Fifteen drivers, representing one of the largest rookie fields in recent years, have registered to compete for this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Grand National Division, AutoZone West Series.
Members of the freshman class range in age from 19 to 57 and represent six states. They bring with them a range of experience and varied motor sports backgrounds.
Mounting and repairs of the new composite bodies are expected to cost less, because less time is required and most pieces can be more easily replaced. As an added benefit, the competition on the track will be enhanced by a universal body shape, which reduces the aerodynamic advantages of one model over another.
Veteran NASCAR driver Ken Schrader, who recorded his 11th career AutoZone West Series victory in January at Phoenix International Raceway, has installed one of the first composite bodies on one of his cars. Although the body has yet to be raced, Schrader says the new package is a welcome change.
“I think it’ll be a tremendous help,” said Schrader. “The cost savings of this body versus a metal body, plus the cost of buying templates, is huge. There are a lot of advantages. Anything to get the cost of the sport down is going to be a big help.”
Featured among this year’s freshman class is the 2005 NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series National Champion Peyton Sellers of Danville, Va. The rookie list also includes Bruce Betts of Colorado Springs, Colo.; James Bruncati of Glendora, Calif.; Spencer Clark of Las Vegas; Daniel DiGiacomo of Dana Point, Calif.; Justin Fisher of Phoenix, Ariz.; Eric Hardin of Anaheim, Calif.; Eric Humphries of Chowchilla, Calif.; Brian Ickler of San Diego, Calif.; Justin Lofton of Westmorland, Calif.; Nick Lynch of Burley, Idaho; Brian Pannone of Riverside, Calif.; Travis Powell of Snohomish, Wash.; Chris Schmelzle of Victoria, British Columbia; and Ed Watson of Mt. Vernon, Wash.
Sellers signed a multi-year contract with Richard Childress Racing last fall and is driving in the AutoZone West Series this season as part of a driver development program between RCR and Bill McAnally Racing. Sellers, 22, has a racing career that includes go-karts, open-wheel mini sprints and stock cars. After winning a championship in a limited sportsman class at a North Carolina track in 2001, Sellers began racing a late model stock car with his brother, H.C. He went on to win the national title in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series last year, racing primarily at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. Sellers made his AutoZone West Series debut with a fifth-place finish in the season opener at Phoenix in January.
Peyton Sellers will be a force to reckon win in the West Series.
Clark made his mark in the AutoZone West Series last season at the age of 18 – scoring two top-five finishes in five starts. The Las Vegas driver has followed in the footsteps of his father, T.J. Clark – a veteran of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series who also competed in the AutoZone West Series. Spencer began racing in a motorcycle series for youngsters at the age of five. After progressing through go-karts and the Legend Car series, he tackled the super late model class at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he raced between 2003-2005.
DiGiacomo, 27, also got his start in racing with go-karts. His racing resume also includes Formula Ford, Formula
Spencer Clark could be one of the biggest threats in the West rookie race. (RacingWest Photo)
2000 and a regional truck series. DiGiacomo won rookie honors in the truck series in 2004, as well as capturing the rookie title in the late model division at Irwindale Speedway that season. In addition to racing on oval tracks, he has competed on several California road courses – such as Buttonwillow, Willow Springs and Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.
Although just 19 years of age, Fisher has more than a decade of racing experience that includes a variety of open-wheel classes. He began racing quarter-midgets at 7 years of age, winning three track titles. He raced modified midgets at the age of 14 and captured the Arizona Modified Midget Association championship in 2001. A year later Fisher was racing midgets at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix and in 2003 he was racing sprint cars there, becoming the youngest rookie to win a sprint car feature in the history of the speedway. He also has experience in a late model stock car.
Hardin’s racing career began with off-road competition at the age of 16. He finished first in class in a 1999 event in Barstow, Calif., and placed first in class in the Baja 500 in 2000. Hardin eventually turned his attention to competing on paved ovals. He raced a truck series at Irwindale Speedway in 2004, winning the rookie title and finishing sixth in the final standings. Hardin, 23, made two starts in the AutoZone West Series in 2005, at Irwindale Speedway and Mesa Marin Raceway.
Humphries, 20, began racing at the age of 8 and won one national title and three regional titles while competing in various categories of karting, including shifter karts and modified midgets. He raced in a truck series at Irwindale Speedway in 2003. Humphries competed in a late model at Stockton (Calif.) 99 Speedway the past two seasons, winning the rookie title in 2004 and “most improved” honors in 2005. He made his debut in the AutoZone West Series last season, with a seventh-place finish at Stockton.
Ickler began his racing career in an off-road desert series in Southern California at the age of 14. He competed in his first Baja 1000 at 16 years of age, finishing fourth in class. Ickler moved up in class the following year and scored five wins and a second-place finish in a six-race season to win the rookie title. Class victories in off-road competition came in the Baja 1000, Baja 500 and San Felipe 250. He raced in an unlimited class in 2005 – while also shifting his focus to oval racing and winning a super late model event at Irwindale Speedway. Ickler, 20, made his debut in the AutoZone West Series with a sixth-place finish at Phoenix in January.
For Powell, his effort marks a return to the AutoZone West Series. He actually made his series debut in 1999. Plans for a rookie campaign in 2000 were sidelined four races into the season, however. Powell, 41, initially began racing in a hobby class at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. – where he competed between 1987 and 1991. He raced in the Monroe’s pro stock class from 1992 to 1999 and then tackled the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series from 1999 to 2003. Along the way, he also won a championship in 2002 in Monroe’s late model program on Friday nights. In 2004, Powell raced a few ARCA and NASCAR Busch Series events.
Since beginning his racing career in 1990 – Schmelzle has raced stock cars, modifieds, midgets and sprint cars. In addition to competing at his hometown track in Canada, his racing has taken him to Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. Schmelzle, 31, ran five races in the AutoZone West Series in 2005 – gaining a top-10 in his third start with an eighth-place finish at Monroe, Wash.
Watson also enters his rookie campaign with series experience. A regular in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series – Watson initially ventured into the AutoZone West Series in 1994. He competed in a total of 12 series events between 1994 and 2005, mostly at Northwest-area tracks. The 41-year-old driver’s best series finish was a fourth-place finish at Evergreen Speedway in 2002.
Lynch, 23, graduated this season to the AutoZone West Series from the AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series. He began his racing career at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho. He won championships in a regional truck series in 1999 and 2000, before tackling the Southwest Series. His older brother, Scott, won the AutoZone West Series championship in his rookie year in 2003.
Pannone began racing in 1999, competing on the dirt oval at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway. He raced there through 2001. He began racing a truck series at Irwindale Speedway in 2003 and finished fifth in the final standings for that series the following year. The 33-year-old competitor raced various events in the super late model at Irwindale Speedway and the late models at Mesa Marin Raceway between 2002 and 2005.
Nick Lynch races at Phoenix. (RacingWest Photo)
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award will be determined by a rookie competition point system. At each event, the highest-finishing eligible rookie receives 10 points, the second-highest rookie receives nine points, the third highest receives eight points, and so on. At the end of the season, the best finishes for each eligible rookie in 75 percent of the events (nine finishes in a 12-race schedule) will be used in determining the winner.
The winner of this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year title in the AutoZone West Series will join the ranks of drivers such as Derrike Cope, Chad Little, Rick Carelli, Jim Bown and Bill Sedgwick. Second-generation competitor David Gilliland won the prestigious title in 2004. In winning last year’s rookie title at 18 years of age, Andrew Lewis became the youngest driver to receive the award.
David Gilliland is a former West Rookie of the Year (51 Photo)
The next event on the NASCAR Grand National Division, AutoZone West Series schedule is the Casino Arizona 150 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 20.