About the only thing in NASCAR's inaugural Southwest tour that Ron Esau didn't win last year was a race at Saugus Speedway, that deceptively flat little one-third-mile paved oval in Soledad Canyon.
This Saturday night, in the 1987 stock car season opener for both Saugus and the 15-race Southwest tour, the defending series champion will try to rectify that oversight.
Esau, a second-generation driver from Lakeside, Calif., won at Riverside, Willow Springs, Shasta and Stockton but finished third twice in the two races at Saugus. Both times the winner was Roger Avants of Littleton, Colo.
Esau set a Saugus track record of 73.224 m.p.h. in qualifying for the second race last September, but because Southwest tour races use inverted starts, he started from the third row. Avants, the sixth-fastest qualifier, started on the pole.
"Last year, it was impossible to pass at Saugus because the track was so narrow," Esau said. "This year, they've widened the corners, so it should lead to a more interesting show. I really don't like Saugus, but I like racing and if that's where they're going to race, I'll be there. As far as being one of my favorite tracks, though, it isn't.
"All those guys who run regularly at Saugus are good racers. They have to be to race there. They're always tough when they go to a different track, because after racing on that flat surface, when they get to a banked track, it's a luxury for them."
Esau, 32, whose father George and brother Larry were stock car champions in the San Diego area, first drew attention in 1978 when he won the Cajon Speedway championship. In 1983, he moved up to the Winston West series and was Rookie of the Year. Last year, when NASCAR introduced the Southwest tour for Grand American cars, Esau jumped at the opportunity.
He will not be 100% for the first race, the $20,073 Miller 100, Saturday night, however.
During the off-season, while working at his father's construction business in El Cajon, Esau tripped and fell off a stack of lumber. He landed on his right elbow, shattering it, and the arm was in a cast for six weeks.
"The doctor says it's healed, but it's still painful," Esau said. "It's pretty tender. It's only been out of the cast for three weeks and the muscles and tendons are still sore between the elbow and wrist. I'm not getting my full extension. I know the pain is going to bother me, but we won't know how much until the race."
Esau tested the elbow two weeks ago at Saugus but only for 25 laps at a time.
"It'll be something else again to drive 100 laps in competition," he said."
Esau will be driving an IROC Camaro, built by Jerry Baxter, for the McDonald's Racing Team of Riverside. It is the same car he drove last year.
"Last year when NASCAR started the Southwest tour, a lot of guys held back to see what it was like. The series was a success so this year there will be a lot more of them and it will be tougher to win.
"That's why I want to defend my title against stiffer competition and hope I can attract some sponsorship that will allow me to race back East on the Winston Cup circuit. If you want to be a stock car driver, that's where you've got to go."
Esau, after two years on the Winston West circuit in 1983-84, briefly tried to test the waters in the South before dominating the Southwest tour last year.
"We missed getting in the show at Daytona by two positions and the next week I crashed at Richmond during qualifying," he said. "When (car owner) James Hylton said he was renting the car to someone else for Rockingham, I came on home and put together my Southwest tour program."
The program paid off. In a remarkable display of reliability, Esau completed 1,135 of 1,145 laps in 13 races, won 4, led 8 and was the only driver to finish all 13. He earned $28,864 after ending the season 75 points ahead of veteran Roman Calczynski of Sepulveda.
Avants, 35, an auto technician, admits he was fortunate to win twice at Saugus, but he will be trying for three in a row Saturday night.
"A lot of it was luck," he said about last year. "It was the luck of the draw and being in the right place at the right time."
In the first race, Avants was awarded the win when the two front-running cars tangled with three laps to go and Ivan Baldwin, the apparent winner, was penalized and dropped back to fourth. In the second race, Avants led for 94 of the 100 laps, holding off Troy Beebe and Esau in a blanket finish.
Fourteen new drivers are expected to compete for rookie honors in the $275,000 series, including Duke Hoenshell of Orange, who defeated Esau in the season finale last year at Riverside, and Kevin Riniker, another second-generation driver, from Riverside. The entry of 46 cars is exactly double that of last year's opening race.
Time trials to set the 24-car field will begin at 5 p.m. Besides the Miller 100, there will be competition for street stocks and Figure 8 cars.