TUCSON, Ariz. – Last month was the fourth year that the Wild West Shootout for super late models, USRA modifieds and USRA X mods took place at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway.
Located at the southeast edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area, the three-eighths-mile track is promoted by Jonah Trussel, but it is Chris Kearns who promotes the event.
“It is a tremendous undertaking and having it at someone else’s facility makes it extremely difficult,” Kearns said. “If it was our facility we’d already have our signage up, out staff in place, and little things you just don’t think of. We have to bring in everything it takes to run our business.”
Getting involved in racing was going from fan to pit crew member to driver to promoter. He has done every part of racing one could imagine. His first time racing was in an enduro at Santa Maria Speedway in 1991. There were 143 cars and his recollection is that, “I don’t think I did very well.”
His parents were into racing, particularly drag racing and motorcycles, and as a little kid he went to races everywhere each weekend. Before age 10 he was a regular at Santa Maria Speedway. His father sponsored some speedway motorcycle racers, but never raced or promoted.
Following the enduro event he raced hobby stocks for a few years, moved to Florida and did not race for a period of time, then when returning to California raced open comp street stock events.
This era was successful for Kearns and he won the very last stock car race at San Jose Speedway. The late George Steitz was promoting during this time and Kearns learned from him.
“I learned a lot from George, he was a great promoter. He was a great guy, so good with people and so good to the racers,” Kearns said. “I didn’t know him at the time, but I ran a black 69 because Brent Kaeding was my favorite driver and I would buy his used front tires so I won at San Jose in a black 69 with Brent Kaeding’s old take off sprint car tires.”
He was approached about racing a late model and Kearns answered he would do that if it was a Rayburn chassis. It was Mike Redstone who showed up at Kearns front door with a truck and piles of cash, so it was off to Indiana to bring back a Rayburn.
He wasn’t very good in a late model and the money pile wasn’t as deep as needed. There was a $10,000 race at Bakersfield Speedway and, since Kearns knew he couldn’t win the race, he suggested they put somebody in the car that could.
They brought Don O’Neal out to run the car, bought new tires since O’Neal wanted them, and thankfully won the race to cover the tire cost. In 2006 Kearns made an appearance at Santa Maria, his first outing of the year, set a track record in qualifying, won his heat, but blew the engine in the dash and that became his last time driving a race car.
His first job on the other side of the fence was being race director of a late model series, the Western All Stars, for a couple years. Next in 2009 he leased Santa Maria Speedway and started his own late model series as the All Stars folded.
Called the West Coast Late Model Shootout, the late model series was followed by Kearns starting the West Coast sprint car series because he needed his own series. After the initial 2009 season, the sprint car series became sanctioned by USAC.
After promoting four years at Santa Maria, Kearns became involved with USAC on a full-time basis, running all the west coast series. His first involvement with the Wild West Shootout was in Tucson when he was hired to be the race director. That was for three years, and then Kearns was not really involved with the January series for a while.
In 2015 Kearns partnered with USAC for a lease on the Tucson track. Kevin Montgomery owned the series, so they formed a partnership since one had a track and the other needed a place to run the series. After two years in Tucson, the series moved to its current home at Arizona Speedway.
Michael Rigsby, Montgomery and Kearns met and discussed options, had a meeting with Jonah Trussel, and the deal was made to move the Wild West Shootout to Arizona Speedway in 2017.
To promote the Wild West Shootout is a huge undertaking, and Kearns started working on the 2021 event a day after the 2020 was completed.
“In March we start making promotional plans, we work on budgets for the following year, and because we bring in so much staff we start working on that at the same time, booking hotels and flights,” Kearns said.
“You’ve got to start working on ticket orders and pit passes, I start on the trophies during the summer, I need to start looking for building and equipment rentals, it’s pretty much nonstop. We work on sponsorship all year long.
“The advertising starts very early, and when you work on advertising you have to work on artwork. We’ll do color fliers during the summer which are distributed across the country. By August we do a mailer to competitors and press releases start.
“The extra-curricular stuff is booked months in advance. People don’t know that one of our most difficult things is, when you race that many days in a row, is having enough people to keep the facility clean. If you do it right, it’s a lot of work.”
Kearns sums up the effort by noting, “I believe there is not one day that goes by during the year that I am not doing something for the Wild West Shootout.”
With Montgomery making a job related move to the eastern United States, Kearns, Rigsby, and Matt Curl, owner of the Fairbury, Ill., track are partners while Ben Shelton, while not a partner, plays a major role in the event.
Kearns credited Shelton because, “He keeps things organized leading up to the event. Having Matt Curl on hand this year was a huge asset to me because he’s better at the job than I am and what better person to have helping you than someone who is better than you. He is very knowledgeable.”
What has become one of the biggest events in the country is obviously in very good hands and has found an excellent home at Arizona Speedway.