NASCAR Whelen All-American Series racing at Irwindale Speedway began its regular season Saturday. The track opened the 18th oval track racing season during March with two special events. Four series with a total of 45 cars, and five main events with 170 total laps were run in front of about 2,000 onlookers. The IS premier series, Pick Your Part Late Models, ran a pair of 18-car 30-lap features that opened and closed racing. Seidner’s Collision Centers Irwindale Race Trucks had nine trucks on hand for its season opener on the progressively-banked half-mile.
Irwindale Spec Late Models (called S-2 cars since their inception) are purpose-built by Racecar Factory in Irwindale a mile from the speedway. The former touring series booked all eight races this season at IS. Seven of the 16 RCF creations were present for the season opener. The No. 33 car was sidelined after an afternoon practice session crash inflicted heavy front-end damage.
INEX Legend Cars had 11 cars, scale replica Ford and Chevy 1930s coupes and sedans, present for race one. They opened racing with a six-lap trophy dash for the six slowest qualifiers with a fully inverted starting lineup. Austin Farr won. Legends later ran a 35-lap main event. The INEX Bandolero class opener was moved to Friday, April 21 during the 5:00-9:00 pm open practice session for all divisions.
LM TWIN 30s: Fastest qualifier Tim Huddleston, 20, started from pole position in the first 30 and led all 30 circuits. Nick Joanides, the March 11 50-lap race winner, started third, took second on lap 13 and trailed the 2015-16 series champion by half a straight (3.497 seconds) at the conclusion. Andrew Porter, 23, drove Joe Nava’s No. 88 Chevy team car of Joanides’ No. 77. He started second and finished third.
Huddleston, driving for his three-time series champion father Tim, drove his RCF-built No. 50 High Point Racing Chevy to twin 30-lap feature victories seven nights earlier at Bakersfield’s half-mile, banked Kern County Raceway Park, which opened in 2013. He intends to race at multiple speedways this season to vie for the NASCAR Whelen National Championship.
Ryan Vargas, Dylan Garner, Billy Helgeson, Jeff Williams, teenager Lawless Alan, 14-year old Jagger Jones and past series champion Toni McCray finished fourth through tenth respectively. The all-green light race took 10:03.126 and averaged 89.534 mph. Huddleston clocked the fastest lap of 19.478 (92.412 mph). All 18 starters were running at the finish with only one driver lapped on lap 24.
SECOND LM 30: The second main event starting positions had the top ten from the first feature inverted with P. 10-9 (McCray and rookie Jones in his second ever LM race) on the front row. First 30 winner Huddleston started tenth with P. 2 Joanides on his inside in the fifth row. As clean as the first main was the second race was the opposite. The race had two caution flags and damaged cars following several incidents.
On lap 4, Alec Martinez backed his No. 26 into the fourth turn crash-wall after contact. On the lap 4 green flag, P. 7 Joanides contacted P. 6 Jeff Williams’ No. 28 Ford, which spun wildly from the front straight through the infield grass and emerged at turn two. P. 8 Huddleston could not avoid Joanides’ slowing car. His car received front end damage that caused suspension damage and a major RF toe-out problem. Both Joanides and Huddleston drove to the pits for makeshift repairs. They returned to the back of the field.
With significant mechanical damage, both Joanides and Huddleston just drove laps near the back to collect as many points as possible. On lap 15 Williams’ Ford blew its engine entering turn one and exited to the infield. Only 15 of 18 starter finished the 29-minute race. Huddleston finished ninth and Joanides tenth
The half-inverted field resulted in entertaining battles throughout the second 30. Racing Director Mike Atkinson said the second 30 in twin-30 events will be inverted by eight or ten cars all season based on the finish of the first 30.
McCray led the first ten laps in the outside groove. Porter, the grandson of veteran driver/car owner Kenny Smith, started eighth, took second on lap 4 and pressed for the lead from the inside groove. On lap 11, leaving turn four, Porter’s right rear contacted McCray’s left front fender and took command. McCray lost second to Helgeson on lap 13.
Vargas, a fast-improving contender from La Mirada, started seventh and raced by McCray for third on the lap 15 restart following Williams’ engine detonation. Vargas took second from Helgeson on lap 18 and battled outside-running Porter closely during the final ten laps. He was half a length from the lead on lap 25, but trailed Porter by 0.209 at the finish.
The top three—Porter, Vargas and Helgeson—comprised a surprising late model podium trio. It was the first ride for Porter in the Nava No. 88 and the first time he crossed the finish line first in a late model. He has two S2 car feature wins and one in trucks on the half-mile. Second place was the career-best late model finish by one position for Vargas, the IS 2013 INEX Bandolero champion. Helgeson enjoyed his first late model podium. Porter thanked Vargas for racing him cleanly; he also thanked his crew chief Ryan Partridge on the pit microphone.
TECH INSPECTION: The usual top three finishers from both 30-lap mains tech inspection in the pit garage had engines checked and pumped to test for legality. A problem was found with Porter’s No. 88. The usual car engine had a broke piston during Friday night practice. The team borrowed the sealed 602 GM crate engine from Porter’s No. 7 IRT to race Saturday. It performed well.
However, the IS racing director on Sunday announced that the No. 88 car driven by Porter was being “placed last in the official finish of race two for use of a non-conforming part.” All other cars were elevated one position. That directive gave impressive second year late model driver Vargas his first official late model feature victory. It also gave him the series point lead by six points (140-134) over 2015-16 series champion Huddleston after three races. Joanides and Garner are tied for third place with 132 points.
The top ten in the official finish of the second 30 is: Vargas, Helgeson, Garner, and Jagger Jones, son of P. J. Jones (who was present after racing at the Long Beach GP Saturday in Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series). The 14-year old grandson of 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones finished ninth in his only other late model start at IS four weeks ago. McCray, L. Alan, George Atkinson, Huddleston, Joanides, and rookie Matt Johnson completed the top ten. All finishers completed 30 laps.
IRT 40: Fastest qualifier Connor Cantrell, Irwindale Race Trucks 2011 and 2016 champion, started seventh in the fully inverted lineup. Zack Green, series 2016 rookie of the year and two-time super stock champion, started second and led ten laps. Cantrell led laps 11-40 and won by 1.218 over Green. Ken Brown, Dennis Arena, Niko Mongenel, and Jeff Williams all completed 40 laps in positions two through six.
A lap three crash in the second turn near the crash-wall involved the brothers McNeil. Lucas’ No. 78 was towed to the pits. Jacob’s No. 97 drove to the pits and returned for the restart minus the hood and front fenders. He spun later and completed only five laps. Cantrell ran the fastest lap at 89.919 mph.
SPEC LM 35: After starting last, Robby Hornsby, the winner of three of six feature at IS last season, dominated again. The Yucaipa resident started sixth and drove through the field carefully. He passed laps 1-13 leader Todd Conrad and led laps 14-35. He won by 1.533 over Conrad. Ed Cutler, Chris Yeaton, rookie David Hibbard, from Medford, Ore., completed all 35 laps in that order. Robert Arevalo dropped out on lap 13.
The all-green light race took 12:09.901 and averaged 86.313 mph. Hornsby, a past IS mini-stock champion on the third-mile in his No. 61 Ford Pinto, ran the fastest race lap on the half-mile at 20.382 (88.313 mph). During time trials at 3:45 pm Hornsby broke the series one-lap track record of 19.932 (90.307 mph) set by Andrew Anderson six years ago on 4/9/11. Hornsby’s No. 43 new record is 19.859 (90.639 mph). Toby Stanford (No. 33) crashed during practice and scratched.
LEGENDS 35: Fast timer Chad Schug started fifth in the 11-car field on the third-mile and chased third-starter and fellow multi-year series champion Darren Amidon, all 35 laps. Amidon led every lap and beat Schug by 0.205. Bakersfield’s Colton Page, Austin Farr, and Mark Iungerich completed the top five. Nine drivers completed all 35 laps.
The 15-minute race had three yellow flags and one red. On lap 3 three cars tangled low in the second turn. The P. 6 and 7 cars were stopped and P. 8 Denis Meyer, a newcomer from Encinitas, rode over a wheel of a spun car, He flipped his No. 0 sedan one and a half times towards the outer wall. The car landed on its side. Meyer emerged without serious injury.
The next Saturday racing event on April 22 will feature NASCAR Late Model twin 30s, Irwindale Race Trucks, Southwest Race Trucks, spec late models, legend cars and bandoleros.