Two prominent yet grassroots racers at heart in the western portion of the United States are heading up a partnership to establish a vision to keep stock car racing at the forefront for the long-term.
Kenny Shepherd, who finished runner-up in 1999 to eventual NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series star Kurt Busch in the ultra-competitive NASCAR Southwest Tour during his driving career, already has played many roles since hanging up the helmet and stepping further to the business side of racing.
Serving as the President and General Manager of Madera Speedway (CA), Shepherd has already been pivotal in promoting and building a platform for the 1/3-mile facility with the nationally televised headlining RPM Mortgage Pro Late Model Series. In 2016, a Jr. Late Model Series for aspiring drivers ages 10 through 16 was launched, with hopes that its popularity will catch on for additional tracks to participate in the idea throughout the country.
With some of the groundwork on the ladder in place, there was still a noticeable gap. Enter the West Coast Sportsman Stock Car Series, which quietly ran its first test session at the Buttonwillow Raceway road course in southern California last summer and a first exhibition race at Madera in October 2016 with positive feedback. The first event of the 2017 season was held at the latter in early May.
“We’re staying low key to begin with,” Shepherd told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We’re entering this very gently, taking a conservative approach and easing into it.”
Several team owners were in attendance, with and without cars on the grounds, at Madera. Many of which have raced in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in the past or in some cases continue to race at that level. One of the intentions for this series is to provide an intermediate step between running weekly in Late Models and traveling at the next level, a partner to existing touring series.
Shepherd and his partner with this project, Mike Naake, brainstormed about the current state of short track racing and the developmental process well before this became a reality.
“Mike and I began conversations with multiple car owners and what we heard were things were prohibitive and expensive,” Shepherd, who remains very close with NASCAR and its various decision makers, said. “If we can connect and make it as a feeder system to K&N, so those kids can see a path and compete within a $10-15,000 range and gain pavement and road course experience in the big cars before moving up, it will build a bridge.”
Naake competed behind the wheel in the 1980s before turning his focus to various successful ventures including a well-known customized shock and spring solutions company. He brings a respected owner representative perspective as well, having fielded cars across several Late Model series and K&N West.
Currently Naake owns two full-time cars in the Spears SRL Southwest Tour, which won the season opener with driver Bobby Hodges. In addition, father-son tandem John and Cole Moore race for him in the Pacific Challenge Series, and assists with helping teenage sensation Hailee Deegan and 12-year-old Jesse Love get acclimated in the Jr. Late Model Series.
In the May event in which Luis Tyrrell, who has 14 career K&N starts, claimed the victory, Naake had another young ace by the name of Austin Herzog wheeling his West Coast Sportsman car to a third place finish.
“A lot of it kind of started with body rule changes, which gave a lot of these cars nowhere to race,” Naake, noting the evolution from steel-bodied to composite stock cars, outlined. “Some of them couldn’t afford to do the changes and parked them. There is a huge inventory, even with the big teams.”
Shepherd noted that he has thought of a cost effective feeder series since 2009 that would allow a local late model driver to take the next step in the sport and right now is already looking into what the big picture will be in 2022. Part of the business model for the future could include racing at tracks a month prior to when K&N West visits, in which the current K&N body would be allowed, believing there is a crossover for their teams to bring backup cars and less experienced competitors to gain some more laps.
The opportunity to start at a level with shorter distance events, such as a 75-lap feature with a break following lap 50 for teams to work on their cars that was utilized at the first two races, is something they feel can help prospective drivers and teams acquire familiarity.
“We’re harvesting team owners that one day will be K&N team owners,” Shepherd explained. “We want to add to what they are doing. Guys like John Krebs (who had 141 career K&N West starts as a driver from 1977-2003) are trying to find a way to keep cars where they can train in a cost effective environment.”
At the same time, the opportunities are two-fold. It can provide an option for competitors who have passed the chance at reach the higher levels of the sport and find a home for a long period of time. The relaxed atmosphere and rules also bring the experience back to a weekend of leisure for those that cannot commit to much more.
“The structure of the class is very low cost,” Naake mentioned. “Hoosier stepped up with a tire that is inviting for the lower-end guy, and the tires that they practice on in the morning have to stay on all weekend. We also have a chip rule on the RPM and allow teams to have their motorhomes in the pits to make it more budget-friendly.
“Basically we’re relaxing the rules so the average guy with two or three volunteer crew members can feel as competitive as the next guy.”
At the end of the day, both would like to see success in the series determined by who has the most talent rather than who brings the most funding. The remainder of the initial season schedule is rather diverse.
A road racing appearance at Portland International Raceway is next up in July, a visit to the Redwood Acres Raceway bullring in Northern California in August, the Sonoma Raceway road course in September, and a return to Madera in October. The final race of the season in November will feature a foray onto the Stockton Dirt Track in California in November, something that has not been witnessed in this form of stock car racing on the west coast in multiple decades.
“For the Rose Cup at Portland we’re expecting high teens if not low 20s,” Naake said. “We’ll grid the cars with the GASS (a regional stock car road racing) Series so we could be running a 30 minute race with 45 cars. It’s going to put passing into it for those learning to race on the road courses.”
The plan for beyond is to make some more noise over the next off-season with optimism high for a seven or eight race tour and potential national television.
Despite a quiet start, those involved are 100 percent fully focused and passionate about this endeavor as a continuation to reenergize short track racing out west.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Jason Wedehase