Collins Motorsports (CMS) drivers Christian McGhee and Blaine Rocha will be making their final starts of the 2017 season in the SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series at a track that both drivers have excelled at. The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NV) has treated each driver well, and each hope to visit victory lane on November 18 at the tricky 3/8-mile paved oval. The “2017 Season Finale 125 presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse San Dimas” features a 31-car pre-entry list chock full of talented racers that will need to keep an eye on the two young talented CMS stars.
Rocha is a 19-year-old sophomore at Fresno State University, majoring in agriculture. He began his racing career on dirt bikes, but made a name for himself in the Karting world. He had a championship in the Regional Cadet Division in the IKF (International Karting Federation) Series at the age of 11. He followed that up with a championship in the Cadet Division, Rotax Minimax Challenge of the Americas, as well as many wins in the CIK (Commission of International Karting) Series. That success, along with others led to his election to the World Go-Kart Team, representing the United States in 2013. Rocha would go on to finish 11th in the World Go-Kart Championship event. That momentum propelled him into late Models in 2014 and into an eventual ride with CMS in 2015.
Rocha finished sixth in the final SPEARS Southwest Tour Series standings during his first season and followed it up with a fifth-place finish in 2016. He won his first series event at The Bullring in the season’s final race in 2016. The win was worth $10,000 in a 36-car field.
Rocha seems to have an affinity for big events, as he finished fourth in the 2015 Winter Showdown at Kern County Raceway. He also had success across the country, setting fast time and finishing third in his first ARCA/CRA Super Series event at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. Last season, he finished seventh in the All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville (TN). Looking forward to 2017, Rocha was ready to compete for the SRL championship.
McGhee began his racing career at Irwindale Speedway (CA) at the age of 10. He began in the Bandolero Division, where he would eventually win a championship before moving up. He was the Rookie of the Year in the Speed Truck Division in 2013, where he would also win the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series California Rookie of the Year title. He managed the same feat in 2014, this time in the Irwindale Late Model Division, as well as finishing second in points to Ryan Partridge in the Speed Truck Division. Another Late Model effort at Irwindale Speedway in 2015 found him in victory lane four more times during the season and ready for a full-time move to the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series.
In 2016, at the age of 18, McGhee won the Rookie of the Year Award in the SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series for the CMS team. It was the team’s third consecutive ROTY award following Garett Archer and Parker Stephens. He finished third in the final championship standings behind Derek Thorn and Ryan Cansdale. McGhee was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each championship event that season and he hoped it would springboard him to a championship in 2017.
With both CMS drivers on a roll to end 2016, a championship in the SRL for either one seemed a very distinct possibility. But both Rocha and McGhee have had up and down seasons to date with one being up and the other down through the first two-thirds of the season.
Rocha got off to a great start in 2017, winning one race with three top five and four top-10 finishes in the first four events. He entered the fifth race of the season at Irwindale Speedway as the point leader for the first time in his career. But lady luck was not on his side, when he couldn’t avoid a multi-car accident in front of him.
“The season was going really well when we got the point lead, and I thought I was really going to be strong at Irwindale,” Rocha told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We won the race in Bakersfield (Kern County Raceway) and that was probably the highlight of the season so far. I was at the right place at the right time and it was a pretty lucky win, but that’s what it takes to win these races. The Irwindale race was definitely the biggest disappointment of the season. We were running well and going through lapped traffic, but got caught up in an accident. I was almost able to avoid it, but I got tagged and it put me out of the race. It really hurt us in the points because there were almost 30 cars there, and we have been trying to catch up ever since.”
McGhee started off his season in the opposite fashion. The opening round at Irwindale Speedway found him caught up in the only real accident of the race when four cars got collected near the halfway mark of the event. The following race at Kern County Raceway, McGhee was involved in another accident. This time it occurred while making a pass for the lead. The third event at The Bullring found the team missing the event after losing a motor in the shop on Thursday of race week. A good run at Madera Speedway (CA) gave McGhee his first top-five finish of the season, but problems struck once again at Irwindale and he finished 18th.
“I’ve just had bad luck this year,” McGhee stated. “I must have done something wrong somewhere along the line and down the road because I’m getting payback I guess. The story of my year has just been bad luck. It seems like I do the right thing and I still get the wrong result. But it is what it is and we will keep digging.”
Turning the corner on the season, Rocha had a decent run in the combination race with the Northwest Super Late Model Series, finishing eighth at Rocky Mountain Raceway (UT). But an 11th-place finish at Tucson Speedway (AZ), was a disappointment for the MASROC Farms, Rocha Valley Enterprises and Masellis Drilling sponsored team. The team rebounded with a solid seventh-place finish at Kern County Raceway to enter the finale in Las Vegas third in the championship standings. The championship may be out of reach, but Rocha is locked in a three-way battle for second as he heads to his most successful and memorable track. He will be the defending winner of this weekend’s season finale after experiencing a roller coaster weekend in 2016.
“I had my first SRL start in Las Vegas and I finished fifth there after starting in the rear. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve really liked the track,” Rocha began. “Last year, we were really fast in practice. I was doing a mock qualifying run and tried to exit the track because the engine was getting really hot. I didn’t get it slowed down enough to get it off the track and I demolished that race car. All my guys said it looked like someone kicked me in the balls at the start of that race. I qualified second and then drew the number one to start on the pole for that race. I led every lap of that race. The car was perfect, but I was pretty upset with myself because I did something so ridiculous. The backup car was just as good as the primary and I brought it home for my first win.
“We are probably out of the championship race, so our goal is to win this race. We want to do whatever it takes to win this one. I feel like with the Collins Motorsports team, we are always top five or top ten car anyplace we ever go. I am very comfortable with the track, so I don’t feel like there is any reason we can’t do the same thing as last year.”
For McGhee, his season turned on a positive note at Tucson Speedway. He finished third there and backed it up with another third-place effort at Kern County Raceway. It was an impressive effort for the Millennium Reinforcing, Western Concrete Pumping, J&M Racing sponsored entry after the team struggled all weekend.
“We couldn’t get the car to turn all weekend, and we were really out to lunch,” McGhee remembered. “I was really bummed that we were struggling because I felt like Kern was my best track on the series, even better than my home track at Irwindale. We are a top five car at Irwindale, but I have never been the guy there, and I always want to be the guy. And so does everyone in this series. Coming back for the second time this year, I really felt like I would be the guy to beat. That’s why it was so very frustrating to me, so we made a swing for the fences and it paid off. If you would have told me before the race that we would have been in the top three, I would have laughed at you. We can build on this and when we unload in Vegas, I feel we can be the one to beat.”
McGhee has reason to believe that he will be the one to beat after consecutive third-place finishes at the track in 2016. He also feels he knows the keys to running well there.
“It’s a tight little bullring and you have to be really disciplined to run well there, just due to how line sensitive it is,” McGhee conjectured. “If you miss your mark by a foot, you can lose two-tenths. Practice wise and qualifying wise, you have to be very disciplined. You can’t make any mistakes in the race or they’ll get a fender under you and you will get freight trained until you can get down. I like Vegas because it’s a fun little place, and who doesn’t like to go to Las Vegas? It’s a good vibe there.”
The Collins Motorsports teammates hope the good vibe will surround them, as a strong pre-entry of 31 cars will be waiting for them. Drivers such as three-time SRL champ Derek Thorn, two-time Pacific Challenge Series champ Jeremy Doss, Southwest Tour champions Craig Raudman, Eric Schmidt and Jacob Gomes, as well as multi-time Late Model track champions Trevor Huddleston, Nick Joanides and Buddy Shepherd will be tough to beat. In addition, SRL winners such as Bobby Hodges, Ricky Schlick and Jeff Bischofberger will be joined by former PCS champion John Moore and PCS winners Cole Moore and Carlos Vieira to make an even stronger field. Drivers scheduled to make their first SRL starts of the season include Justin Simonson, Stan Mullis, Cole Cabrera, Kayli Barker, Logan Bearden Jimmy Parker Jr., and Kolby Berry. The later four will be making their first career starts.
Front gates for the “2017 Season Finale 125 presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse San Dimas” will open at 2:00 p.m. Qualifying for all classes is scheduled for 2:30 p.m., with heat races and B-Main events to follow. Opening ceremonies for the West Coast Short Track Championships are slated for 5:00 p.m. The SPEARS Southwest Tour Series will be joined by the Lucas Oil Modifieds, USAC HPD Midgets and the Jr. Late Models for a huge weekend of racing.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com