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Hooper Feeling Like He's Driving Around in Circles

March 15, 2001|DARIN ESPER

Kevin Harvickhas renewed attention to the pipeline that runs from West Coast short-track racing to NASCAR's big leagues.

Harvick, a former Bakersfield resident, won the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway driving in place of the late Dale Earnhardt in his third Winston Cup start.

Ron Hornaday Jr., formerly of Palmdale, was the first of a crop of drivers with roots in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour and the NASCAR Winston West series to pursue his dream on the NASCAR circuit.

Hornaday moved to Mooresville, N.C. in 1995, and Harvick followed in 1999.

But the transition hasn't been easy for every driver who's tried it.

Lance Hooper, another former Palmdale resident whose West Coast racing accomplishments eclipsed those of Hornaday and Harvick, moved to Mooresville in 1997.

Hooper, 33, won track championships in the Sportsman class at Saugus in 1991 and 1992, and the Featherlite Southwest championship in 1995.

In 1996 he became the first driver in Winston West history to win the series championship and rookie of the year honors in the same season.

While Hornaday, Harvick, NASCAR Craftsman Truck champion Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., and Featherlite Southwest champion Matt Crafton of Tulare have parlayed their West Coast achievements into national success, Hooper has yet to complete a full season in a national series.

"I'm the only driver to move out here on my own, without a deal," Hooper said. "I don't know if it was the best move."

Since the move, Hooper has started six Winston Cup races, 19 Busch races and 15 Craftsman Truck races.

Hooper and crew chief Dan Kolanda spent the week trading driving duties while towing a Craftsman Truck owned by Marty Walsh of Naples, Fla., on a cross-country trek to Bakersfield so Hooper can drive in the Orchard Supply Hardware 250 on Saturday.

This is the second consecutive season Hooper has driven for Walsh in the series by securing race-to-race sponsorship deals. The white No. 9 Ford truck, 25th in the points standings, will be sponsored for the second consecutive race by Naples contractor J.J. Baker.

As part of his sponsorship, Baker serves on Hooper's pit crew, as does Walsh. Hooper is looking for crew members, and several of his old racing connections will be unable to help because they will be working for drivers at Irwindale Speedway's opening night.

The team had sponsorship for last year's Craftsman Truck series race at Mesa Marin, and Hooper responded by qualifying ninth. His truck was sideswiped by a competitor on the 10th lap, and the brakes failed on the 84th lap of the 250-lap race, forcing him from the race in 31st place.

The money stopped after 13 Craftsman Truck races in 2000.

Hooper drove a limited schedule in the Busch Grand National series last year for Richard Jackson, whose team also is faced with financial challenges.

Hooper's association with Jackson dates to his arrival in North Carolina. He spent the first half of the 1997 season working as a chassis-man on the Winston Cup car owned by Harry Ranier and driven by Greg Sachs until Ranier lost his sponsorship deal and the team folded.

Before the team folded, Hooper drove one Winston Cup race for Ranier at Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma but was forced from the track with a blown engine.

Hooper went to work for Jackson as a chassis-man for a car driven by Morgan Shepherd.

Shepherd left the team when Jackson lost his sponsorship, and Hooper drove five Winston Cup races, with a best finish of 18th at Bristol, Conn.

Jackson and Hooper turned their attention to the Busch series in 1998 and 1999, with respectable efforts despite operating on a shoestring budget. In 19 Busch series starts, Hooper has posted the second-fastest qualifying time twice, and has two top-10 finishes.

"If I get top-notch equipment and find I can't do it, maybe then I'll hang my helmet up," Hooper said.

Hooper is looking forward to his visit for other reasons. His daughter, Nicole, who lives in Palmdale with his estranged wife, Jennifer, will turn 10 Sunday, and he plans to celebrate with his family.

Although the truck is white rather than the custom orange used by him, his father Ray, brother Ray Jr. and uncle Wayne, Hooper is hoping to see a show of support from his family's Southern California fan base.

"It's going to be great to see people I hung out with who supported me all those years," Hooper said. "Hopefully, everyone will be out there wearing orange."

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