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NIGHT of CHAMPIONS @ IRWINDALE

NIGHT of CHAMPIONS @ IRWINDALE
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It was a “Night of Champions” at Irwindale Speedway Saturday and 3,742 spectators watched a racy, competitive night in all seven main events. Three of the seven track series ran their season finale events for double points with championships at stake in each division. Dramatic turns kept the outcomes in doubt until the checkered flag in each division.

Featured NASCAR Whelen All-American Series late models ran a double-points 50-lap feature on the half-mile. Lawless Alan, 18, entered the race with a 14-point advantage over Ryan Schartau, 15, in a battle of talented teens. Alan, a freshman mechanical engineering student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, had to finish four positions better than second year late model driver Schartau to earn his first late model championship. Alan, from Sherman Oaks, flew home from Alabama to LAX Friday night. He started fifth and finished second.

Schartau, the second fastest qualifier, was scheduled to start sixth in a seven-car inverted lineup by qualifying times. However, he had to start 11th in a 14-car field after changing a tire following time trials. Schartau, from Chino, had an uphill climb in a competitive field and was still in eighth position at the halfway mark. Aided by two cautions for a spin and a two-car crash, Schartau raced his way to fourth placed by lap 45, but that is where he finished. He trailed champion Alan by 22-points (884-862) at the conclusion.

In a finish line interview, third year late model driver Alan said, “I tried to do a burnout, but the car is tired out. Zack (first-time IS winner Zachary St. Onge, 16, from Upland) was too fast tonight. I just tried to see where the No. 7 car (Schartau) was (on the scoring pylon) and stay ahead of him.” A lap 45 yellow flag and resultant two-by-two restart changed his race goal.

Inside-runner Alan and outside-running St. Onge battled evenly on lap 45 for a lap as Alan tried to win his fifth Irwindale feature of the 19 race season instead of settling for second. He fell 15-yards (-0.964) short of victory. Six drivers won the 19 features. Alan began his IS racing career in 2014 in legend cars and added Irwindale Race Trucks for the next two years. He was a 2016 late model rookie in the No. 25 AutoParkIt.com Victory Circle chassis owned by his father.

DRAMATIC VICTORY: The Sharky's Spec Late Model 25-lap main on the half-mile was scheduled to be the third of seven features. It became the final race because of a medical emergency. Series point leader “Cowboy” Kenny Smith had set fastest qualifying time during afternoon qualifying. He drove his own No. 43 Chevy that won the series 2017 championship with Robby Hornsby driving all season. Hornsby became a father and stopped racing this season, so semi-retired Kenny stepped back as the driver with his stated goal of becoming the oldest champion in 19 years of racing on the IS oval.

Smith was on the verge of accomplishing his goal after winning four of the seven prior 2018 features. Three days short of celebrating his 72nd birthday on September 25, Kenny set quickest time during qualifying. As 7:00 pm approached, Kenny' wife of 52 years (Marylou) collapsed in the pits and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Doctors diagnosed dehydration as the cause and kept her for observation. She told Kenny to go back to the track and win a trophy and championship for her.

Track officials obligingly moved his race from third in the order to last (about an hour and 45 minutes later) which gave him time to be with his hospitalized wife. Kenny won $22. million dollars in the California Lottery in 1994. He selected annual payments for 20 years and used the money to fund his racing team that he called Quick Pick Motor-sports for the last two decades. It allowed him to race as well as his two grandchildren.

As fastest qualifier, Kenny started sixth in a seven car field. He became the third race leader on lap 12 with an inside pass of laps 4-11 leader John Watkinson. Smith, from Oak Hills, extended his winning edge to 1.072 seconds over Watkinson when the final checkered flag flew at 9:52 pm. Kenny won the title by 92 points (442-350) over series sponsor Craig Yeaton.

Kenny executed smoking donuts in the infield prior to his finish line interview with pit announcer/co-track promoter Tim Huddleston. Fans applauded and cheered loudly when told he was about to turn 72. Kenny told everyone, “Just as soon as I'm finished here I'm taking this trophy to her (Marylou) in the hospital.” He averaged 85.568 mph in winning the all-green light, 8:45.897 event. His grandson Andrew Porter, 24, finished fifth in the IRT event earlier and took part in the victory lane celebration.

YOUNGEST CHAMPION: The second race of the night crowned the youngest series champion in IS history. Fastest qualifier Kyle Keller, a 14-year old Las Vegas resident, started third and led all 20 laps in the NASCAR Junior Late Model race on the third-mile oval. He entered the 11 race inaugural Junior LM season finale with a four-point lead over R. J. Smotherman, 13, also from Las Vegas.

With double points available, Keller just had to finish ahead of Smotherman, who had to beat Keller by two positions (8-points). Keller held the tie-breaker advantage (most wins) if they ended the race tied in points. Keller had won four and Smotherman won once in the prior ten events of the innovative series to develop stock car drivers from ages 11-15. Four of nine drivers who raced in the full-size stock cars won a main event, usually 20 laps. There were a pair of 30-lap races on the third-mile. Car counts ranged from four to six.

Keller led every lap. His lead over runner-up Smotherman dwindled to a car length during the final two laps after a caution flag for Cody Kiemele, 12, whose car stopped at the first turn crash-wall with a major mechanical failure. Keller kept his car heading towards the finish line on the final lap despite a tap in the final turn from behind by Smotherman who trailed by 0. 312 at the finish line. Braden Connor, 11, and female driver Rylee Davidhizer, 15, followed. Three-time feature winner Kiemele was fifth. Keller won with 572 points to 564 for Smotherman.

OTHER MAINS: The initial race at 7:10 was a 35-lap INEX Legend Cars race on the third-mile with nine starters. Three drivers led the nine minute all-green race. Tyler Hicks led two laps and P. 8 starter Chad Schug led laps 3-19. Fast timer Ricky Schlick, 21, led laps 20-35 for his third victory this season. Seven-time 2018 winner and four-time champion Darren Amidon finished second, 0.539 back, with Schug third (-1.505). All nine starters finished with six on the lead lap. Amidon leads Schug by 19-points with one race remaining.

Enduro Cars: A 17-car, four-cylinder enduro sedan race used the third-mile oval, without any detours through the infield. Fastest qualifier Rodney Argo started tenth in the ten-car inverted lineup and finished third in his black 1999 Honda Prelude. Robert John Rice (three laps) and Mike Hudson (L 4-10), led. M. Hudson jumped a restart and was told via radio to drop five positions on the track. When he remained out front, the starter black-flagged him repeatedly and finally showed him the not scoring you flag. He finished about fourth but was scored 16th officially. Eddie Howell was the lap 11-16 leader.

“Enduro King” Daniel Hudson, 30-year old younger brother of penalized M. Hudson, led laps 17-30. He became a seven-time winner in the 11-race series that is being awarded NASCAR points for the first time this season. He now leads Argo by 82 points with one race remaining. Bory Molina drove his Toyota Celica from 14th to P. 2, 2.317 seconds behind the winner. Early leaders Howell and R. J. Rice followed P. 3 Argo across the finish line. Winner D. Hudson's 1998 Acura Integra averaged 64.601 mph in the nine-minute contest. Seven of 13 finishers completed all 30 laps.

Irwindale Race Trucks 30: The fourth race on the card had a fully-inverted by qualifying times ten truck field. It again produced the most thrilling race of the night between the same two past IRT main event winners. FQ Lucas Mc Neil, 25, and third FQ Ryan Partridge, 30, ran in the top two positions from lap 4 to the finish. Partridge, on the outside, and McNeil, on the inside, were nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap.

Two-time 2018 IRT winner McNeil nosed into the lead on lap by a fender on lap 23. Partridge reclaimed the point during the final seven laps. He led by a mere 0.003 on one lap. He won by 0.387 over McNeil for his seventh IRT win in ten 2018 events. It also was his 60th triumph at IS in various divisions. Only Rip Michels' 67 wins lies ahead for him to become the IS all-time main event winner.  Partridge and McNeil also raced for the win off the final turn in the last race and contact from Partridge sent McNeil's truck spinning to the infield leaving turn four on the last lap.

Dennis Arena, Ken Michaelian, Andrew Porter, and September 8 IRT winner Nico Mongenel followed and completed every lap. The 16-minute race had a red flag on lap 27 after a hard crash between Mike Johnson and Jacob McNeil. Late model veteran Johnson took the hardest hit against the wall just past the starters' stand. He eventually drove to the pits and parked his truck.

Winner Partridge, a NASCAR K & N West Ford Fusion driver, told enthusiastic spectators, “Man that was fun. I really expected payback for the last race here. But he (McNeil) is too much a gentleman. We have great races each time, side-by-side, inches apart. I can't be here for the next IRT race (October 27) because of a race conflict with the K & N West race in Bakersfield.” Partridge currently leads McNeil by six points (480-474).

“ZACK ATTACK”: Following the truck race, seventh fastest qualifier L. McNeil had the pole position for the late model feature. “Zack Attack” St. Onge was alongside in the front row aboard the RCF chassis 06-48 that his father purchased from owner/driver Jeff Williams. St. Onge led all 50 laps and was half a straight ahead by lap 10. The P. 2-7 drivers raced in a tight pack with McNeil leading the 77, 25, 55, 56 and 7 cars as drivers exchanged positions at times.

McNeil, in his best late model effort, ran second for 24 laps until a caution flag for a spin by the No. 56 HPR Chevy driven by Arizonan Cole Potts, 19. It was the first stock car race for the TT off-road dirt track racer. A two-by-two restart wiped out the St. Onge comfortable lead. Alan took second from McNeil on lap 24 and three-time IS champion Nick Joanides dropped McNeil to third a lap later. By lap 40, St. Onge held a three-quarters of a straightaway lead over Alan, Joanides, McNeil, Schartau, and fastest qualifier Jagger Jones.

A double-spin leaving turn two by first-time late model driver Dean Thompson (HPR No. 51) and P. J. Hernandez caused another yellow flag on lap 45. USAC Silver Crown and midget veteran Toni Breidinger, a 19-year old from Nor Cal and an ARCA stock car, midget and USAC Silver Crown driver, made her first IS race aboard the No. 26 Alec Martinez car. She received the “lucky dog” pass back onto the lead lap.

St. Onge started on the outside of Alan for the lap 45 green flag and was side-by-side with Alan for half a lap until he nosed in front by a car length on that lap. He gradually built a 15-yard advantage over Alan during the final six laps. Alan (-0.964), Joanides (-1.177), Schartau (-1.331), and Jagger Jones,(-2.051) followed. Jones, the 2018 KCRP (Bakersfield) late model champion, and St. Onge won the pair of nine-car 35-lap mains last Saturday in Bakersfield.

Pole starter McNeil finished 3.155 seconds behind the winner. Potts, Hernandez, grandfather Rodney Peacher, 69, D. Thompson, and 11th place Breidinger all completed 50 laps within 5.711 seconds of the winner. The race took 27 minutes because of two caution flags.

Sr. Onge, the 2018 late model rookie of the year at IS, told the crowd, “I haven't had a car that fast all year.” He thanked his dad and Charles Price-led crew. They had to rebuild the RF end of the orange/black car after a two-car crash with Dylan Garner on the IS front straight two weeks ago. It appeared this week all black with a large white No. 9. St. Onge surprised everyone by saying, “This is my last race in California. I'm moving next month with my family to North Carolina (where they have a home at Lake Norman) to become a NASCAR driver.”

St. Onge rose to prominence two years ago at age 14 with his 2016 championship in the touring Southwest Tour Truck Series. He ran ten of 11 races in the Jeff Williams-owned No. 26 Dodge Ram and finished no lower than third all season. He closed out the year with five consecutive SWTT main event victories, including a 40-lap season finale at Irwindale in a 14-truck field.

In 2017 St. Onge won six more SWTT features, including three in Irwindale, and three late model victories at other tracks. He also expanded his experience with two starts in the NASCAR K & N West Series. He concentrated this season on NASCAR late models and finished third in IS point standings with 806, only 78 behind champion Alan. He also won three features at KCRP.

ENDURO FIGURE 8: The scheduled final race became the prelude to the emotionally satisfying spec late model championship drive by Kenny Smith. A field of 13 enduro sedans used a straight-up starting lineup that put fastest qualifier Eddie Howell on pole alongside R. J. Rice's Honda Accord. A first lap crash in the first turn sent Howell back to mid-pack as all cars continued non-stop.

James Bolinas led 16 laps. R.J. Rice then led to the lap 25 checkers. P. 2 Bolinas trailed by 1.609 seconds. Rodney Argo came from 12th to place third. Robert Rice, Sr., Dewitt Jones and Robbie Salcido were the only other drivers who logged all 25 laps. Ten of 13 starters finished and all drivers evaded collisions at the infamous X infield intersection. The winner averaged 57.970 mph in a nine minute contest.

WRAP-UP: The 2018 NASCAR California State Late Model Champion is Trevor Huddleston, 22, for the fourth consecutive year. He won 11 of the 19 main events but did not compete at IS on three Saturday nights. He missed seven of the 19 IS events so he finished seventh in IS points with 664. This week Huddleston, a third generation driver, was on the roof on the radio as spotter for HPR No. 51 late model newcomer Dean Thompson. Past IS track champion Travis Thirkettle was on the roof spotting for Jagger Jones in the HPR No. 55.

Next season likely will see the emergence of a new crop of late model rookies at Irwindale. That should include Dean Thompson and Cole Potts, who debuted in HPR late models Saturday. Jace Jones, younger brother of Jagger and a son of P.J. and grandson of Parnelli Jones, will turn 14 and has a HPR ride waiting. Jagger's plans are pending, but he made three successful late model starts in the Carolinas this summer for Junior Motor-sports. Huddleston will race his second full season in the NASCAR K & N West Series in a Bob Bruncati Ford.

St. Onge will be in North Carolina pursuing a NASCAR career there. His winning car Saturday will be kept in So Cal by his former SWTT owner Jeff Williams. So it is available for Zack's use if he has any open weekends. New IS late model champion Alan has three Victory Circle cars that his father, a So Cal business owner, will keep locally for use by his son periodically. His education in Alabama and his road racing pursuits will occupy most of his time.

Schartau has done double-duty this season in NASCAR late models at IS and in the touring Lucas Oil Modified Series. It appears the teenager will return in both cars next season as he pursues a pair of diverse championships. Of course veterans such as Nick Joanides, Mike Johnson, Lucas McNeil, Dylan Garner, Sean Woodside and others are capable of 2019 victories as well.