CONCORD, N.C. – This weekend’s Can-Am World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte is a bittersweet outing for second-generation dirt late model driver Hudson O’Neal.
The two-day event at the four-tenths-mile oval marks the final pair of outings that the 19-year-old will have in the Todd and Vickie Burns-owned No. 71 SSI Motorsports entry.
O’Neal revealed late last week that he was on the hunt for a ride for 2020, as the Burns family will not be fielding a team next year, leaving the personable young gun seeking a new opportunity. That disappointment didn’t keep him from cracking a smile, though, thankful for the fun he’s had so far.
“Most definitely it’s bittersweet, but you know, this has been a great four years with the Burns family and SSI Motorsports and I’m just thankful for every minute I got to spend there and spend with two amazing car owners,” O’Neal told SPEED SPORT. “And it went so much deeper than them just being car owners for me. We became very close, not just me and Todd, but the family too. He’s somebody that, you know, I’ll go and visit all the time … even though we won’t be working together next year.
“It’s just cool man. A lot of people don’t get the kind of opportunities that I’ve had these last four years, and I know it’s coming to a short end, but you know, I’m just grateful I got the opportunity at all.”
O’Neal noted that it was “certainly tough on everyone” when the Burns family made the decision to step away from the sport, but that he doesn’t think they’ll be gone forever.
“There’s a lot of people that put a lot into this deal and a lot of friendships built around this. It wasn’t just a race team, you know what I mean?” he explained. “It was a center over there, a real tight-knit network, and that whole company is such a neat group of people that I’ve enjoyed spending time with and being a part of since 2016. I don’t think that racing is going to completely leave that stable, but they’re definitely not going to be fielding a team next year.
“I think he’ll find his way back into it at some point. It’ll just be waiting to see when he does. But I understand his decision; it takes a lot to make that call.”
In looking back on his season, O’Neal ended up seventh in Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series points, with four victories on the tour – including a highlight win in the Jackson 100 at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway, his home race track.
“Being able to win the Jackson 100 this year was probably the highlight of our year together,” O’Neal said with a big smile. “To be able to win it with Todd there too, that was special. And you know, he’s got his own little place in the shop that’s kind of blocked off from everything else … and right in the middle of it, he’s got that Jackson 100 trophy sitting on his toolbox. It definitely brings a lot of pride in that to be able to see that trophy in the shop there and it was a cool moment for both of us. We’re proud of it.”
Though his situation is undecided at this point for 2020, the son of dirt late model legend Don O’Neal hopes to be back in a race car one way or another when the new season rolls around.
“I just want to race,” he said. “Anything that I can do to get back in the race car is going to be what’s going to happen. These rides are becoming less and less, and a lot of the rides out there, they have people that have been in them for years and it’s just hard to trump somebody like that, you know? There’s not a whole lot of people looking (for a driver), so it’s hard to work your way into a position like that. You see a lot of people quit because they can’t get into a position to drive, so hopefully that’s not the case for me and hopefully I don’t have to eat that or have it come to that.
“You always have to keep your options open, because nothing’s guaranteed, and we’ve seen that,” O’Neal added. “It’s definitely tough to sit here and be worried about next year all the time, but it is part of it and hopefully just something good comes back and I can put myself in a solid position for next year. I’m confident that I can do it and hopefully I make somebody very happy when we get around to Speedweeks.”
O’Neal, who has appeared at the Chili Bowl Nationals in a midget in the past and also has time behind the wheel of a dirt sprint car as well, wouldn’t rule any racing opportunity out for the future but admitted that his heart and soul is still in his family’s legacy: dirt late models.
“Like I said, I just want to race, so that’s actually been a hot topic … if I would ever go to do a sprint car deal or something like that,” O’Neal noted. “Yeah, I would. But this, late model racing, is where my heart is and I definitely want to look there first.
“I want to race and whatever I can do to race, that’s what I’m going to do, so if that means going down a sprint car path then that’s the way I’m going to go … but right now we’re just looking in the late model community.”