LAKE HAVASU CITY, Ariz. — Series promoter Greg Scheidecker didn’t need many words to sum up the opening race of the season for the Lucas Oil Modifieds presented by LoanMart.
“This is Chris Gerchman’s house and he reminded everybody of it tonight,” Scheidecker said after hometown favorite Gerchman dominated a strong field and won the LoanMart Arizona 100 presented by Optima Batteries on Saturday, March 2, at Havasu 95 Speedway.
The first of this year’s nine events attracted 33 entries, an indication the ultra-competitive series is building on the momentum created by a record 48 entries for last year’s finale at Las Vegas in mid-November.
The only one of the series’ top 10 finishers from last year not in the Havasu field was 2012 champion Austin Barnes, who will be racing in another series. But he was on hand to lend support to rookie Jessica Clark, who bought Barnes’ title-winning car. And among those joining Gerchman, two-time champion Jim Mardis, Doug Hamm, Roger Brown and the other top 10 returnees were 2012 ASA national champion Shelby Stroebel of Meridian, Idaho, Northern California newcomers Nik Romano of Menlo Park and David Crouch of Manteca and five-time Lucas Oil Modifieds winner Jason Patison, who is back in the series after a four-year hiatus.
“I’m really pleased with the car count,” said Bill Rozhon, who was wearing two hats as the Havasu 95 Speedway promoter and the director of racing for the series. “The quality of the cars is really good, too. The teams and the cars are well-prepared.”
Hamm drew an 8 for the starting field inversion. That put he and Gerchman in the fourth row and Aaron McMorran and Brown on the front row. Brown got his Lucas Oil/JE Pistons entry into the lead when the green flag waved and he and McMorran ran one-two for the first 13 laps while the field got shuffled behind them.
Gerchman took fifth away from Bilstein Trophy Dash winner Patison on lap 6, got by Chris Cook for fourth on lap 8. Using the outside or high line, Gerchman passed Romano for third on lap 12, moved McMorran out of second on lap 14 and got the Peggy’s Sunrise Café colors into the lead on lap 15, just ahead of the first of the night’s six caution flags.
Once in front on a track where he jokingly said he has driven “too many” races, Gerchman stayed there while spotter Mike Price kept an eye on the field and let his driver know what was happening behind him.
Brown was closest for awhile, then faded to fourth and said he got “outhandled. The car was pretty good for 75 (laps) and then it fell off. It started getting free off (the corners) and once you start spinning these tires it goes downhill after that. I was just hanging on the last 20 laps or so.”
Hamm moved into second on lap 40 and stayed there to finish 1.385 seconds behind Gerchman, and after qualifying sixth Romano finished third in a GTSI/Romold STR that had never turned a wheel until the open practice the night before the race.
“The car ran good, but Chris was a rocket out there,” Hamm said. “We’ve got a little bit more homework to do to hang with the big dogs. I’m happy just to be in the same zip code as Chris.”
Romano, who made his series debut in last season’s finale, said his focus was on saving tires.
“We knew the only way to be there at the end was to be easy on the tires,” the 22-year-old Garcia Racing driver said. “I lost a few spots at the beginning, but I saw everybody using more throttle and slip angle and I knew they were overheating those tires. I was just being easy on it, biding my time, and it worked,” along with a move to the high line that Gerchman eventually abandoned in favor of the inside line.
Gerchman had one scare on the track and gave his fans another when he stopped his car on the backstretch with about 35 laps to go to “check my brake gauges. I had to readjust the brakes and I think that paid off. I was getting a little free going in (the turns) so I cranked some rear brake out of it.”