The first race weekend of a new season is all about the new – who's in new rides, who has found more speed in the off season, who has slowed down. It's the possibilities of new winners, new looks and new excitement.
Some drivers, however, prefer the status quo. Some things in the 2011 opening round of the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series at Firebird International Raceway looked very familiar. Rick Huseman, the 2010 champion, took a double victory in Pro 4 Unlimited. In Pro Lite, Brian Deegan and Chris Brandt traded wins. Doug Fortin and Mike Porter (ABOVE) scored victories in Pro Buggy, and two regular Limited Buggy winners from 2010, John Fitzgerald and Curt Geer, won again. It wasn't until the final race of the weekend that something truly new and different happened – but it was well worth the wait.
A trio of drivers, all three with a dirt-bike background, waged a fierce battle for the Pro 2 win on Sunday. Two were rookies, one in his sophomore year. One of them would claim his first Pro 2 win in the Lucas series when the checkers fell.
It began with Deegan – the 2009 Pro Lite champ and freestyle motocross ace beginning his first full season in Pro 2, in which he dabbled with some success at the end of last year –leading the field toward the green. Carl Renezeder – seeking his fourth podium finish of the weekend between Pro 4 and Pro 2 – Rob MacCachren, Saturday winner Bryce Menzies, Robby Woods and Rob “Fig” Naughton made up the rest of the first three rows. Menzies had mechanical trouble early and ended any hopes of a repeat. When the race restarted after the ensuing yellow, it was Deegan leading Naughton and newcomer Jeremy McGrath, the seven-time Supercross champ beginning his first full season in LOORRS.
Several of the top contenders had difficulties. Defending champ MacCachren had mechanical trouble. Renezeder broke a suspension arm. But up front the lead trio was fighting as hard as they could, Deegan trying to keep the lead and the others trying to take it. But when Deegan bicycled in Turn 3, Naughton and McGrath (ABOVE) shot by while he recovered.
“I'll have nightmares about this one for sure,” Deegan said.
From there, the two new Stronghold Motorsports teammates fought tooth and nail, racing as hard as possible without risking taking each other out and incurring the wrath of team owner Scott Bailey. While McGrath did his best and got alongside Naughton several times in the closing laps, he could never make the pass stick. Naughton, often the man to beat in Pro Lite in 2009, took his first win in Pro 2. Even better, the Phoenix-born Naughton, who now lives in Flagstaff, did it in front of a hometown crowd. McGrath was second and Deegan third.
“Last year we struggled,” said Naughton. “It was up and it was down. The Stronghold guys gave me another opportunity this year. We tested here two weeks ago and thought we had it dialed, then we show up on Friday and we're way off the mark. The crew went to work and they put great race trucks under us and we came out one and two.”
It was a bit of redemption for all three. McGrath and Naughton both had bad races on Saturday, struggling with setup. Deegan thought he had a podium finish on Saturday, but officials decided he and MacCachren did a little too much banging while fighting for the position and penalized both – Deegan was moved down two positions to fifth while MacCachren was moved to the last car on the lead lap. Greg Adler was fourth on both days.
Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series Round 1 winners
Firebird International Raceway, March 19
Pro 4 Unlimited: Rick Huseman
Pro 2 Unlimited: Bryce Menzies
Pro Lite Unlimited: Brian Deegan
Pro Buggy Unlimited: Doug Fortin
Super Lite: RJ Anderson
Limited Buggy: John Fitzgerald
UTV SR1: Cory Weller
Unlimited UTV: Chad George
Modified Kart: Mitchell DeJong
Kart Jr. 2: Myles Cheek
Kart Jr. 1: Eliot Watson
Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series Round 2 winners
Firebird International Raceway, March 20
Pro 4 Unlimited: Rick Huseman
Pro 2 Unlimited: Rob Naughton
Pro Lite Unlimited: Chris Brandt
Pro Buggy Unlimited: Mike Porter
Super Lite: Jeff Kargola
Limited Buggy: Curt Geer
UTV SR1: Code Rahders
Unlimited UTV: Robert VanBeekum
Modified Kart: Mitch Guthrie Jr.
Kart Jr. 2: Maxwell Ries
Kart Jr. 1: Travis PeCoy
Newcomers: Casey Currie has built up a new Pro Lite to compete in the Lucas series; he is the defending champion in another short course off road series. In addition to coming into the series in Pro Lite, Pete Sohren brought a Pro 2 to the Firebird party. Bradley Morris moved up to Limited Buggy from karts and made an immediate impression, finishing third on Saturday. Skateboarder, mixed martial arts fighter and satellite radio personality Jason Ellis will be competing in Super Lite with Premiere Motorsports Group/Hart & Huntington. Motocross racer Ryan Beat is running Pro Lite this year after running some in UTV last season.
Daddy Day: Father's Day is a few months away, but it seems that Sunday was father-and-child day on the LOORRS podium. Travis PeCoy won Kart Junior 1, then his father was third in Pro Buggy later in the day. Winning Pro Buggy was Mike Porter, whose daughter Paige was third in Kart Jr. 2. And before CJ Greaves finished second in Super Lite, his father Johnny was second in Pro 4.
Big field, many rookies: With so many newcomers and so many trucks – 21 started on Saturday –in Pro 2, series administrator Tony Vanillo decided to split them apart for qualifying, giving the rookies their own session. Much to their chagrin, it came with the stipulation that no matter their times, their qualifying would be separate and all would start behind the rest. Some protested, but it didn't really matter as the fastest of the rookie bunch would have only moved up one spot under normal qualifying procedure.
Surprise is next: The Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series resumes for Rounds 3 and 4 at Speedworld Off Road Park on April 16-17 in Surprise, Ariz., on the northwest side of Phoenix.