Eric Schmidt entered the "SPEARS Manufacturing 100 presented by Coleman Powersports" winless in the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series since his series championship in 2006. That surprising streak ended at Irwindale Speedway (CA) last Saturday night, as the series veteran took home the $5,000 paycheck, and thrust himself into the championship battle. It was a win that was long overdue.
"It's awesome and it is a long time in coming", Schmidt told Speed51.com. "My guys and I all come here to win, and this is just the toughest series I've ever raced in, as far as the competition. It just takes a lot of time and work, to get to where we are now. We struggled for a couple of years, but it is all coming together now, with Randy Hedrick's help with the equipment, and Willie Allen's technical support."
Schmidt had shown speed in each of the first three events but hadn't been able to cash in, in his Sierra Speed and Technology, W.A.R. Shocks Chevrolet. Saturday night, the Roseville, CA driver ran a calculated race that paid off in the end. But despite leading a majority of the laps, it was far from easy.
The evening began with Ricky Schlick setting Fast Time, for his second consecutive “PFC Brakes Zero Drag Award”. Schlick was followed by 2015 Champion Jacob Gomes, Jeremy Doss, Jeff Bischofberger, Schmidt and Carlos Vieira. Craig Raudman, who led both Friday and Saturday's practice, timed in seventh quickest, with Blaine Rocha scoring the final eligible position, for the redraw in eighth.
Schmidt drew the number one pill, with Raudman lining up alongside to begin the 100 lap feature. Schmidt jumped to the lead, off of Noel Dawson's green flag, and led until lap 23, when Raudman moved his way under Schmidt.
"Raudman was running pretty hard and I didn't want to burn up my tires to early," Schmidt recalled. "I can't say I let him go, because he was good, but he got by me so I just rode."
Raudman slowly pulled away until the turning point of the event, which occurred on lap 38. As Raudman approached the tail end of the field, Keith Spangler made contact with Bob Lyon, who had a tire going down. Lyon hit the Turn 4 wall hard, and Raudman was unable to avoid the ricocheting Spangler, who was sent spinning down the track. It ended a promising run for the 2001 NASCAR Southwest Tour Series Champion, who has been snake-bit in 2018.
"Spangler just shot down the track, and I had nowhere to go," the frustrated Raudman commented. "I was talking with Jim Pettit, and we were discussing the peaks and valleys of racing. We are just in one of those valleys right now, even though our Dave Reed Racing machine has been fast all season. We have just had bad luck this season. But don't count us out; we will be back strong, contending for another win.”
The incident also ended a strong effort for Blane Rocha, who was running a patient race inside the top-five.
"I couldn't get it slowed down in time, so I just turned it hard left and did some Tokyo Drift, but made a little contact to the right rear quarter panel. I think we had a really good shot. I was saving some at first, and then the oil started to get bad, and all over the right side tires, so that ultimately ended our night."
Upon resumption of the event, Schmidt jumped out to a short lead over new contenders Jacob Gomes and Ricky Schlick. Gomes kept Schmidt within a few car lengths, and began to apply heavy pressure as the event neared lap 70. Just as Gomes began to pressure Schmidt on the inside, he pulled off with a broken rear hub.
The Gomes outcome gave Schmidt a little room to breathe, as he was able to hold off Schlick over the remaining 30 laps to take the victory.
"Jake Gomes was running up behind me, and running me really hard,” Schmidt said. "I figured we were done saving tires, so I just drove it as hard as I could for the rest of the race. Fortunately, we had enough tire left to hang on. I was a little concerned about Ricky Schlick, because he is really fast here. When Jake broke, my spotter said clear by 20, and then five or ten laps later he said clear by 20. I knew right then, if I could keep that pace and the right rear under me, that I'd be okay."
Schlick used his home track knowledge to score his second top-five finish of the season, and best finish of the year in the runner-up spot. He was pleased with the finish, but needed just a little help to pick up one more position.
"I just needed to be freed up in the center," Schlick began. We were out there just a little bit tight, and we kept getting tighter and tighter. After that, it was enough that I would just shove up into the wall. If I could have been loosened up in the center, I think we would have had something for them. A yellow would have helped, and also if the lapped cars could have gotten to the bottom, that would have been pretty nice because it is pretty tough to pass here."
Jeremy Doss ended up third, but had to fight all evening to secure that position. Doss went into conservation mode early, and dropped from third starting to nearly outside the top-ten before rallying back for the finish. Doss battled especially hard with Carlos Vieira for fifth, over an extended period of laps. He would finally secure the position with a slide job pass, while holding off the cross over move that saw the duo race side by side for several laps.
"I was hoping there would be a couple of more cautions." Doss mentioned. "I got to battling with the 51, (Carlos Vieira) and used the car up too much, as and it was pretty tough. This place is really hard to pass at. It was pretty fun though, trying to do slide jobs and stuff in an asphalt car. When we come back in July, we will have to just go home and do our homework."
With the finish, Doss vaults to the championship lead ahead of Ricky Schlick and Eric Schmidt.
"It feels really good to take the point lead, but anything can happen,” Doss explained. “We were 60 points out two races ago, so we just need to be consistent. I worry about everyone in regards to the championship. Jeff (Bischofberger) is right there along with Ricky and Schmidt. They are all right there. I don't know what the points are right now, but I'm sure we are all very close.
Finishing fourth was Rookie of the Year Contender Kyle Neveau. In doing so, he became the fourth different rookie to score the “Rookie of the Race Award”, in four events. The result was Neveau’s best career SRL finish and came at his home track.
“It was awesome to run well at our home track, especially after how much we struggled in Vegas,” Neveau said. “That just goes to show you how deep and competitive this series is. I feel like we are ahead of where we expected to be this early, and I have my guys to thank for it.”
The next event for the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will be on July 14th, at Irwindale Speedway once again. This time, four-time SRL Champion Derek Thorn plans to be in attendance. It is a challenge that race winner Eric Schmidt looks forward to.
"I'll race anyone who comes in the gate," Schmidt said with a chuckle. “If it is our day, it is our day. You know Derek is awesome and I love racing against him. We will just have to see how the cards play out.
Results: 1. Eric Schmidt, 2. Ricky Schlick, 3. Jeremy Doss, 4. Kyle Neveau*, 5. Jeff Bischofberger, 6. Dan Holtz, 7. Carlos Vieira, 8. Cale Kanke, 9. Cole Moore*, 10. John Moore, 11. Jason Gilbert, 12. Jack Wood*, 13. Scott Sanchez, 14. Jim Wulfenstein, 15. Jacob Gomes, 16. Kayla Eshleman, 17. Blaine Rocha, 18. Craig Raudman, 19. Bob Lyon, 20. Keith Spangler.
*Registered Rookie of the Year Competitor
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com Southwest Editor
-Photo Credit: Kevin Peters/Speed51.com