese moving high to take over the lead. Behind them, Ryan Hanson was working hard on David Gilliland for third, and on lap 44, he took over the last podium position as the two of them and Burney Lamar went three-wide to pass more lapped traffic. Gilliland was not to be denied, however, and on lap 67, he started to look inside on Hanson. They began to run side-by-side, and Gilliland ended up taking the spot to end the team portion of the race after lap 75. The team title and bonus cash went to the drivers from the International Truck and Engine Corporation Midwest Series, whose drivers made up five of the top ten finishers.

Then it was time for the final twenty-five lap match race, and this being a fan-centered event, there was an inversion of the field before the start. After a spin of the wheel, handled by Miss Irwindale while the cars had a work break, the first four finishers in the first half of the event were turned around, so that it was Gilliland, Steve Carlson, Pettit, and Breese to take the second green flag. This made for great racing, however, as Breese and Pettit picked up their fight, spending lap after lap decal-to-decal, even touching at one point as they came through turns 3-4.

Gabriela Moya photograph As they came around to finish lap 81, they did a nifty crossover move with Breese, who had been running a low line, taking the spot up near the wall. After that, he ran away with the lead and was not challenged again, even after a yellow flag bunched the field on lap 83. As the checker flew, his EWT, Inc. Chevrolet did the International Truck and Engine Corporation Midwest Series proud with a finish at the top and the fastest lap of the race at 18.411 seconds and just under 100 mph.

After a break, the Grand National competitors took to the track, 27 cars strong and looking to go 100 laps before their break. Andy Santerre looked fiesty early as he took over second place and challenged for first before a yellow flag on lap 10. On the restart, Joey McCarthy was running first, with Santerre behind and Mark Reed on his bumper. Things continued this way through a couple more cautions to take the field to lap 40.

A couple of laps later, Santerre was looking for a push from Ryan Moore and started to run a low line, ending up right beside McCarthy in a bid for the lead. Meanwhile, Moore kept dicing with Bryon Chew for 3rd, once giving it up and then regaining it as the halfway mark passed on lap 50.

As the two-thirds mark came, it was Moore looking inside Santerre with Ryan McCarthy still ahead of them, but then on came Austin Cameron. At lap 80, he was moving up, at one point sticker-to-sticker with Chew in a Winston West versus Busch North face-off. Cameron then tried to split Chew and Santerre, and tried it again on lap 88, touching Chew before settling back a little on lap 90. Cameron and Santerre then made contact going into turn 1 on lap 95, with Cameron briefly taking fourth spot before Santerre grabbed it back. At the end of the 100 laps, it was McCarthy, Moore, Chew, Santerre, and then Cameron holding fifth. Team honors went to the Busch North squad. But then the giant wheel came out again.

This time, the number of starters to be inverted was six, and so Mark Reed and Austin Cameron ended up side-by-side on the front row for the final 25 laps for individual honors.The PA announcer called it: $32,500 to win the race, plus tow money and other contingencies.There's no way the drivers could have heard him, but they acted like they did, with Cameron, Reed, and Chew 3-wide on the first lap. Santerre got caught out going down the back stretch and squeezed inside, and found himself heading right for the inside pit wall in turn 3, but gathered it back up to the "ohhh" of the big crowd. Caution came out shortly after for an unrelated incident. These six laps alone had been worth the ticket price for the night.

After the restart, Cameron started to open a small lead, but Chew and Santerre didn't let him get out too far, and caution for debris flew on lap 114. On the restart, Cameron again flew ahead, but a caution on 120 made for the prospect of a five-lap shootout to the end, since yellow flag laps were not counting during this final 25-lap segment.

"Green, Green, Green" the voice on the PA called as Cameron claimed the lead for good and Mark Reed tried to hold second place. Chew had meanwhile been shuffled back to fourth. Santerre sat in third, and though he's from the opposite side of the country, had Irwindale's low groove figured out, and he snagged second on the back straight on the white flag lap, so it ended Cameron, Santerre, and Reed. Ryan Moore had the distinction of setting the fast lap of the race at 18.934 seconds in an eighth-place effort. Series-wise, this meant Winston West, Busch North, Winston West, Busch North in that order. So which series has the better drivers? At the top, there's not the width of a sponsor decal between them, these guys are all so good.

Cameron celebrated his victory with smoky donuts that left a cloud floating in California's sky which might have reminded locals of the fires that had ravaged the area in the weeks prior but were the sign of his win. The victory was the sweeter because it represented a personal triumph over cancer.Cameron missed four races during the season while undergoing treatment for the disease. Victory was not his alone, though. The crowd hung around to watch the trophy presentation and hear the winners interviewed, excited by the racing and thrilled to be a part of an event that had the feeling of history to it.

Gabriela Moya photograph Here's hoping that the idea isn't a one-off thing, but an event fans can look forward to all next season.

For more information on Irwindale Speedway, go to

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