As it ended, so it begins. It's the same stage where the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series ended its 2010 season, the one-mile course at Firebird International Raceway, but many of the players will be new.
The 2011 short-course off road racing season kicks off this weekend in Phoenix with its usual doubleheader. Most of the familiar faces will be back, but many drivers will be wearing different colors or have different class letters on the truck.
In Pro 4, Rick Huseman returns to defend last year's title. Huseman won 10 of 15 races in 2010 and only finished off the podium twice, so he doesn't see much need to change things up. He is adding some E3 Spark Plugs sponsorship, but other than that, he hopes to maintain the status quo while others seek new solutions.
“I've heard some people are experimenting with stuff – manual transmissions and other stuff. Hopefully they all are!” he says. “Go ahead and change stuff up. We're going to stick with the same truck and hopefully they're struggling to catch us.” He expects the “they” to include much the same cast of characters as last year – Kyle LeDuc, winner of the Challenge Cup race at Firebird in December, Adrian Cenni and Carl Renezeder.
Renezeder is the 2009 Pro 4 Unlimited champion and finished third in 2010, behind Huseman and Kyle LeDuc. Steve Barlow is joining the fray, teaming up with Brian Deegan (ABOVE). Cenni, fourth in last year's points, will be racing under the Barlow Motorsports banner as well.
In addition to the regulars, Firebird will see a few drivers showing up for only this and perhaps a few more races. Johnny Greaves will bring his reshaped team to Phoenix and selected other Lucas races.
Pro 2 Unlimited is set for an explosion of new entries. First off is Deegan, adding the class to his Pro Lite schedule. Deegan ran a few times in his Pro 2 at the end of last season, with impressive results. Since then he's tried some new things, such as midget racing with Corey Kruseman. He even got some coaching in his truck from Kruseman. It appears he's doing whatever he can to step up his game. Deegan will be joined in the Pro 2 class by his former Metal Mulishaman Jeremy Stenberg. “Twitch” joins the Premiere Motorsports Group/Hart & Huntington team, driving their Pro 2 with last year' s Mechanic of the Year Danny Ebberts manning the wrenches. It'll be a big step up from the Super Lites, but by winning that title in his first full season, Stenberg has shown he's pretty adaptable.
Another new face in Pro 2 is Jeremy McGrath. The former Supercross star ran a few Lucas Oil races last year, but is joining Stronghold Motorsports for a full run at the title. Dave Clark joins the team as crew chief, which might help the team step up their game as McGrath and Rob Naughton, in his sophomore year in Pro 2, seek to put their mark on the class. Also, West Coast Choppers owner and reality television personality Jesse James returns to short course of road with Potts Racing.
Of course, these upstarts will have a field full of seasoned veterans to contend with if they want to have any hope of winning races. That includes aces like Rob MacCachren, the defending class champion who won nine races last year, with only two finishes off the podium. Renezeder will be looking to repeat his 2009 feat when he won championships in both Pro 2 and Pro 4.
Robby Woods finished 2010 with three straight podium finishes. His truck was consistently there at the finish in the second half of the season, and he appears to have stepped up his game. If he can carry that momentum into Firebird and beyond, this may be the year he makes his mark.
Rodrigo Ampudia scored his first Pro 2 win in last year at Miller, one of five podium finishes. He had a pretty good year despite a knee injury, finishing fourth in the championship chase, and could improve on that this year. Todd LeDuc was left wanting for victory, but saw the podium a few times. The LeDuc clan has shown no signs of slowing down, so Todd may find himself on the top of the podium in 2011.
There are many others, of course – 31 drivers entered Pro 2 at some point in 2010, and that number will likely increase.
Pro Lite Unlimited loses its champion as Marty Hart moves into Johnny Greaves's Pro 2, where he will make starts in selected Lucas races. However, the class gains the Pro Buggy champ as Cameron Steele steps into the seat vacated by Hart – Stronghold Motorsports's Pro Lite. He'll get the chance to go head-to-head with buddy Deegan as the 2009 class winner plans to keep running the Lites even as he adds Pro 2 to his repertoire.
Chris Brandt has come so close to winning Pro Lites the past two years. If he gives it another go, he would be a threat. Matt Loiodice was running strongly in 2011, with a victory and four other podium finishes to go with it. With Steele's rookie status in the class and Deegan fighting the distraction of running two classes (an issue with Ampudia as well if he runs the Lite this year) could mean Loiodice sneaking through for more victories and even a championship.
Besides Steele, another newcomer – but familiar to off road fans – is “Pistol” Pete Sohren. With 25 years of desert racing under his belt, he's put together a Pro Lite to make a run at a short-course title.
Action begins at Firebird with practice and qualifying on Friday, then a full slate of races on both Saturday and Sunday. From there the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series goes to Speedworld in Surprise, Ariz., Glen Helen in San Bernardino, Miller Motorsports Park in Utah and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. See www.lucasoiloffroad.com for more information.