It was a weekend that Rodrigo Ampudia will remember forever, one that Carl Renezeder would probably just as soon forget and for Rick Huseman (left) it was business as usual as the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series made its debut at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park.
On a fast, one-mile course built inside the motorsports park's East road course and in full view of many of the track's covered grandstands and its Clubhouse, the short course off-road racers put on a show that the Salt Lake City area fans won't soon forget.
“We are extremely pleased with the way the weekend went,” said MMP General Manager John Larson. “The fans were very receptive to this form of racing, and we think this will become a fixture on our schedule for years to come. We appreciate the cooperation of the staff at Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, who were great to work with, and we can't wait to have them back again next year.”
The racers had praise for the facility as well, enjoying amenities such as a paved paddock. The track was unlike most of the LOORRS circuits, with longer straights and faster turns. It didn't earn universal praise, as some racers took issue with some of the jumps – the way some kicked the trucks and buggies up, such as the one that put several trucks temporarily out of commission, including Renezeder's Pro 2, rather spectacularly, on Saturday – and the spacing of the whoops in the rhythm sections. But most of the drivers remarked favorably on the track.
“I love it, because it's a track you have to super-attack; you can't just go ride around with finesse, you've got to hammer this bad boy,” said Pro 2 competitor Marty Hart.
He did that on Sunday, taking first position from Jacob Person right at the start and never looking back, leaving Person and Brian Deegan to battle for second. Chris Brandt was in fourth, but slid steadily back from that position. At the restart after the competition yellow, Deegan took over second, and the top three finished in that order – Hart, Deegan and Person, with Adam Wik and Anthony Verdone rounding out the top five.
Brandt's sixth-place finish was a disappointment considering his dominating win the day before. Although he had to fend off steady attack by Hart, he couldn't be pressured into a mistake and won handily with Hart coming home second followed by Jimmy Stephensen, Person and Wik.
Huseman continued his usual business of winning, taking Pro 4 Unlimited both days. Saturday didn't start out well for him, as he dropped back avoiding a spinning truck in front of him while Travis Coyne and Rob MacCachren – making a guest appearance in Stronghold Motorsports Pro 4 – battled for the lead up front. But Huseman quickly made up lost ground and then some, and by the time of the competition yellow was right on the tail of MacCachren, now in the lead. Huseman took the lead on the restart, and Renezeder moved from fifth to second to begin putting pressure on Huseman. On the last lap, though, Renezeder's engine gave up, and he had to sit and watch Huseman lead MacCachren to the checker as his smoking truck sat nearby. Coyne, Kent Brascho and Mike Johnson made up the top five.
With a blown engine in Pro 4 and a spectacular endo in Pro 2 on Saturday, Renezeder looked in good shape to have a better Sunday. Not in Pro 4, though, as he spun in Turn 1 and had to wait on the inside of the turn for the field to pass. That left Huseman, Todd LeDuc and MacCachren to battle for the win. LeDuc chased Huseman hard after the restart and the two finished practically side by side as the checker flew. MacCachren had another podium finish in Pro 4.
Like Huseman, Jerry Whelchel was a double winner, in Pro Buggy Unlimited. Both days he had to battle with Cameron Steele for the win. On Saturday, he was in third as the race started while Cameron Steele tried to get around Rich Ronco. Soon Steele and Whelchel were out front, and Whelchel sneaked around him before the competition yellow. It was all Whelchel needed and he led Steele, Larry Job, Ronco and Bobby PeCoy to the checker.
On Sunday, Steele led to the green, but Chuck Cheek grabbed the lead immediately while Cody Freeman got by Whelchel into third. Whelchel quickly moved toward the front followed by Cheek, Doug Fortin, Steele and Freeman. After the restart, Whelchel took the lead when Cheek went wide in Turn 6. Cheek then fell back and Steele took second. A broken suspension for Fortin – after a flat the day before – left him struggling to finish. Whelchel was followed by Steele, Freeman, Justin Davis and Ronco.
Todd LeDuc and Ampudia (right) started on the front row for Pro 2 on Saturday and took full advantage while Ricky Johnson and MacCachren followed. A bicycle moment for Ampudia allowed Johnson to sneak through. After the restart, Renezeder had his head-over-heels experience while Johnson took the lead. The lead was short-lived as Johnson pulled off with a mechanical. Ampudia challenged and passed LeDuc, holding on for his first Pro 2 win.
“I just tried to stay in second until the caution, I made a couple of mistakes and got passed by Ricky Johnson. At the caution, I just regrouped and then Johnson was out and I made a run on LeDuc and finished on top of the podium. The whole Papas & Beer Lucas Oil team put on a really great effort,” Ampudia said.
Ampudia looked to be headed for a second podium position in what was the wildest race of the weekend as the Pro 2 drivers bumped and banged on each other on Sunday. Todd LeDuc led early, followed by MacCachren and Johnson. After the competition yellow, LeDuc and Johnson fell back when LeDuc spun in Turn 1 and trucks scattered to avoid him, leaving MacCachren in the lead followed by Ampudia, LeDuc, Bryce Menzies and Johnson. Robbie Pierce rolled in Turn 1, bringing out a second caution. Instead of finishing under yellow, a green-white-checker finish was called. That was when the real fireworks began.
“This track, it's like a train, like a NASCAR draft,” said MacCachren. “You're all in a line. If someone makes a mistake, you get to be in that spot, Every time somebody made a mistake, we got a spot, and finally got up front. We were having a good battle with Ricky and got underneath him in one of the turns off the jump and hit door to door and he spun off.”
After the conclusion, with MacCachren leading LeDuc, Johnson, Renezeder – up from last after he missed qualifying – and Bryce Menzies to the checker, Johnson did a little post-race door-banging with MacCachren and the two stopped short of Turn 1. An unhappy MacCachren crawled out of his truck, walked across Johnson's hood and confronted him. Johnson eventually sped off, roosting everyone on the scene. Johnson was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct, elevating Renezeder to third, the one bright spot in his weekend.
Justin Smith was a double winner in Limited Buggy, as was Austin Kimbrell in Unlimited UTV. Greg Frantz won SR1 UTV on Saturday, while Corry Weller took the victory on Sunday. Second-generation driver Colton Greaves dominated Super Lite on Saturday, but it was Ricky James in his usual spot up front on Sunday.
A couple of special guests made appearances at Miller Motorsports Park. Rockstar Energy Drink-sponsored pro surfer Sunny Garcia made his off road racing debut with the Metal Mulisha team. He said that while his surfing skills were of no help, he enjoyed the experience.
Mario Andretti was on site, courtesy of Magnaflow. The 1979 Formula 1 World Champion was impressed with what he saw.
“This looks like a lot of fun,” he said. “And it's so well done, you can tell the series is very, very professional. You see this facility here; it's open to anything. I wouldn't have dreamed you could put a course like that inside the tarmac. It's a blast out there. It's good stuff.”
While the legendary racer has driven just about everything, winning in sports cars, stock cars and Indy cars – including the 1966 Daytona 500 and the 1969 Indianapolis 500 – the closest he ever came to off-road racing was the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb. Even his good friend Parnelli Jones couldn't convince him.
“I remember way back when Parnelli was beginning to do Baja, he was trying to entice me to go out there and eat some dust. For some reason or another it never really worked out for me. Maybe one of these days…I still have some strength in me,” he laughed.