Picking out the precise moment when a future champion made the turn that would lead to a successful career is often difficult, many times impossible, but in the case of Chad Little, a Gonzaga University law student who is about to become the Winston West stock car racing champion, it is easy to pinpoint.
Little was 23 years old, a rookie on the West Coast circuit, when he took his Ford Thunderbird to Evergreen Speedway, a five-eighths-of-a-mile banked oval at Monroe, Wash., for a 500-lap race July 13, 1986.
Bill Elliott, who the year before won 11 races and more than $2 million on the major league NASCAR circuit, was in the race. So was series champion Hershel McGriff, who won his first race on the old NASCAR Pacific Coast late model stock car series in 1954--10 years before Little was born.
Elliott started from the pole. Little started in 11th position.
But as the race unfolded, Elliott, the veteran from Dawsonville, Ga., was being challenged by Little, the rookie from Spokane, Wash. It became a two-car race as they swapped the lead eight times in the final 252 laps.
"It was lap 200 before I realized that maybe I could run with Bill," Little said after winning the race with a record 82.386 m.p.h. speed. Elliott finished second and McGriff third.
About all Little needs do to clinch this year's championship Saturday night at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield is to show up. He is 42 points ahead of former champion Roy Smith of Canada and with only two races remaining--Mesa Marin and Nov. 8 at Riverside--Little is virtually assured of winning.
"The hunt's done and Chad's pretty much won," said Ruben Garcia, the South El Monte driver who stands fourth in the standings. "The next 6 or 8 guys, though, we're all going to be in a thrash to salvage something."
Consistency has been Little's strong suit. He has won the last two, at Portland Speedway on an oval and at Tacoma on a street circuit, and he has yet to finish worse than third in six races.
"Organization within the team, especially in respect to pit stops and strategy, and my added experience on the road courses, is the difference this year," Little said. "I had trouble on the road courses last year, but this year we have a first, second and third.
"George Jefferson (crew chief) has helped a lot. He and my father (Chuck Little) work real good together and we have a lot of people involved. We don't have any sponsorship this year so we involve a lot of people. That may change next year when we have Coors as our sponsor. We will be able to do more things."
Such as running in three Winston Cup races at Charlotte, Atlanta and Michigan as well as defending his West Coast championship.
Little also learned an important lesson in patience in what amounted to a rematch with Elliott this year at Evergreen Speedway.
"I was leading Bill (Elliott) by a full lap with about 60 laps left when I got impatient trying to pass a slower car," Little explained. "The guy (Gordon Oberg of Lynnwood, Wash.) was at least 10 laps behind but he wouldn't get out of my way. I finally bumped him a couple of times and I guess I made him mad because the next thing I knew he spun into me and knocked me off the track.
"I lost four laps getting straightened out and that let Elliott and Roy Smith get by and I finished third. It was a good lesson for me, I guess, not to get too aggressive and be a little more patient. But when I see a guy in front of me who ought to get out of my way, it makes me mad when he blocks the road."
Little learned to race at his father's Northwest Speedway, a high-banked quarter-mile track in Coeur d'Alene, Ida., a mile from the Idaho-Washington state line. When Chad was 17 he began running in local street stock races and later also raced at Spokane Raceway Park, a half-mile banked oval.
"Mesa Marin is a lot like Spokane," Little said. "The banking is higher but otherwise it's much the same. They're both neat race tracks and great to race on."
Down the road, Little would like to take his own team to compete on the Winston Cup circuit, perhaps in two or three years. If not, he will have his law degree with fall back on.
"I would like to give myself a legitimate chance against guys like (Dale) Earnhardt, (Tim) Richmond and (Darrell) Waltrip," he said. "I would want to be competitive, be able to run in the top 10, at least. If I can do it, I'll keep on racing. If it doesn't work out, that's why I'm finishing up this year at Gonzaga.
"I'm getting one education in class, and another one on the race track. One way or the other, I'll be ready for whatever happens."