The SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series will begin their 18th season of operation on Saturday night at Madera Speedway (CA) with the running of the “2018 Season Opener 125 presented by 51 FIFTY Energy Drink.” The season promises to be one of the most competitive in series history, with a great mix of rookies, young veterans and long-time racers. With four-time series champion Derek Thorn, participating in a limited SRL schedule, the door is wide open for a successor to step up and take the title. Two of those drivers hungry for that championship are veteran driver Bobby Hodges and Rookie of the Year candidate Buddy Shepherd.
The 28-year-old Hodges is a two-time winner in SRL competition, with one of those victories coming last season at Irwindale Speedway (CA). He led the championship standings through race number three, until he was the victim of a hard crash at Madera. The incident destroyed his primary car and put the team in a hole that they could not recover from. After missing an event at Tucson Speedway (AZ), Hodges was still able to manage a sixth-place championship effort, but couldn’t duplicate the speed they had shown during the first half of the season.
In 2018, Hodges will try to improve upon his fourth-place finish, when he competed in his only full SRL season in 2016. It was a season that saw the effervescent Carson City, NV resident score the Speed51.com Most Popular Driver Award. It was also a season in which Hodges really turned some heads amongst his racing peers.
At the age of 18, Shepherd is already a three-time Late Model track champion, with two at Madera Speedway and one at Kern County Raceway (CA). Shepherd won the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series event at Madera Speedway last season and was the winner of the $10,000 payout at the Short Track Shootout. It was a win that capped off his RPM Mortgage Pro Late Model championship season at Madera Speedway.
His most notable accomplishment, however, may have been his performance at the 2018 Winter Showdown at Kern County Raceway. Shepherd set fast time in the prestigious event and finished second to none other than Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Kyle Busch after 300 laps of competition. To do so, he had to survive a duel with NASCAR XFINITY Series star Daniel Hemric over the last green flag run to secure the position.
Heading to the first event of the season, the SRL competition is already looking to be incredibly competitive, with the largest opening day pre-entry list since 2013. With such a large field, Hodges and Shepherd are sure to have their hands full, but both of them love the competition on the racy 1/3-mile paved oval.
“It’s short, it’s fun, and you can beat and bang on each other without wrecking,” Shepherd told Speed51.com. “It’s great short track racing for the crowd and the crowd really seems to get into it more at the short tracks with all of the beating, banging and going three-wide on a track like that. I’ve always liked the smaller tracks and it seems like I have a better handle on the smaller ones than I do on the bigger ones. Maybe it is because I have a lot more seat time on them than I do the bigger ones.”
Despite his 2017 experience, Hodges has a similar opinion when it comes to racing at Madera Speedway.
“I really like running at Madera,” Hodges began. “Historically it has been one of our better tracks, but lately we have been spending so much time on the bigger tracks that we need to shake the rust off the nitty gritty of the hand-to-hand combat of short track racing. It’s always fun though, and Madera has been good to us overall.
“I really like how the line changes so much from qualifying to the race. Running up high at Madera is really fun and it makes for a lot of good side-by-side racing. It is definitely one of our favorite tracks to go to and Kenny Shepherd (Madera Speedway Promoter) really puts on a good show for sure. Hopefully we will have a good result down there.”
Even though Hodges has run well at Madera in the past, his last visit there was a huge setback for the team. It is a setback the Naake / Klauer Motorsports Team is still struggling to recover from.
“The last time we were there the big wreck happened and the results are still lingering,” Hodges admitted. “We have still yet to get back into our stride. It would be very fortuitous for us to get back to Madera and turn our fortunes around, get things clicking again and hit our stride.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Shepherd is coming off several big wins at Madera Speedway and was the winner of the SRL race that ultimately ended Hodges championship bid. The win gives him additional confidence, but he knows the competition will be stiff and a win will not be easy.
“It definitely helps having won the SRL race and going back there for the second time,” the Bakersfield, CA resident said. “But with the stout field we are going to have there this year, with all the guys (and gals) going for the Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Doss coming back to run the whole season, Derek Thorn and Carlos Vieira, there are going to be some heavy hitters there. It is going to be a tough one for sure and hopefully we can stay out of the wrecks and put it on the trailer with a good finish.”
Shepherd has made seven SPEARS Southwest Tour Series starts in his career. The first four were with his small family-owned team. He had success with his family team with three top-10 finishes in four starts. But in the middle of 2017, he made the move to the Wilson Motorsports Team and found immediate success with his Madera victory. He followed that effort up with a second at Kern County Raceway and a fifth at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Centennial High School senior began the season in the same car at the 4th Annual Winter Showdown, showing his late season performance was not a fluke. In four starts with the Wilson Motorsports Team, Shepherd has yet to finish outside the top five and has found chemistry with his new team.
“Our confidence level is very high at the SRL events, having finishes of first, two seconds and fifth since I have been driving for them,” Shepherd acknowledged. “We all get along great and we all have a good time when we go to the race track, and we all have fun at the end of the night no matter how we do. The big key with having a great race team is having good people behind you and not having to worry about winning every race. As long as we finish well, we are happy, and if we win we are stoked!”
“We are a little bit of a small team, I guess you could say. We don’t show up with a stacker trailer and we only have one car and we have to race that car when we show up to the race track. But we have a blast doing it.”
Whereas Shepherd has been on a roll with his new team, Hodges has had a bit of a struggle as of late. The team and Hodges, however, are confident that they will turn their luck around by going back to what made them successful in the past.
“We are going to go back to the basics,” Hodges began. “We got a little exotic and tried some things that a lot of guys have been talking about, trying to make sure we were onto the latest and greatest technology. I honestly believe that it got us a little off track. So when we go to Madera, we are going to unload pretty much where we were last year. Hopefully this car will respond well to it and we’ll go from there.”
To run well with the large field expected, Hodges is going to have to overcome one of his weaknesses when it comes to Madera.
“One of the most difficult things for me about Madera is that the qualifying pace is fast compared to the race pace,” Hodges explained. “Qualifying has historically been one of my issues, as I’ve never been the best qualifier in the world. It kind of comes out in Madera because I’m a lot better in the high line, which we run during the race than I am in the low line. That is why we are typically good in the race, but mediocre in qualifying.”
Both Hodges and Shepherd have hopes of contending for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series championship in 2018, but both teams could use help with the financing of their campaigns.
“We want to go for Rookie of the Year and we want to go for the championship, but we’ll have to take it one race at a time and see what the funding is like,” Shepherd stated. “We don’t have the big money that a lot of other teams do in the SRL. We are just out there knowing we have a good car and a good crew chief in Butch VanDoorn, and a great owner and team. I couldn’t ask for anything better. If we don’t end up running all the races, we are sure to have a good time racing the ones that we are at. But hopefully we get to run them all.”
“We are going to run the same type of deal we did last year,” Hodges began. “We will for sure run the first four or five races and then kind of see where we are at. Budget-wise, we are in the same boat as last year. We have a set budget that we need to stick to and it definitely restricts us from doing a lot of the big races and things that we would like to do. We will just spend it wisely and do what we can with it. Come midseason, hopefully we will be in a good spot and we will try to wrap up the year like we did in 2016.”
As both teams head to Madera Speedway this weekend, one thing is for sure: both Buddy and Bobby will be drivers to watch when the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series takes to the track for the scheduled “Season Opener 125 presented by 51 FIFTY Energy Drink” at approximately 7:00pm.
The action gets underway with qualifying and heat races for the Late Models, Hobby Stocks, Legends, Toyota Sedans and MST Divisions at 1:15 p.m. The Toyota Sedan and MST Division Mains are scheduled to begin at 3:10 with opening at 4:00. The Hobby Stock main event will be followed by SPEARS Southwest Tour Series qualifying at 4:45, with the remaining division main events to follow.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com