While preparing for the 1990 Saugus Speedway Sportsman division season last March, Will Harper of Tarzana found himself in a meaningless Sportsman race at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, going 100 m.p.h.--backward--and heading directly for a retaining wall.
"I was thinking, 'Well, geez, this is a great way to start the season. Let's total the car,' " said Harper, the 1989 Sportsman points champion at Saugus.
Harper, however, righted his wrong, deftly steering the car straight again and finished second among a talented field.
Harper endured a similar fate in the race for the 1990 points title at Saugus. After a blazing start, he found himself spinning backward in the dog days of July and August. But he straightened out his championship quest, fended off challenges from Reseda's Larry Krieger and Simi Valley's Dave Phipps and raced away with his second consecutive Sportsman title.
Harper's formidable 60-point early-season lead had dwindled to just 22 over Krieger by July 28. Phipps, a three-time champion, trailed Harper by 38 points on Aug. 11, the night of the double-points Winston 100. But Harper won that race to end a victory drought and then glided to the title.
Harper capped his season with a win in the 100-lap Winston/Fall Spectacular open competition last Saturday night, the first of a four-track open competition for West Coast Sportsman drivers.
The championship probably is Harper's last. He is trying to land a ride in the Winston West Southwest Tour. His first chance will come Oct. 14 at Mesa Marin, where he will race owner Bill Summerville's Oldsmobile in a 400-lap Winston West race.
Summerville, apparently, had an open ride with no driver and contacted NASCAR for recommendations. NASCAR, in turn, suggested Harper. If Harper races well, it could be a huge boon to his chances of securing a ride and a sponsor for next year.
"The pressure's on to do well," Harper said. "And I kind of like it that way."
Other memorable moments from Saugus' 51st year of racing follow:
* Craig Rayburn of Simi Valley finished in the top 10 in both Sportsman and Street Stock competition. Rayburn, the first driver in track history to accomplish such a feat, won his first Street Stock title, holding off Reseda's Dave Blankenship. Rayburn finished 10th in Sportsman.
* Krieger, a 24-year-old second-year driver from Reseda, established himself as someone to watch with three main-event wins. He finished third overall in the Sportsman points standings.
* Phipps, who breathed down Harper's exhaust pipe down the stretch and finished second overall, proved that at fortysomething, he still has what it takes.
* Hobby Stock driver Jim Kusch of Sepulveda won his first points championship in that division. He held off Jim Gunnarson of Reseda and Oliver Aguilar of Sun Valley. Kusch will work in the pits next year and attempt to compete in the Street Stock division in 1992.
* Kerry Mulligan (Jalopy) and Garrett Yamada (Mini Stock) each won championships. Mulligan nosed out Richard Smith on the season's final night, but Yamada breezed to the title ahead of Carson's Ed Fuller.