The SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series will head to Tucson Speedway on Saturday, September 30 for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series 125. The series boasts a wide diversity of drivers when it comes to experience. Some will be making their first starts at the facility, while others have made double-digit appearances at the 3/8-mile, multi-groove facility. 2001 NASCAR Southwest Tour Series champion Craig Raudman will be one of the veterans with a plethora of experience to draw from at the Tucson facility.
The Cottonwood, CA driver is a veteran of racing on the West Coast, compiling 14 career wins in the former NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour Series (NFSWTS). He produced a total of 29 fast qualifying efforts in the series, which was best all-time. He was their 2001 champion and was the winner of the L.A. Street race, which was the highest paying event in the history of the series, paying $18,175 in 2000.
Raudman is a three-time winner in the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series and was the championship runner-up in his only full-time season in 2008. In 2016, the veteran racer was inducted into the NCARA Northern California Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Anderson, CA. It was an honor he shared with his brother Chris, an NFSWTS Champion as well, and Gary Moore, a distinguished and popular media figure and announcer in Northern California.
Raudman heads into the seventh event (of nine) of the season fifth in the series championship standings. He sits a mere six points out of third, behind Blaine Rocha and Bobby Hodges, but has 86 markers to make up on championship leader Derek Thorn. This season, he has three top five, and four top-10 finishes heading to the series event at Tucson Speedway. Considering the three final events, Raudman is realistic about his opportunity to take home a second Southwest Tour Championship, even knowing that Thorn struggled at last season’s Tucson event.
“I’d like to think I have a good chance at the championship,” Raudman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Kern is one of Thorn’s best tracks and he is really good at Vegas, too. Tucson, last year, wasn’t good for us or good for him. Hopefully, we will get it right when we go back. I don’t see the other guys involved as being an issue, we just need to beat Thorn. He is tough everywhere we go. He is going to have to have an issue in order for us to capitalize on that. If he finishes second, third or fourth, we won’t even come close to doing it.”
Raudman is coming off a fifth-place finish in the Retro Custom Metals 150 at Rocky Mountain Raceway (UT) on September 2. He was running third with less than 10 laps remaining when a fellow competitor got into the back of him after a restart. That incident caused him to lose track position and finish in fifth. It also resulted in the loss of 10 points he could have used in the championship hunt. The race was a representation of how his season has gone to date, in that they have been pretty good, but have fallen just a little short of where they would like to be.
“The season has been a little above average so far, but we had motor and some other problems that put us behind at the beginning of the season,” Raudman explained. “We should be a lot further ahead right now, but it looks like we have those problems behind us now. It really set us back in the points, but I believe the next couple of races will be really good, and we should be able to capitalize.”
To capitalize, Raudman will have to have a great finish at a track that hasn’t been too kind to him in the past. He finished 12th in last year’s Roasted Rattler 125 at Tucson and only had three top-five finishes in 12 starts in the NFSWTS. His average Tucson finish is 12.3 over his career, but he did have a second-place finish behind Kevin Harvick in 1995. Despite his finish last year and finishes in the past, Raudman is always hopeful and confident that he can win at any track the series visits.
“I have confidence going into every race,” Raudman stated. “We are coming with a brand-new car that we built at the start of the year. We have done really well with it. I’ve got a good bunch of guys around me and a brand-new motor, so I think we will be looking good.”
Even though Raudman has confidence at each event, Tucson Speedway provides a unique set of challenges with its unique configuration and its worn-out surface. Raudman’s experience in the old NFSWTS may have helped him with his familiarity with the track, but he doesn’t feel it helps with today’s setup.
“I’ve run a lot of different races and cars there in years past, but the track was an entirely different race track back then compared to now,” Raudman began. “It is pretty worn down now. It is one of those places that if you hit it, you are King Kong and then almost everybody else is just average. I kind of compare it to Irwindale, that if you hit it right, you are the man. I think that’s why you see drivers who don’t always run good or win races often, win at Irwindale, because they just hit the setup right and they are on. That’s how I see Tucson too. I just hope we are on that night.
“Dan Holtz was the class of the field there last year. He just whipped everybody’s butt. It was pretty amazing. The rest of us just kind of ran around the bottom and logged some laps. We are going this year with Dave Reed, a whole new car, whole new geometry and it should equate to a better performance. We just don’t have too much of a notebook to go off of for Tucson.
“I’ll just go out there and race the track first and then worry about the other guys once I get the track figured out and have the performance I need. It is a fairly wide place with multiple grooves. It’s not like Orange Show, where it is hard to pass. If we have a good car, we should be able to maneuver around the track just like Irwindale.”
Although Raudman hasn’t always had the best of results at Tucson Speedway, he does have some memorable moments from the track. One of those memories was born out of adversity during testing for an NFSWTS event.
“I was testing down there with Dave Reed,” Raudman began. “I was out practicing and we were really struggling and I ended up spinning out and backing it into the wall. The carburetor overflowed and caught the air cleaner on fire. I had to get it running again, so I started it up but the air cleaner was still on fire. I got it over to the truck to get the fire extinguisher, but the handle fell off, so that one didn’t work. We ended up running over to the ambulance guys and they had a fire extinguisher and they got it out. We cleaned everything up and used a forklift to yank the back clip back down. We ended up borrowing the air cleaner off the ambulance, which was amazingly the same size, so I could put it back on and finish practice and not ruin the whole day.”
This year’s SPEARS Southwest Tour Series 125 will feature some additional challenges for Raudman and the SRL Series stars. Currently, there are five Tucson Speedway regulars entered for this weekend’s event. The current championship top four, as well as the 2014 Super Late Model Champion, are all expected to compete against the tour regulars. Brandon Farrington, Paul Banghart, Brandon Schilling, Sean Bray and Dylan Jones will represent the strong local contingent against the touring regulars.
In addition, three-time ARCA/CRA Super Series Champion Johnny VanDoorn will also make the trip from Minnesota to compete in the car driven to victory at Madera Speedway by Buddy Shepherd. Butch VanDoorn will act as crew chief for the Wilson Industrial Pump, VanDoorn Racing Development Toyota. It will be Johnny’s inaugural SRL appearance.
Despite the additional competition, Raudman is still confident that he can bring his Dave Reed Racing, Approved Memory, Lucas Oil, Ringer Gloves, K&N Filters, Bubba’s Gear & Transmission Chevrolet to victory lane. He also brings a burning hunger for victory. It is a hunger that has grown more intense, as time has passed. It has been 31 events since his last SRL win, despite being very close on multiple occasions. When asked about the current streak, Raudman’s dry humor showed through.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Raudman joked. “I’m running out of time so I am definitely hungry for it. I think we can win every one, so we will definitely go get one!”
Fans can come out and watch Raudman attempt to “go get one” on September 30 against the touring stars of the SRL and the local stars at Tucson Speedway. The front gates will open at 5:00 p.m., with qualifying for the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series scheduled at 5:15 p.m. There will be a “Meet and Greet” from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m., with opening ceremonies set for 6:55 p.m. The SRL will be joined by the local Legends, Hobby Stocks, Late Models, Hornets and Pro Stocks.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com