OCALA, Fla. — Brady Smith loves his new car.
After steering the three-race-old machine to a wire-to-wire victory in Friday night’s caution-free 35-lap World of Outlaws Late Model Series season opener at Bubba Raceway Park, Smith’s decision to join the Rocket Chassis fold in 2014 was vindicated.
“We just couldn’t be happier with the support we’ve been getting (from Rocket Chassis),” Smith said after capturing the milestone 400th WoO LMS A-Main contested since the national tour was reborn in 2004 under the World Racing Group banner. “All those guys over there — (Steve) Baker, Mark (Richards), Cody (Duncan), Matt (Barnes), Josh (Richards) — have been just so helpful. I couldn’t be happier with the effort they’ve been giving me to help us get going here.”
Smith, 36, of Solon Springs, Wis., took off from his pole position starting spot and led the entire distance in his Vic Hill-powered car, but his $7,050 triumph in the first of three Bubba Army Dirt Late Model Winter Nationals events didn’t come easy. He had to hold off a furious late-race challenge from Brandon Sheppard — the substitute driver of Mark Richards’s Rocket Chassis house car while reigning WoO LMS champ Josh Richards is sidelined by undisclosed medical issues — to secure his fifth career win on the WoO LMS.
The 21-year-old Sheppard’s last-lap bid fell short by 0.367 of a second as he settled for runner-up money. Darrell Lanigan finished about one second behind Sheppard in third driving his new self-designed Club 29 car. Rick Eckert burst forward from the 12th starting spot to fourth place in 11 laps and stayed there to the finish in his Bloomquist car, while seventh-starter Tim Fuller completed the top five in his Kennedy Motorsports Capital Race Car.
In a non-stop race that was completed in a mere 9 minutes, 28.214 seconds, Smith found himself dealing with lapped traffic throughout the closing stages. Never far behind was Sheppard, who started fourth and reached second with a lap-10 pass of Lanigan.
Sheppard repeatedly slid underneath Smith in the corners of the egg-shaped, three-eighths-mile oval over the final 10 laps, but Smith made the correct moves to hang on for his first WoO LMS checkered flag since Aug. 20, 2011, at Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich.
“The lapped traffic was somewhat hellacious tonight so we had our hands full out there,” said Smith, whose best finish in four previous WoO LMS starts at BRP was a seventh on Feb. 16, 2013. “I was just trying to do the best I could without roughing anybody up too bad and still keep my pace up.
“I saw that blue nose (of Sheppard’s car) poked under me a couple times but just got back up on the wheel and tried to finish the job.”
Smith smiled broadly through a bushy winter’s beard while celebrating with family and friends during the post-race ceremonies. An annual competitor in Florida dirt late model Speedweeks events since 2005, Smith was triumphant during the February stretch of action for the first time since Feb. 13, 2010, at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla.
“I’m extremely happy to be here in victory lane,” said Smith. “I’ve got almost all my best supporters here — my family (wife Jenni and young children Travis and Rowan), a couple of my great sponsors (Michaletz Trucking and Jim Gummerson from Mid-States Equipment Inc.). This means a lot.”
Sheppard, meanwhile, graciously accepted his solid second-place finish.
“The lapped traffic was just tough,” said Sheppard. “Every time I’d get up there to (Smith), get close to him, we’d always catch up to lapped traffic. Every batch of lapped traffic we got to was two-wide, so it was hard to do anything with him.”
Sheppard topped the evening’s 27-car field in Ohlins Shocks Time Trials with a lap of 14.872 seconds. It was his second career WoO LMS fast-time honor.
Brady Smith, Brandon Sheppard, Darrell Lanigan, Rick Eckert, Tim Fuller, Shane Clanton, Mike Marlar, Ivedent Lloyd Jr., Tim McCreadie, Frankie Heckenast Jr., Brandon Overton, Eric Wells, Chase Junghans, Chub Frank, Jack Sullivan, Morgan Bagley, Clint Smith, Dalton Myers, Raymond Merrill, Rick ‘Boom’ Briggs, Casey Roberts, Austin Kirkpatrick, Mark Whitener, John Winge.