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CALIFORNIA 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Racing up the Ladder

Gilliland Prepares to Make Jump to Winston Cup With Run in California 500

April 28, 1999|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a common story. Boy races minibikes at 8, motorcycles at 15, moves to cars a little later. He keeps moving up the motor-sports food chain, hoping one day he'll be a great white shark.

Butch Gilliland is in that chain. He's no shark, but he's no tuna, either.

Gilliland, 42, will be busy this weekend. He competes Saturday in the California 200, the fourth of 14 events in the NASCAR Winston West Series that Gilliland won in 1997. But the Chino driver has other fish--really big fish--to fry too, as he stakes a claim in Sunday's showcase, the California 500.

No longer content to race exclusively in the regional but increasingly lucrative Winston West Series, Gilliland will compete against NASCAR's glamour boys in a few Winston Cup races, beginning at the California Speedway less than an hour from his Anaheim race shop.

If all goes according to plan, he will run a full Winston Cup schedule next season.

"It's something we've worked hard for all of our lives," said Gilliland, named the Winston West series' most popular driver in 1997. "That's a goal I set a long time ago. I've been racing since I was 8, but [only] racing cars the last 10 years. I still work hard at it every day, and to make it happen would be a great thing.

"But the main thing in Winston Cup is to have the financial resources to run up front. If you don't have the financial resources to buy the equipment and personnel, it's impossible. So many people try it without the pieces and it just can't be done."

Richard Hilton's Jenn West Motorsports, Gilliland's team, began operating in January and hit a snag immediately in its Winston Cup endeavors. The team didn't get any testing done for the March 7 Las Vegas 400 and failed to qualify.

"But for Fontana, we've cured that," Gilliland said. "We've tested at Phoenix and Fontana [last week] and we'll be ready to rock and roll."

Besides Fontana and Phoenix, Gilliland will race Winston Cup events at Sears Point, where he has finished as high as 21st, and Indianapolis, in the Brickyard 400.

Gilliland is off to a rocky start this season in Winston West. He crashed in Las Vegas, got two flat tires in Tucson and finished eighth in Phoenix.

"Some people start off good and finish bad," Gilliland said. "We got all our bad luck out of the way early."

David Gilliland, 22, Butch's son, is racing late-model cars at Irwindale and Bakersfield and street stock cars at Perris, and is poised to take his father's position in Winston West when Butch jumps to Winston Cup.

"We're going to field a second car on our team to have him run five Winston West races this year," Butch said. "Hopefully, he'll gain enough experience in this class of car. He could be the next Jeff Gordon--he has the driving talent to do it."

Butch Gilliland established himself as a front-runner in the Winston West Series in 1996, then won the title the next season.

He has finished in the top 10 nine of the last 10 years, has won 12 times, and doesn't he wish that R.J. Reynolds had provided the support for Winston West in the past that it has recently. Since it increased its sponsorship sixfold, the bigger paydays have brought the best drivers out--and back.

Mike Chase, who won the series title in 1994, and Bill Sedgewick, who won in 1991 and '92, have returned to the series to run the full schedule.

Winston Cup drivers Ricky Craven and Ken Schrader, and two-time Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday are also running in this week's event.

Adding to the series' allure are the new tracks in Fontana, Las Vegas, Irwindale and Pikes Peak International Raceway at Colorado Springs. Another track is being built by Frank Arciero and Gerald Forsythe, Champ car team owners, north of Sacramento.

"I'm a West Coast type of person, and the West Coast this last year has stepped up to a whole other level," said Gilliland, who finished sixth in the series last season. "The prize money has gone up six times what it used to be in the last two years. [The new tracks] being built show how strong the sport is, and to leave and go back East where [racing is] already saturated doesn't make sense. I'm here to help it grow this year and then move on."

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