Christian McGhee enters the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series event at Irwindale Speedway (CA) on a roll, as he has collected consecutive top-five finishes in each of the first three races of the young season. The current Rookie of the Year point leader will face a large field of seasoned veterans and hungry young guns when the series makes its second and final season appearance at his home track for the Summer Motorsports Mayhem event on Saturday, June 18.
McGhee is a personable, confident, talented and driven 17-year-old driver from Claremont, California. He began his racing career at the age of 10 in the Bandolero Division at Irwindale Speedway, one of the nicest short track facilities in the country, in 2009. That first season McGhee won two races and finished fourth in the points against several racers that would become very successful in their own driving careers. That group of drivers included Ryan Cansdale, Trevor Huddleston, Ricky Schlick and an occasional start by Chris Trickle Jr. The foursome of drivers, excluding Trickle, would race against each other over the next several years as they each progressed up the ranks and became known affectionately by many as “The Brat Pack.”
“I remember racing against those guys in the Bandoleros and we kind of formed that friendship bond,” McGhee told Speed 51.com presented by JEGS. “We ran each other good and we had some hard battles. I look back at it and it was probably some of the hardest racing that I ever had and we were like nine and ten years old.
Christian would win a race again in Irwindale’s Bandolero Division in 2010 and break though with the championship in 2011 before the facility temporarily closed the following season. 2012 saw Christian graduate to the SRL Legends Tour. He would enter the finale at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NV) with a chance to finish third in the points but an early race incident left him with a 26th-place finish and a seventh-place finish in the final points standing. Two of “The Brat Pack” members would finish just ahead of him with Cansdale second and Schlick fifth. Super Late Model standout Zane Smith was third in the very competitive series that averaged nearly 30 cars per event.
“In the Legend cars, we didn’t get to race as close together as we did in the Bandolero Division. It seemed like at one track I would be fast and another Ryan would be fast and then Ricky would be fast, so we weren’t always racing each other,” McGhee said in reference to his “Brat Pack” competitors.
Irwindale Speedway reopened in 2013 and McGhee returned to win the Rookie-of-the-Year Award in the Irwindale Truck Series, finishing fourth in the points with a win in only his seventh start. He also earned the NASCAR State of California Rookie of the Year Award.
2014 followed with another track and NASCAR State of California Rookie-of-the-Year Award. This time it was in the Late Model Division where he managed to win and finish third in the standings, ahead of all three of his “Brat Pack” competitors in his J & M Racing entry. In the Speed Truck Division, Christian finished as the championship runner-up behind NASCAR K&N Pro Series West star Ryan Partridge, who also won the Late Model title that season.
“In the Late Models it was fun,” stated McGhee. “We all ran pretty good there together (referring to his “Brat Pack” competitors). It was fun because they all race really hard and they raced really clean. I only got to race the one year (in a Late Model) with Ryan at Irwindale, but when I did I had a blast.”
2014 also saw McGhee make his first SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series start. He proceeded to lead the first 43 laps at his home track, before a slow leak in his tire eventually dropped him to a 12th-place finish overall.
“At my first SRL race at Irwindale, we had a great car and led the first part of the race only to have a flat tire keep us from a possible win. We were way out in front and just saving tires when the tire went down and set us back,” he recalled.
Moving into 2015, Christian returned to the Late Model Class at Irwindale while running a partial four race schedule in the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series. He started the season at the Winter Showdown at Kern County Raceway (CA) with his J&M Racing Team, but motor issues forced them out of their “Tour” car and into their regular Late Model. The team fought all weekend to get the car up to speed and Christian persevered to finish 15th out of the 54 cars that appeared for the event. During the point season, Christian managed a best finish of sixth, also at Kern County.
The Late Model season was also full of ups and downs, with Christian winning four of the 14 events he entered with 11 top-five finishes and an ultimate point’s finish of fifth in the NASCAR State of California standings.
“We ran really well, but had too many wrecks that cost us a chance at the championship. We missed too many events as a result of those (wrecks) and the double feature nights that were typical at Irwindale.”
He did have a lot of fun, however, with the close and friendly competition as his friend Trevor Huddleston would end up with the championship.
“It was always great racing with Trevor and we would always have great battles. There was never more than a foot between us and we would rarely lay a door or fender on each other so I really liked that,” McGhee said.
During the off-season Christian’s plans for 2016 would take a positive turn.
“After the 2015 season we got a call from Gary Collins at NTS Motorsports. He asked if we wanted to be a part of their team in the SRL and I thought it would be a great opportunity, so I said yes
As it turns out, it was a decision that has allowed the teenager to show off his driving talents. To this point in the season, Christian has three top-five finishes in the first three races and sits third in the overall point standings, while leading the Rookie of the Year battle. He started off the season with a third-place finish at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NV) in the rain shortened event.
“To finish third in the opener was really a stress relief for me. To finish as good as we did at Vegas was great because I feel it is one of the toughest tracks for me personally as a driver,” McGhee admitted.
The second race at Irwindale Speedway was also a hit, but it could have been a home run. He finished fourth in the event to Cansdale, two-time series champion Derek Thorn and 2016 champion Jacob Gomes, but felt a win was a strong possibility.
“It sucks because we had an ignition box go out on us after qualifying and we had to start at the back after qualifying second. But that is also one of the reasons that I really like running in the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series. It shows that they don’t play favorites and they try to make a level playing field for all the competitors even when Larry’s (Collins, the SRL Series Competition Director) brother Gary is my Team Manager. They still made us start in the back for unapproved changes. I feel like I could have won that race and that we had the fastest car, but with only one caution in the first 98 laps, it didn’t give us a chance to take home the win.”
The third race, at Kern County Raceway, resulted in another fourth-place run behind Thorn, David Mayhew and Cansdale in the split 75 lap features. But McGhee was not satisfied with his performance.
“Kern was tough because I felt I cost us the win with a missed shift in the first main. If we could have finished one position better in each main, I feel we could have taken home the win,” he lamented.
Looking ahead to the next event at Irwindale Speedway, McGhee is optimistic about a win, excited to be back at his home track and looking forward to racing against the entire “Brat Pack” again.
“I’m really excited to be going back to Irwindale. We just need to get a better starting spot (than the previous race there). We had a really good car there the first time coming from 21st to fourth in 100 laps. I feel if we would have had a double file restart (restarting fourth) instead of the single file restart on lap 98, we could have gotten the win. Ryan (Cansdale) drove a phenomenal race, but I have more laps there this year than he has as I have been running Late Models there this year. I feel I am more up to date on how the track changes throughout the race. I think that would have given me the advantage.”
Christian continued on, “I am also looking forward to racing against Trevor, Ryan and Ricky this weekend because they will all be there. Trevor, I expect him to be fast there and obviously Ryan, because he is fast everywhere we go and he won the last race there. I am going in with the mindset that Ryan is the one I have to beat along with Derek Thorn because he is also fast everywhere. And Ricky, that was his first time in a “Tour” car, the last Irwindale race, and he didn’t do too badly. I’m sure he will do much better this weekend because he has more seat time and he will be more used to the car now. I think it will be a lot of fun.”
In addition to his SRL schedule, Christian is once again chasing the Late Model championship at Irwindale Speedway. To date, he is second in points behind fellow SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series Rookie of the Year competitor Trevor Huddleston. He has two wins and trails Trevor by a mere eight points (four positions on the track).
When asked about teaming up with NTS Motorsports and having teammates for the first time, Christian felt it was going to be a great relationship after the initial learning curve with the new team.
“At the beginning, there wasn’t any tension with my new teammates, but it was a little awkward at first until I got to know them and they got to know me. The crew didn’t know how I gave feedback, so we kind of had to get used to each other as well. I think that now, we are really working well together and Parker (Stephens), Blaine (Rocha) and I are really getting along well. It is great to be able to lean on your teammates when you go to a new track and they can help you out. It is also beneficial to have that additional feedback in regards to set-up and we can bounce ideas off of each other. The one thing I don’t like about the teammate part is racing against each other. It’s bassackwards, in that you would think your teammates would give you more room, but we actually run each other harder when we are teammates. But I think it really makes me better as a driver and we are all very competitive and want to win. Overall I think the pros really outweigh the cons. To have two teammates like Blaine and Parker really helps.”
Looking down the road, McGhee would like to move up the NASCAR ladder.
“Obviously everyone would like to get to the top (NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) and that is the goal. But in the next few years I’d really like to get into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Next year I think we will run another full season with the NTS Team or just some select big open races. Super Late Models are the best thing you can run. Kyle Busch still runs them, and so does Erik Jones. All the fast guys run them still. Then after that maybe a K & N East or West ride or ARCA, but it all depends on sponsorship. I am very fortunate to have great sponsors like Matt Taylor at Millennium Reinforcing and I’m so thankful to my dad (Loyd McGhee) for all that he has put into this program. To get to that next level though, we need that one extra big sponsor to kick me up to that level.”
In the meantime, he is looking to score a win on June 18 at his home track in Irwindale against a very competitive field.
“I love the competition in the SRL Series. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and racing against guys like Derek Thorn, David Mayhew and these other guys, is what is needed to be that,” McGhee said.
He will have his hands full as the pre-entry boasts 28 drivers from four states. The event should have a carnival-like atmosphere with Monster Trucks on hand, the Justice Brothers Celebrity Race to benefit “Race for Autism”, the Dr. Danger Stunt Show, the Inferno Monster Jet Truck Meltdown and the Spears Southwest Tour Series “51 Fifty Energy Drink 100”. The front gates open at 4:00 p.m. PST with qualifying at 4:30 p.m., followed by the On-Track Pit Party from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., which includes an autograph session with the drivers and celebrities. Racing will begin at 7:00 p.m. with the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series Event beginning sometime between 7:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Tickets are only $15 for adults with children 5 and under free.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Sal Sigala