The beginning of a new racing season is always filled with hope. That hope, for most, is soon dashed. For some, though, it brings surprises of success unexpected, if not desired.
There were several surprises in the opening weekend of competition for the 2012 edition of the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series. Some of those were reserved for the competitors, as they discovered a few changes were in store. First was that the Pro trucks would now have a mandatory pit stop instead of the standard competition yellow flag at mid-race. All the trucks would be led into the pits, then they would remain there for two minutes during which the crews could work on the trucks, change a flat (and only flat tires, not just any tire) or remove broken bodywork.
The other change was some reworking of the Firebird International Raceway track, notably the split either/or section from Turn 4 to Turn 5. The inside section was lowered compared to the outside, making it risky, if not impossible, for drivers to change lanes halfway through. But the resulting banking on the outside of the lower lane was where some drivers found an advantage, including Pro Lite driver Chris Brandt.
“Tony [Vanillo, the series competition director] just kept building that wall higher. He didn't know we'd use it. There's a good line there and others didn't see it,” said Brandt. Still, while it made the inside lane more desirable for some, the momentum that could be carried exiting the outside lane made it hard to pass or defend against someone choosing that option.
No surprise was the trouble 27 Pro Lite tracks could get into on a one-mile short course off road track. The huge field was the result of few veterans departing the class, and many rookies coming in. The allowance of V8s that began last season was a big part of that, as a big percentage of the trucks were powered by the crate engines instead of the high-strung, race-prepped fours.
And it was the new blood that made up a chunk of the podium on both days. RJ Anderson, who made a few Pro Lite starts last year, but spent most of 2011 winning the Unlimited UTV championship and finishing third in SuperLite, led most of the race running with new team Stronghold Motorsports with Dodge power and Monster sponsorship. But a half-spin in Turn 4 let Austin Kimbrell through for the win. Brian Deegan was running second, but was tagged by Chad George on the final lap. George came through for third while Doug Mittag finished second. Mittag was running a trial weekend in the No. 55 Supercross.com truck run by Stronghold, but with a performance like that in his first race, might have more of a future in the class.
Anderson redeemed himself on Sunday, getting into the lead and staying there to the finish. Mittag ran second for much of the race, but fell out with a mechanical problem. Chris Brandt, using the berm in the split section quite effectively, finished second with Casey Currie in third.
There was a rookie of sorts winning in Pro 2 as well… Marty Hart, the 2010 Pro Lite champion, left the series last year to concentrate on Midwest competition, but returned in a new Pro 2 with ReadyLift support and made an immediate impression. Starting third, he was quickly behind first-place starter Robby Woods. Hart was having better luck on the outside of the either/or section, while Woods was sticking to the inside. Hart used the greater momentum the outside lane afforded at the exit to pass Woods on the front straight and never looked back. Woods also lost second, to Rob MacCachren's Rockstar/Makita Ford, but held on for the final podium position.
“It's a good way to start the season – new team, new truck, new spotter, new crew chief… Every single thing about this team is brand new,” said Hart. “We kind of wanted to come in and see where we're going to shake out, where we stand. Obviously we're not the fastest, but we're a contender, and that's what you have to go into a new season, wanting to be top 3, maybe. That's where we established ourselves and we were lucky enough to get a win.”
The next day, the Pro 2s put on the show of the weekend. Rodrigo Ampudia started on pole and put his Papas&Beer Ford into the lead, but Hart once again used his favored outside line to take the point. At the halfway point, Hart headed Ampudia and Brian Deegan, who was followed by Greg Adler, MacCachren and Jeff Geiser.
At the restart, Deegan shot into second past Ampudia. When Deegan made a move for the lead, he got by Hart, but at the same time Adler found his way into the front.
“This class, you've got to take it where you can get it. Everybody swept wide and I was just in the right spot and the truck just powered down. We got out front and I thought this is all right,” said Adler.
Adler, who won at Firebird in December, and Deegan commenced to do battle (TOP PHOTO), with Deegan getting alongside Adler numerous times in the closing laps, but could never quite close the deal. Ampudia was sitting back in third, probably hoping the two were going to take each other out, but it never happened. Rob Naughton, rideless for the moment, stepped into Robby Woods truck after Woods was benched by officials for a morning qualifying incident, and came home fourth with an impressive drive.
Kyle LeDuc (RIGHT) introduced his new Monster colors to the world with good effect, making two race wins in Pro 4 look easy. It was a bit more work on Sunday, as he nearly crashed trying to get by Adrian Cenni, but he recovered from his wall ride to take the lead and post his second win of the weekend.
The Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series resumes in three weeks at the new Lake Elsinore Motorsports Park on April 21-22
Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series Round 1 winners
Firebird International Raceway, March 31
Pro 4 Unlimited: Kyle LeDuc
Pro 2 Unlimited: Marty Hart
Pro Lite Unlimited: Austin Kimbrell
Pro Buggy Unlimited: Steven Greinke
Super Lite: Sheldon Creed
Limited Buggy: John Fitzgerald
Modified Kart: Myles Cheek
Kart Jr. 2: Dylan Winbury
Kart Jr. 1: Darren Hardesty
Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series Round 2 winners
Firebird International Raceway, April 1
Pro 4 Unlimited: Kyle LeDuc
Pro 2 Unlimited: Greg Adler
Pro Lite Unlimited: RJ Anderson
Pro Buggy Unlimited: Jerry Whelchel
Super Lite: Sheldon Creed
Limited Buggy: Bradley Morris
Modified Kart: Cole Mamer
Kart Jr. 2: Travis Pecoy
Kart Jr. 1: Conner McMullen