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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Thriving Truck Racing Series Returns to Bakersfield Roots

April 09, 1999|SHAV GLICK

NASCAR's Crafts man Truck series returns to its roots Saturday when the Dodge California Truck Stop 300 plays at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield.

It was at Mesa Marin in 1994 that Jim Smith and three other Southern California off-road truck enthusiasts showcased their idea of racing trucks on pavement. The prototypes raced on the high-banked half-mile oval where Saturday's race will start at 4:30 p.m.

The series passed a milestone last week at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash., with its 100th race. Defending series champion Ron Hornaday won and collected a $100,000 bonus available for drivers who had started all previous races since the series' inception.

It was Hornaday's 25th victory in 100 races.

A Craftsman Race truck is a cross between a production street truck and a NASCAR Winston Cup stock car. Although it maintains the same shape as its showroom counterpart, a race truck is hand built, using parts and materials designed specifically for racing.

The only part on a Craftsman Truck that is interchangeable with a street model is the DieHard battery.

Smith, an Orange, Calif., industrialist, is the only one of the original four still in truck racing, which has grown into a 25-race series with more than $7 million in posted awards. He owns the Ultra Motorsports Team ASE Ford, driven by Mike Wallace of the famous St. Louis racing family.

The other original off-road truck racers--Jim Venable, Frank Vessels and Dick Landfield--dropped out when NASCAR escalated the trucks series to become its third-largest class.

When Wallace won the season opener at Homestead, Fla., it made Smith the only team owner to win at least one race in the five years of Craftsman Truck competition. Wallace replaced Mike Bliss, winner of California Speedway's inaugural race in 1997, in Smith's pickup this season.

"When I heard that Bliss might move elsewhere, I pestered Jim [Smith] until I got the ride," said Wallace, 40, two years younger than brother Rusty. "I wouldn't leave him alone. I guess I got the job for tenacity."

It also helped that Tim Kohuth, his crew chief when he drove for Ken Schrader, came with him.

"I had a lot of great drivers knocking on my door and I guess, like Mike said, it was his tenacity that convinced me to hire him," Smith said. "Mike proved at Homestead what he could do. I just couldn't be prouder."

Wallace drove Winston Cup cars for Junie Donlavey for three years and hopes to get back to NASCAR's premier circuit, but in the meantime he sees the Craftsman Truck series as "a viable way to make a career racing."

Wallace said he is looking forward to Mesa Marin because he has run well there, although results have not been so good.

"I've led both of the last two years and should have won in 1977," he said, "but we broke a rocker arm right toward the end and finished seventh. Mesa Marin is like a half-mile superspeedway."

Dennis Setzer is defending champion in Saturday's 150-mile race. Last year, he won in a Dodge as a substitute driver for Bob Keselowski. This year he is back in the same truck, but as the team's No. 1 driver with Keselowski the truck owner.

"I had never seen the track before, but I had a good-handling truck all race," Setzer said. "We were never out of the top five, and it was easy to get myself in position to win. I had tested at Owosso [Mich.] to get ready for Bakersfield. It's banked sort of like Mesa Marin.

"Having Keselowski as my owner has been a big help. He's a hands-on guy. I feel good with the team. I'd rather be a winner in the truck series than run 25th in Winston Cup. I've always wanted to race for a living, and driving trucks is a good way."

Setzer, 39, is in his first full-time truck season. Much of his earlier career was spent at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway, where he won the track championship in 1983 and 1993. In 1988 he and Bobby Labonte, now a Winston Cup standout, tied in points at Caraway Speedway in Asheville, N.C., but Labonte won the championship with 13 wins to Setzer's 12 as a tiebreaker.

"I'm in a good position with Dodge and Keselowski, and I'm planning on staying with them next year." Smith said.

Asked if he thought Dodge's truck effort might be a forerunner of Chrysler's return to Winston Cup racing, Setzer said he'd heard the question asked many times but had never heard an answer.

"Right now they're dedicated to winning the truck series," he said. "That seems to be a high priority and I'm going to do all I can to help them get it."

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Also at Mesa Marin's three-day racing weekend will be a Featherlite Southwest Tour race tonight and a Winston West race, the Coors Light 250, on Sunday.

Butch Gilliland of Chino Hills will be after his third Winston West win in a row at Mesa Marin. The veteran Ford driver is the career money leader in the series with $639,058. He has driven in all 25 races at Mesa Marin.

FAREWELL CASEY

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