It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, all within a few yards of one another. It was one of those moments when you understand why people become completely enamored with short-track racing, and why it’s as strong today as ever.
The North/South 100 is one of the top races in dirt-late-model racing, an event upon which you want to put your name as a winner. It comes around once each year here at Florence Speedway, and if you miss your shot you’ve got to wait another year to try again.
The money is nice, too: $50,000 to the winner. But it’s almost an afterthought, because what it’s really about is winning one of the biggest races of the year in front of a vocal, rowdy, passionate crowd of hard-core race fans.
When this year’s event — sanctioned for the second-straight year by the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series — got off on Saturday night, it seemed likely that we would see a rugged event with lots of yellow-flag interruptions. However, the event saw just one caution in the early going; just another reminder that the surest way to be proven wrong is to predict what’s going to happen on the race track.
Early on, Don O’Neal asserted himself and got out front, chased by Scott Bloomquist and Earl Pearson, Jr. It was easy to follow O’Neal through traffic, as his bright yellow car seemed to slice effortlessly through the field.
In the waning laps, there was a sudden flash of white, not far behind the lead pack. Hey, it’s Jimmy Mars, in the white No. 28…gee, he started so far back, isn’t he lapped?
Sometimes it’s tough to distinguish the lapped cars from the contenders, but other times there is an instinct that tells the truth. Mars was just too strong, too fast, to be a lapped car. Next thing you know, he passed Pearson for third, then got by Bloomquist.
But did he have enough time to catch O’Neal? The massive crowd seemed to lean forward, as they too had seen the flash of white. As O’Neal completed lap 98, Mars was still coming, using the bottom groove to perfection.
O’Neal found himself in the most difficult position in dirt- track racing: up front. When you’re leading with a great car, should you move around on the race track and look for a groove that’s faster? Move around, and you might be the goat. Stand pat, and you might be the goat. Either way, the guy chasing you has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, and without a radio to tell you he’s coming…
On the white-flag lap, Mars got alongside O’Neal, and the crowd rose as one, shaking with excitement. Mars got a great run off the final corner and beat O’Neal to the flag by the slimmest of margins.
Mars gets to put his name on the list of North/South 100 winners; O’Neal has to wait for another year, another opportunity.
Mars climbed from his car with a look that was as much amazement as excitement. Had he really won this thing, from 15th, against an all-star field? Yes he had, and it marked the second-straight Saturday night that he won $50,000.
O’Neal exited his car, dejected almost beyond words. But he offered no excuses, no whining, no complaining. He was running his race, he said, and Mars was just a little bit better.
The elation on the face of Mars, contrasted with the deep, punishing disappointment evident in O’Neal’s eyes, it was an amazing contrast, all brought about by a scintillating finish that will be impossible to forget.
For 98 laps, it did indeed look a bit simple: cars going around in a circle. But a classic, memorable finish transformed this night into the stuff of legends, when we all stood and shouted and buzzed all the way home.