Baron hits Woods (Richard S. James photos)
The Lucas Oil Challenge Cup has the reputation for being the craziest, most brutal race of the Lucas Oil off Road Racing Series season. There's good reason for that – the championships are decided, the teams have all winter to rebuild the trucks, there's $30,000 on the line and there are two different types of trucks on track with both Pro 4 and Pro 2 going for the win.
The Pro 4s start well behind the Pro 2s due to their faster lap times, and the top 10 in points in each class is inverted. So the fastest Pro 4 drivers have to work their way through most of the Pro 4 competitors and then all the way through the Pro 2 field to win. That's usually what happens; three out of the four prior years, a Pro 4 driver has won it. That's why those who had both trucks to choose from – Greg Adler, Kyle LeDuc, Rob MacCachren and Carl Renezeder – all chose Pro 4s for this year's Challenge Cup at Lake Elsinore Motorsports Park.
The Pro 4s usually have a bit of advantage in the sloppy conditions that come from a well-watered track at the beginning of the race. Then the track comes back to the Pro 2s a bit as it gets nice and tacky, then back to a Pro 4 advantage as it dries out and gets slick. The Pro 4s were coming hard at the end, but the Pro 2s were definitely not going to lay down without a fight.
In the beginning it was actually relatively calm for a short course off road race. Bryce Menzies, who had not run a full season and thus had a better start than he might have otherwise thanks to the point inversion, worked his way to the front quickly with Robby Woods in tow. Eric Barron, who won the Pro 4 finale the day before, was at the head of the Pro 4 field, albeit with Kyle LeDuc hot on his heels. Those two produced the first big incident by coming together over the big tabletop jump. It wasn't big enough to stop the racing, but it was enough to take LeDuc out and push the hood of Barron's Toyota into his face.
When the first caution came out, Barron went into the pits to remove the flapping bodywork. That left Adler in front of P4, in 10th overall, with Renezeder right behind. When the race restarted, Adler spun, leaving Renezeder the top Pro 4 while Barron was at the back. By this time, Brian Deegan, who started on the fifth row as the second-place points gatherer in Pro 2 (and the top Pro 2 points-getter in the Challenge Cup) had moved into third overall.
Renezeder continued to march through the Pro 2s, but was the cause of the next caution when he landed tail-first off the big tabletop and tore off the rear bumper. By then he was fifth, behind Menzies, Woods, Deegan and Pat Clark. Ryan Beat was the next Pro 4 in line, right behind Renezeder.
The race had been exciting, but with the laps winding down, it began to get crazy. First Woods took the lead on the restart as Menzies slowed to a stop. So the yellow came out again, and Renezeder was third behind Woods and Deegan. When the race restarted, Woods pulled a tail-slapper similar to Renezeder's of a couple of laps earlier. Renezeder slipped past Deegan and made a hard charge through the rhythm section, attempting to go underneath Woods in the final turn. Instead, he slid hard into Woods and got the worst of it, suffering a half spin and falling toward the back while Woods continued.
“I was trying to run Woods hard, but I didn't want to touch him,” said Deegan (RIGHT), who had the best view of the incident. “I saw Carl coming like a freight train and I said, ‘Take it, dude. I'm not even going to fight for it.' He came in so hot he couldn't even stop and he nailed Woods. Woods battled through some gnarly hits. I thought he was done, but he kept going.”
With Renezeder out of the picture, it looked like the top Pro 2s of Woods and Deegan would be battling it out for the victory. But Barron had quietly snuck up into fourth by the time the final yellow came out, setting fast lap in the process. He made quick work of Ryan Beat in third then set out for victory.
“I got plowed from behind,” said Deegan, who once again had the best view of what turned out to be the race-deciding contact. “It wasn't just a punt; Barron was pushing me. I was locked on with Barron and he was pushing me all the way off the jump. I got clear, saw a clear track, so I gassed it and went after woods. Barron got by me in Turn 2 on the last lap. I saw Woods leave the bottom open, but he would leave it open then cut down to get a run; that's Pro 2 style. And Barron barreled in there. He went in there and just punted him. I weaved through it and got by Woods and made it to the finish in second.”
Barron was in the lead, but as he came out of the final turn and over the first front straight tabletop, the flag he saw had no white on it – it was all black. In two turns he had gone from leader to ninth once the officials applied what they deemed an appropriate penalty. Barron had no comment on the incident or penalty after the race.
So Deegan, who crossed the line in second in his Rockstar Energy/Makita/Metal Mulisha/Mickey Thompson Tires Ford, was deemed the Challenge Cup winner. Woods, still seeking his first victory – one he was cruelly denied in Las Vegas when he ran a perfect race only to suffer a mechanical failure – was once again the bridesmaid and gracious on the podium, if less so when he sought Barron out post-race and the two exchanged words.