On paper it seems like a great idea: combine two classes that don't normally race together, handicap the faster class and let them have at it for a big paycheck after the championships are decided. The fans love it. So do the fiberglass suppliers. The drivers have fun. The crews that have to repair the trucks afterward? Maybe not so much.
The good news is the crews have until next March, when the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series returns to Firebird International Raceway for its 2012 season opener, to repair the trucks after the Lucas Oil Challenge Cup Presented by Toyota. With the various titles wrapped up on Saturday, Sunday was dedicated to a day of racing for big money and special prizes. While every class in the series had the chance to race – from karts to the 900hp Pro 4 trucks – it was the challenge races that garnered the most attention with the Pro 4 vs. Pro 2 trucks, and the Pro Buggies taking on the Pro Lite trucks.
In both cases, lap times are similar, although they may be achieved in different ways, especially in the case of the open-wheel, rear-engined buggies and the full-bodied, front engine heavier Pro Lites. But the difference in lap times is greater between the four-wheel-drive Pro 4s and rear-wheel-drive Pro 2s.
So the Pro 4s start almost half a lap behind the Pro 2s. Yet the Pro 4s usually manage to catch and pass the entire Pro 2 field and win these races, just as Kyle LeDuc did last year. Most everyone – including the eventual winner – expected a Pro 4 driver to take it again, except, apparently, 2011 Pro 4 champ Carl Renezeder, who chose to compete in his Pro 2 truck instead.
Of course, with $30,000 on the line for the winner, nothing for anyone not on the podium and no points to worry about, pretty much anything goes. So it's critical to stay out of trouble and not tempt fate (or just get up front and stay there) in order to win. That was the winning strategy in a race of attrition.
With the top 10 in each class championship inverted, Robby Woods led the more numerous Pro 2s to the green flag, followed some time later by Adrian Cenni and the rest of the Pro 4s. By the third lap, the Pro 4s were well into the Pro 2s, and it appeared that they would be victorious once again. By the time of the first yellow, for Rodrigo Ampudia rolling in Turn 5, Kyle LeDuc was leading the Pro 4s in third overall behind Woods and Renezeder.
On the restart, LeDuc was almost immediately at the front, and almost as immediately out of the race. He smacked the berm that marked the division between the either/or sections between Turns 4 and 5, injuring his truck beyond continuing. With Evan Evans rolling in the next turn, the restart was nullified and the field reset to where it was before.
The carnage continued when the race once again got under way. Woods rolled in Turn 3 and Renezeder spun in Turn 4, handing the lead to Cenni. The officials, however – despite humorous suggestions that there would be no black flag in the starter's stand for this race – determined that Cenni helped Renezeder around and sent him to the back.
That left Pro 2 driver Rob “Fig” Naughton in the lead at the track where he took his first victory in the class some nine months earlier. Under yellow for Todd LeDuc's roll in Turn 4, the top Pro 4 driver was Doug Fortin, driving Travis Coyne's truck, in fifth behind Naughton, Jeremy McGrath, Renezeder and 2011 Pro 2 champ Brian Deegan.
“When they black flagged Cenni, I thought, ‘I just got a gift!‘” said Naughton. “I had figured I was racing for top Pro 2.”
With a green-white-checker finish on tap, the carnage wasn't done, and Naughton hadn't yet won. On the final lap, he went to the inside on the either/or, while his pursuers went to the outside. Renezeder and McGrath were battling hard for second and got together (TOP). McGrath ended up sideways, while the top Pro 4 driver, Fortin, tired to avoid the melee and went over the berm dividing the either/or and tumbled. Naughton sailed to victory while Renezeder went under the checkers second and Deegan was surprised to find himself in third.
“Starting in the fifth row, I was looking at all the good drivers ahead and thinking, 'I don't know how this is going to happen, but just go race,'” said Deegan. “We just kept pushing, going hard, My spotter Cory Kruseman was telling me all the good lines. I really looked ahead, using the moto tactics of watching the guy ahead of me. Cory steered me through it all. Half the time we were in tears laughing, ‘Are these guys really doing this?' It was chaos. But, in the end, it was a battle of attrition.”
The controversy wasn't finished, though. The officials weren't pleased with the last-lap antics and gave Renezeder a posthumous black flag. He immediately went to plead his case with series competition officials Lee Perfect and Tony Vanillo, but found unsympathetic ears. That promoted Deegan to second and McGrath to the podium, joining Stronghold Motorsports teammate Naughton. Josh Merrell was the top Pro 4 driver, in sixth. That the highest Pro 4 driver was that far back was a surprise to most.
“I just wanted to be the first Pro 2, because I didn't think a Pro 2 could beat the Pro 4s,” said Naughton, who dedicated the victory to Pro 4 champ Rick Huseman and his brother Jeff, who perished in a private plane accident Oct. 16. “My game plan was, there was going to be a lot of attrition, I was in all of it yesterday. I wanted to stay out of it, I drove wide lines and just charged.
“I didn't want to race the 4s. I wanted to give it up to them because I didn't need to tear my truck up racing them. And it kind of worked out the way we thought it would – the 4s got up there into the 2s and they started taking each other out.”
Earlier, the other big money race pitted the Pro Buggies vs. the Pro Lite trucks. Doug Fortin took this one last year in a Pro Buggy and, with the buggies starting right behind the Pro Lites, it was suspected that a buggy would win again. Matt Cook, who would have led the Pro Lites to the green, pulled off before the start leaving Jacob Person to head the field.
Person's turn up front was not to last long. Within a few laps the top four were truck competitors – Kyle LeDuc, Corey Sisler, Chris Brandt and Deegan, followed by Justin “Bean” Smith, who had sliced to the front of the buggies. By the time of the competition yellow, Smith was up to third.
After the restart, Deegan left the race, and the race went yellow again for Austin Kimbrell rolling in Turn 4. LeDuc bicycled big time in Turn 1 on the next lap after the ensuing restart, sending Sisler into the lead. Another full-course caution after LeDuc crashed in Turn 3 set up a green-white checker. Sisler looked like he might be able to hold off Smith, but a huge expulsion of white smoke signaled the end of Sisler's run, and Smith (ABOVE RIGHT) claimed the victory and $20,000 payday, followed by Brandt and Casey Currie. Three rather different vehicles ended up on the podium – Smith's four-cylinder buggy, Brandt's four-cylinder Pro Lite and Currie's V8-powered Pro Lite.
Lucas Oil Challenge Cup winners,
Firebird Raceway, Chandler, Ariz.,
Pro 4 vs. Pro 2 Unlimited: Rob Naughton
Pro Buggy vs. Pro Lite Unlimited: Justin Smith
Super Lite: RJ Anderson
Limited Buggy: Geoffrey Cooley
UTV SR1: Ryan Beat
Unlimited UTV: RJ Anderson
Modified Kart: Kyle Hart
Kart Jr. 2: Preston Roben
Kart Jr. 1: Broc Dickerson