Two of short track racing’s brightest young stars stared down The Last Great Coliseum and didn’t flinch.
Raphael Lessard fended off every challenge Steve Wallace could muster in the first qualifying race for Super Later Models at the Short Track U.S. Nationals. In the second qualifying race, Chandler Smith took the lead early and never looked back en route to the win.
Lessard, who set fast time in time trials earlier Saturday afternoon, led flag-to-flag in the 35-lap qualifying event.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Lessard of visiting Bristol’s famed victory lane. “I just really can’t believe it. My team gave me a really good car, but we have a 100-lap race tomorrow, and want to be a little better.”
Wallace mounted runs on three different occasions but each time found a lapped card standing in his way of making the pass on Lessard’s machine. Wallace’s biggest run came with less than 10 laps to go, as Lessard attempted to work the outside of John Beale.
Lessard’s machine jumped loose, and Wallace closed considerably down the Bristol front stretch, but Lessard used Beale as a pick and forced Wallace to jump out of the gas and fall in line for the final handful of circuits.
Wallace was upset with Beale.
“I had a car I felt like could win, but I don’t know who the hell is in that number-six car,” Wallace said. “He is slower than s—, and the ought to park him. Every time I would get close to the 99, a lapped car was in the way. They are so slow and so in the way. It’s just frustrating.”
Lessard learned his car prefers the bottom lane of Bristol’s progressive banking and plans to pin his machine to the bottom for tomorrow’s main event.
“The bottom (groove) is working way better than the top, so that will be important tomorrow,” Lessard said. ”If we can keep it there, we will be good for the whole race.”
Not to be outdone by his fellow teenage racing brethren, Smith bested NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Darrell Wallace, Jr. on a early-race restart and held off a hard-charging Jake Crum over the final laps to secure the win on the high banks in east Tennessee.
Smith dove under Wallace on lap 6 to grab the lead, and opened the hole big enough for Crum to follow through for second. The two followed one another in lock-step formation for the remainder of the race.
“Oh my God, this is amazing,” Smith said after climbing out victorious. “The longer the run, the car kept tightening up. It kept coming to me and getting faster and faster. We worked our tails off at the shop to bring a good car here, and we did.”
Crum stalked Smith’s rear deck for more than 25 laps, but couldn’t find a way around the young Georgian.
However, if Crum finds himself in the same spot tomorrow, a different outcome is coming.
“Congrats to the kid,” Crum said. “I got to him and could’ve moved him if it was for the real win. I decided to keep our stuff in one piece for the feature tomorrow.”
While both qualifying races were clean for the most part, some drivers ended Saturday with bent sheet metal and crushed dreams.
Augie Grill, who has won nearly every big Super Lake Model race in the Deep South, spun on lap 3 of his qualifying race following contact with Cole Anderson and made hard contact with the inside wall. Nick Leitz’s day came to an abrupt end as he was involved a multi-car melee on the fourth lap of the second race.
All cars entered will start Sunday’s 100-lap feature event.
Race fans unable to make it to Bristol Motor Speedway will be able to watch all of the racing action live on Speed51.com.
Trackside Now coverage from Saturday can be found by clicking here.
-By Ryan McCollough, Speed51.com Deep South Correspondent – Twitter: @RyanLMcCollough
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/MoJo Photos
SLM Qualifier #1 Unofficial Results
|15||7G||Weston Griffith Jr|
SLM Qualifier #2 Unofficial Results
|9||29||Tommy St. John|