THE SUN SETS ON THE SOUTHWEST AND NASCAR ELITE By Matthew Dillner
JR Norris Wins Emotional Night at Phoenix Raceway
Most of the fans who were scattered across the bleacher seats of Phoenix Speedway Thursday night may not have realized the significance of the event they were about to witness. Somewhat lost in the shadows of the desert track’s big Nextel Cup weekend was the final NASCAR Southwest Tour race ever. The 125-lap event was also the final Elite Division race and the end of an era in NASCAR history.
As Craftsman Truck Series practice ended and the Southwest Tour cars were pushed out onto pit road, the mood across the pre-race pit road was certainly more sentimental than normal. Several Alumni from the big leagues of NASCAR stood on pit road and mingled with drivers and teams sharing in the final moments of the series.
“I can’t tell you how much this Tour has meant to me,” said SWS graduate and former NASCAR Craftsman Truck champ Ron Hornaday. “This is where I cut my teeth. This is where Dale Earnhardt saw me race Winter Heat in one of these cars and gave me a shot. I got introduced to NASCAR with the Southwest Tour. I am going to miss it.”
The last Elite Series race took place under the lights at Phoenix. (51 Photos)
For some the sadness of losing a great Touring series was coupled with confusion about NASCAR’s decision to dissolve it and the other Elite Divisions.
“I just don’t know what NASCAR is thinking right now,” added Hornaday. “Give it to someone else and let someone run it under there name or something. I know it takes a little bit of money to do but when we started it was $7,000 to win one of these races and now it’s down to $2,000. It’s a sad night for everybody.”
2002 Tour Champ Eddie McKean agreed - shaking his head about why the Tour that has given him a place to race for several years will be no more.
“I don’t know what to say,” said a subdued McKean. “It sucks. We love running here. We have good car counts so I just don’t understand it.”
It was fitting for the Southwest competitors that their final event came at a place that has been their crown jewel. Four-time Southwest Tour Phoenix race winner Rick Carelli stood on pit road reflecting on what the big track has meant to the Short Track tour.
“When we first started racing at Saturday nights on short tracks we used to bring our tag-along trailers,” said Carelli. “Then we got an opportunity to come to Phoenix that showcased us. We moved to being one of the first to get one of the tractor trailers. NASCAR told us that they didn’t want us to look like Saturday night racers, so all of us moved up our deal. We all picked our program up car-wise and appearance-wise. We went from Saturday night racers to racers in a Touring division that I wish would still go on.”
The Phoenix Southwest Tour stop has provided western short track fans with some memorable moments throughout the years. Dick Trickle won the Tour’s first two appearances at Phoenix. Well known NASCAR stars like Ken Schrader have stolen victories against Tour regulars. Short Track aces Scott Hansen and Garrett Evans experienced victory at Phoenix. The desert showplace put west-coasters Burney Lamar and David Gilliland in the spotlight. And a memorable race ending duel with Schrader helped launch the career of Wisconsin driver and now Busch and Cup regular Paul Menard.
The final driver to enjoy that big stage was fittingly another up-and-coming racing star. North Carolina’s JR Norris, who also won this years’ NASCAR Southeast Series Championship, took the win over the best of the west.
Norris patiently paced in the top-five at the start of the Southwest Tour’s first race under the lights at Phoenix. After a great pit stop on lap-50 put his #5 into second place, Norris could smell a win. The young driver had only one more driver to get around to grab the glory. Greg Pursley had always wanted to win at Phoenix but had to fend off Norris’ charge. The two cars touched while battling side by side and it looked for a moment as if Pursley may have had enough to hold off Norris. But the persistent young driver chipped away at Pursley and eight laps later took the lead and never looked back.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Norris of his battle with Pursley. “The win was easier than it looked. These guys are racers. They race hard. These guys have respect for
Ron Hornaday, Burney Lamar and Rick Carelli (Left to Right) have all called the Southwest Series home.
each other. They race like it’s the last lap, but we give each other room. He didn’t want to give me any room and I didn’t want to give him any room. But we respected each other out there.”
“Pursley took off like a rocket ship at the start and I was like whoa! I wasn’t expecting that. When we got together I was getting such a good run off of the corner and I think he burned his stuff up.”
“That was probably the most fun race I have ever had here,” said Pursley who later ran out of gas to finish 20th. “This is by far my favorite track and I love to run here and that run is definitely at the top. I had so much fun racing him (Norris). We got the pole and led a bunch of laps here. They knew we were here tonight and we had a lot of fun.”
Everybody knew JR Norris was there as he pulled the immaculate Richie Wauters owned #5 into victory lane. The win was especially big coming in front of so many influential people in the NASCAR community.
“This is a huge win for him,” said Cup star Kyle Busch after dousing Norris in victory lane. “It’s a big deal to win in any Elite car, but especially with this being the last race. JR works his heart out. He’s a great driver, and I don’t know why he hasn’t gotten a shot to move up the ladder. Hopefully, this will shine some light on him”
“This means a lot,” said Norris. “Hopefully people will remember this race for a long time, because I know that I will. Maybe this is a pivotal win for my career.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place to win. A lot of people are out here, and the ones who aren’t are going to be talking about it. Hopefully, this will help me get a ride for next year, because I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I hope that this helps me. I don’t have a lot of money but what I have is my talent and a will to win”
Norris has now put a permanent stamp in the NASCAR history books by closing out two of NASCAR’s elite divisions.
”It just feels like I can go tell my kids 10 years down the road that I won the last (Southwest Tour) race at Phoenix. I won the last Southeast championship. Any time that you can be the first or last winner, it really means something.”
The Southwest Tour has meant a lot to several drivers. For second-place finisher and ’06 West Champ Eric Holmes, the loss of his home track in California coupled with the loss of the Tour means a time for change. Now he will look forward to running the heavier Grand National style car and expand his efforts by possibly moving to the Busch East Series in 2007. Even though his career is moving forward he is saddened by the end of the series.
“This is a bummer,” said Holmes. “These cars are just so good here compared to the Grand National cars. I won here a few years ago and really wanted to win the last one. It’s been a great year for us and I’ve had a lot of great times here at Phoenix. It’s too bad these cars will never be here again.
Kyle Busch drenches Norris with Gatorade in victory lane.
“Phoenix is like Daytona for these cars. It was at the time my and probably still is one of my biggest wins of my career.
“The Tour is gone now,” added Holmes. “When I was 13 to 14 years old that is what I wanted to race. I wanted to race like Ron Hornaday, Rick Carelli and those guys. Then Stockton 99 Speedway, a speedway that I have gone to since I was five was closed. Now it’s all gone. I have had a great year racing but it has also been a tough year and will be tough next year when all of this is gone.”
Losing the Southwest Tour and Elite Divisions means the loss of a place to race for some competitors. While Craig Raudmann, Greg Pursley and others will move on to race with the SRL, others won’t be strapping on a helmet at all.
“I think we are going to hang it up,” said veteran Eddie McKean. “I think we will sell it all and just hang it up. We can’t move up to the next step because it is just too big of a leap. There is really no place for some of us to go. The SRL deal is just too far for us to go.”
“We are going SRL racing,” said Raudmann. “It’s the same rules. These cars are just so much more fun to run than a West car. I think there is more competition and a lot better cast of drivers that run these things. We can go to places like Irwindale and more of the short tracks now. Unfortunately, we won’t have this place again but I am still looking forward to running a half-dozen races next year in the SRL.”
Norris in victory lane.
The stars of “late model-type” tour have taken to the track at Phoenix for the last time and the Elite divisions are now history. Most of the teams took their time loading the cars on their trailers choosing to hang around together for one last time.
“It’s hard to leave here,” said Pursley who made his first ever Tour start at Phoenix. “Most of the times you get butterflies and tonight we definitely had those and the Goosebumps. Being on the pole, under the lights and the last time at Phoenix…it just all came together.
“It’s hard to leave here now. I think we are going to stay here as long as we can tonight until they kick us out of here.”
Eddie McKean stood in the dark behind his trailer, reflecting on what may have been his very last race.
As the stands emptied behind him, the grizzled veteran shared with us how the departure of the Southwest Tour and the possible end of his racing career made him feel.