The SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series will be entering its 18th season in 2018, and in doing so the 18th Rookie of the Year Award will be presented at season’s end. The 2018 version of the rookie battle promises to be the most crowded in recent memory, with no fewer than six drivers planning to participate in the full schedule.
In addition to quantity, the class of 2018 also contains quality, with its drivers already accounting for four Super Late Model Touring Series victories, as well as three Super Late Model Rookie of the Year Awards in touring competition. The following is a look at this year’s full-time rookie competitors.
Buddy Shepherd: Shepherd is already making a name for himself on the West Coast in the Late Model and Super Late Model Divisions. The 18-year-old from Bakersfield, CA is a two-time Pro Late Model champion at Madera Speedway (CA), as well as a two-time Late Model Champion at Kern County Raceway (CA). Shepherd made a splash at the 4th Annual Winter Showdown, capturing the Bobby Durrett Fast Time Award ahead of superstar drivers such as Kyle Busch, Derek Thorn, Ty Majeski and Daniel Hemric. Shepherd went on to score a runner-up finish in the event behind Kyle Busch.
Shepherd also scored a SPEARS Southwest Tour Series win in 2017, finishing the SRL season with one win and three top-five finishes in four starts. The Centennial High School Senior also counts five NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts, with two top five and four top-10 finishes, and a win in the “Short Track Shootout” at Madera Speedway worth $10,000. Shepherd will be campaigning a Toyota Camry for Wilson Motorsports, with Butch VanDoorn serving as the crew chief for the effort.
Cole Moore: Moore was the 2015 Pacific Challenge Series (PCS) Rookie of the Year. He has twice finished third in the championship standings in that series, with a partial schedule in 2016 that landed him sixth. The Granite Bay, CA driver picked up a victory at All American Speedway in 2017 to go along with several additional near PCS victories. This season will be only the fourth season in oval track racing for the 20-year-old Granite Bay, CA driver. Moore has extensive experience and success in the motocross racing, with more than 30 championships on his resume.
Moore totals six career SRL starts, with a best finish of fifth at Kern County Raceway and another top 10 at Madera Speedway. He has eight career NASCAR K&N Pro Series West starts, with two seventh place finishes as his best result. He has a total of three top-10 finishes in those eight events. Moore also made the trip to Five Flags Speedway (FL) for the Snowball Derby in 2016. He failed to make the starting field after mechanical issues during qualifying and then an accident during the Last Chance Qualifier while sitting in a transfer position. Moore will be behind the wheel of a JM Racing Chevrolet, with Mario Isola serving as his Crew Chief.
Jack Wood: Wood will be looking for his third consecutive Rookie of the Year Award, after accomplishing the feat in 2016 with the Legends of the Pacific and in 2017 with the Pacific Challenge Series. The 17-year-old driver from Tahoe City, CA rode a wave of consistency to win the award in 2017, finishing each event in the top 10. Wood completed the season fifth in the championship standings to lead all rookies.
Wood also participated in three SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series events last season, finishing a season’s best of eighth at Madera Speedway. The Velocity Racing Team’s Chevy SS will be led into action by Crew Chief R.J. Giddy, with veteran racer Travis Milburn serving as Wood’s spotter.
Kayla Eshleman: Eshleman enters this year’s SRL Rookie of the Year battle as the youngest contender at the age of 15. Eshleman has already earned several championships in her young career. She won the Bandolero Track Championship at both the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as well as the Irwindale Event Center. Eshleman furthermore set the track record at the Bullring and scored a victory in the prestigious Fall Classic. In addition, the Fontana, CA driver was the State of California Bandolero champion.
In 2017, Kayla stepped up to the Late Model Division at Kern County Raceway and the Irwindale Event Center. The Eshleman Motorsports driver completed the season third in Kern County Raceway points, and finished off the Irwindale season with a second-place race result to Ryan Vargas. She made one SRL start, finishing 13th in the 27-car field at the Irwindale Event Center. For her Rookie of the Year season in the SRL, her father Jeff will serve as Crew Chief of their Chevrolet SS.
Kyle Neveau: Neveau is the son of Super Late Model, NASCAR Southwest Tour and Trans-Am Series veteran Ray Neveau. The father and son combo plan to participate in a full SPEARS Southwest Tour Series campaign in 2018, with Kyle contesting for the Rookie of the Year Award. Kyle has experience in Super Late Models, Midgets, Legend Cars and Karts. He has multiple wins, but has very few full seasons in which he has competed for a championship.
The 25-year-old, from San Clemente, CA will be driving the No. 71 Super Late Model for Class Auto Motorsports, with Wesley Sumen serving as Crew Chief. The March 24 season opener for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series will be Neveau’s first series. His father Ray is a veteran of 48 NASCAR Southwest Tour Series starts.
Matt Wendt: Wendt is the third former PCS Rookie of the Year to throw his hat into the ring for the same SRL honor. Wendt won the PCS Rookie of the Year award in 2016, finishing fifth in the overall standings. He returned in 2017 to finish fourth overall, but was the only driver to score multiple victories in the series, winning two of the final three events. The 29-year-old driver is a veteran of Stockton 99 Speedway, scoring the Tri-Holiday Championship in the Super Stocks (now Late Models) in 2014 and 2015. The Lodi, CA driver scored 11 wins in 13 races overall during those two seasons, but missed out on the track championship when he failed to start an event in each season.
Wendt will serve as a teammate to Jeremy Doss and Jeff Bischofberger with the potent JD Motorsports Team. Mike Doss will serve as the Crew Chief for the effort. The Madera Speedway SRL opener will also be Wendt’s first career start with the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series.
In addition to the rookies scheduled to compete in the full season schedule, a wide variety of rookies plan to participate in partial schedules to maintain their rookie status for 2019. Some of these drivers include Matthew Meech, Cole Cabrera, Kolby Berry, Kayli Barker, Toby Becker, Luke Hall, Kevin Furden and Lance Wilson to mention a few.
The SRL Rookie-of-the-Year will once again receive a lucrative package of products from series sponsors including VDL Fuel Systems, Five Star Race Car Bodies, Hoosier Tire West and Sunoco Race Fuels.
Some of the previous winners of the award include Ryan Foster (2003), Jeremy Wood (2005), Jacob Gomes (2010), Jeremy Doss (2013), Garret Archer (2014), Parker Stephens (2015), Christian McGhee (2016) and last year’s winner Ricky Schlick.
The 2018 season for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series will commence on March 24, 2018 at Madera Speedway. It is a season that has the potential to be one of the series’ biggest to date. With a large rookie class and a bevy of current and returning seasoned veterans, the competition is sure to be intense for both the Rookie of the Year and the overall season championship.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com