A little impatient for the NASCAR season to begin, I went to Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele, Ga. to attend Speedfest 200, a CRA Super Late Model event featuring several NASCAR drivers equally anxious for the season to begin.
The entry list was highlighted by Sprint Cup Series regular David Ragan and also featured Truck Series drivers Johnny Sauter and Jeff Choquette.
Ultimately, it was Choquette who survived a wild night of racing under a full moon on a 3/8th-mile short track to formally kick-off the stock car season. But it was how the race was decided that left many fans scratching their collective heads.
The event’s format was typical of short track racing with 200 green flag laps with cautions not counting. While arguably producing some of the best on-track product in all of motorsports, the format backfired in a big way on Sunday night.
The finish of the race first came down to a series of restarts between Chase Elliott and the winner of last month's Snowball Derby, Erik Jones.
The first of several late restarts occurred on lap 194 and saw Elliott get away from Jones going into turn one just as the back half of the field would crash in turn one. This would happen several times, giving Jones a book on how Elliott wanted to restart the race.
Finally on yet another lap 194 restart, Jones initiated contact with Elliott, sending the son of the 1988 Cup Series champion up the banking of turn one and sent Jones spinning out of the lead. Jones was sent to the back while Elliott was allowed to restart in third and partake in even more shenanigans.
New leader John Hunter Nemechek ran out of fuel during another caution on lap 196 and virtually 15 caution laps later, something mostly unheard of in a 200 lap race on a short track, another unfortunate victim of the night's wackiness.
The next caution happened up front on lap 198 as Chase Elliott appeared to cut a tire in front of David Ragan, sending Elliott’s Chevrolet spinning and Ragan’s Ford off the turn three hill – Watermelon Capital has no walls – ending both of their days. Comically enough, this brought out the red flag.
Ultimately, it was Jeff Choquette who got far enough ahead of second place David Odell to avoid suffering from an accident and celebrated in front of the remaining and perhaps masochistic 200 fans in the grandstands who had not left early.
All told, the 200 lap race took six hours to complete and eliminated all but 12 of the 31 Super Late Models that started the race. It was not a showcase for either short track Super Late Model racing or the ARCA/CRA Super Series.
Short track is my favorite style of racing and something that I feel is sorely missed in the modern NASCAR. The close-quarter byproduct of half-mile racing is what NASCAR was built on and why Late Model racing thrives in today's professional superspeedway era.
But for short track racing to continue to grow and be taken serious by NASCAR fans (and perhaps returning to NASCAR itself), sanctions like the CRA, PASS and the Southern Super Series must adopt a slightly more legitimate way to decide its races.
Fans are attracted to the big accidents like we see on short tracks and the post-plate era superspeedway races but we forget the financial toll it takes on our entertainers -- especially at the grassroots level. Drivers who compete in the ARCA/CRA are not blessed with high-dollar sponsorships and need to finish races in order to continue entertaining fans at short tracks across the nation.
For once, short track racing could take a page out of the NASCAR rule book and utilize a variation of the green-white-checkered format. With five laps remaining, caution laps should begin to count and each caution thereafter will use up one of three remaining restart attempts. Once the third caution without taking the white flag has come out, the race will called with the field being frozen at the time of the caution.
Drivers will settle down and the format will encourage the kind of side-by-side racing for the lead that decided the past two Snowball Derbies and first drew casual fans to racing in the first place.
Fans will groan but what happened on Sunday set short track racing back several years. Not because this was novel but because of the amount of press Speedfest receives each year. The event is one of the few races that drew the curiosity of a mass audience and those who listened to Speed 51’s radio broadcast or followed the media contingent that attended the race dismissed it as a circus carnival.
Short track racing will always find success in substituting integrity for entertainment but the industry might have discovered the line that must never be crossed on Sunday night in Cordele.
ARCA/CRA Super Series Speedfest 200 Results
1. Jeff Choquette
2. David Odell
3. Scott Heckert
4. Anderson Bowen
5. Bubba Pollard
6. Mike Garvey
7. David Ragan
8. Chase Elliott
9. Donnie Wilson
10. Randy Gentry
11. Brandon Oakley
12. Scotty Ellis
13. Austin Theriault
14. John Hunter Nemechek
15. Erik Jones
16. Kyle Benjamin
17. Hunter Robbins
18. T.J. Reaid
19. Stephen Nasse
20. Travis Sauter
21. Jake Griffin
22. Zak Hausler
23. Jay Niewiek
24. Spencer Davis
25. Brandon Hermiller
26. Travis Braden
27. Wes Burton
28. Johnny Sauter
29. Andrew Morrissey
30. Jimmy Garmon
31. Eddie Van Meter