After four rounds of Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series action, it's really no easier to pinpoint likely champions than it was before the season began. But if someone expects to be a contender for the big prize at season's end, they better make a good showing at this weekend's fifth and sixth rounds at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Lucas Oil Series returns to the track where it held its season opener with points races still tight, if not dead even as they were before the season began in March. In Pro 4 Unlimited, even though Rick Huseman has almost run the table so far this season, winning three of four, he still only holds an eight-point lead over defending champion Carl Renezeder. The same point spread – 194 to 186 – separates leader Rob MacCachren and Rick Johnson in Pro 2 Unlimited.
Pro Lite and Pro Buggy Unlimited have even smaller point spreads. Chris Brandt leads defending champ Brian Deegan in the smaller trucks, while Doug Fortin is heading Larry Job in the buggies.
Las Vegas is key because, after four rounds, it's a chance for someone to put some distance on their competitors, or make up a gap if luck hasn't gone their way. It's a place for the best to shine because it's technical and busy.
“This track was made to throw everything at every driver, every lap,” says Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series Director of Competition Tony Vanillo, who designed the course. “We left them no place to relax, no place to cruise; every inch of this place claws at the racers. It just never smooths out, even for a few seconds. If you're really good, you can establish a rhythm, but I don't think any of our drivers will be sending the track crew a box of candy anytime soon.”
Rick Johnson might. He won the first two Pro 2 Unlimited races of the season at Las Vegas. But, despite his success, he knows it can be a tricky place to finish, much less win.
“The dirt is very tricky,” Johnson says. “When it's wet, it's got a lot of traction, a lot of side bite. But when it goes to blue groove, it's like glass. So setting up a vehicle can be touchy. You've got to have a soft enough swaybar and your shocks set up so you have good enough traction and good body roll when you're going through the corners and trying to accelerate. Then again, you have to have enough support in your shocks so as you back the truck in, it doesn't want to fall over on its side and flip you. It's very much a driver's track and the line is going to change a lot.
“You have to be patiently aggressive. You can't just go full tilt. If you miss the line one inch on your entry, it's going to be 10 feet on your exit,” he continues.
To Pro 4 Unlimited competitor Adrian Cenni, looking at the track map can be deceiving. “Even though the track looks like it has tight turns, the turns are a little more sweeping, more so than Arizona. So maintaining momentum in the corner is important. It acts a bit more like a Bark River track or a Crandon.”
One of the trickier sets of turns is the final group – Turns 6, 7 and 8. Turn 6 is a tight left-hander off the back straight, which goes into a long, off-camber, right-hand sweeper and then into the last turn back onto the front straight, another greater-than-90-degree left. The trickiness of Turn 6 and what follows make it one of Johnson's favorites.
“You come down off a 110ft tabletop, you land and you can ride the bank to set up your corner, then it's a quick rotation into another tabletop that's setting you up for a very technical off-camber sweeper. If you miss your mark there, it's going to screw up your whole lap. It's a nail-biter and its nerve-wracking, but it's one of my favorite parts of the track, because you really have to be on the money,” explains Johnson.
And, like pretty much every other part of the track, it's visible from the grandstands – a feature designed into the circuit from the beginning. Practice is on Friday, with two full days of racing on Saturday and Sunday, with gates opening at 9 a.m. For more information or a detailed schedule, see www.lucasoiloffroad.com. As a bonus, when the short course off-road action is done, spectators can wander over to Las Vegas Motor Speedway's Bullring just a few yards away for Saturday night stock car racing featuring the Lucas Oil Modified Series, along with Legends cars, Thunder Roadsters and Late Models.
For those not able to attend in person, look for coverage on SPEED starting June 19.