Corona, CA – Sometime Friday morning Travis Thirkettle will hook up his race car hauler, load up his crew and make the 80-mile drive from Newhall to Bakersfield, California.
The trip to Kern County Raceway Park will be a homecoming of sorts for Thirkettle, the 2016 DJ Safety Rookie of the Year in the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by RAM Mounts The 39-year-old grew up in the San Fernando Valley in southern California and lives in Newhall, but where he feels most at home is on a half-mile paved oval race track like Mesa Marin Speedway used to be and Kern County is now.
Thirkettle is heading to the 5-year-old track at Enos Lane and the I-5 Freeway for Saturday’s (July 1) RAM Mounts 75 presented by Reeves Complete Auto Center, the fifth of 10 races to determine the series championship, and there aren’t too many places the redhead would rather be going.
“It is” like a homecoming, Thirkettle said. “I raced for almost 20 years on primarily half-mile race tracks. Bakersfield is where I started (at Mesa Marin, which closed in October 2005), then I moved on to Irwindale (Speedway in southern California, where the series will race in mid-August).
“The Thirkettles have a pretty good reputation in Bakersfield. My dad (West Coast Hall of Fame member Jim Thirkettle) got it started, he won 79 races and 5 track championships (at Mesa Marin), so I’ve got to try to keep it going.”
Thirkettle has shown he’s equal to the task. In three starts on the ultra-fast Kern County oval he has a win, a fourth and a fifth. The top fives were in the past two Winter Showdowns, which do not count toward the championship. The win came last September, in the first points race at the track, by .195 seconds over Taylor Miinch, Dylan Cappello, William Camara and Linny White. All four of those drivers will be on hand this weekend too.
Cappello won the series inaugural race at Kern County, in February 2015. Miinch’s three top fives have come in just three starts. Scott Winters has a pair of seconds and White, Camara, Eddie Secord and Jason Irwin each has a top five finish. Thirkettle said “that’s a good crowd to be associated with” and hopes he’ll have optimum conditions for his battle with them and the rest of the field.
“I’ve raced in Bakersfield in July before,” he said, “and sometimes it can be 100 degrees at midnight. That’s going to change the race, and if it does I’m hoping it plays in our favor.
“The track is fairly consistent, but so far I prefer it when it’s hotter. I like racing when the track is slicker. When it’s really fast and cold, like in February, everybody is fast and has a lot of power and the tires don’t fall off. When the track slows down it helps us.”
Thirkettle, who had two wins on half-mile ovals in his Stratasys Direct Manufacturing/Sunoco Fuel Race Car Factory Chevrolet last season, said Kern County “definitely takes some getting used to. It’s a challenging track. It’s fast. It feels wide and narrow at the same time. It’s one groove and gets really narrow coming off Turn 2.
“I like it. It’s my kind of track. It also plays into our setup, our style. There are several paths you can go down. We (he and dad Jim, his crew chief) really built the car to be good at places like that, high speed tracks.
“Power helps (at Kern County) but I don’t think it’s everything. You need good balance. A stable race car makes a difference. The track is so fast and the cars can be kind of twitchy at times. That allows the driver to be more aggressive and feel more comfortable.”
Thirkettle will go into the weekend tied with Irwin for fourth in the Hoosier Tire West point standings after his second runner-up finish of the season June 10 at Madera, California, where Cappello took the win.
The points leader is Miinch, who has two wins this year and a streak of 10 straight finishes of fourth or better. He has 286 points and a 37-point lead over Cappello (249) with Blake Rogers (242) third. Thirkettle and Irwin have 236 points each.
Saturday night’s 75-lap contest will be the feature event on Kern County’s GPS 50th Anniversary Celebration and Salute to America, with Super Stocks, Bandoleros and Mini-Dwarfs also on the racing schedule and a fireworks spectacular following the main event.
Spectator gates will open at 5:30 p.m. with racing at 6 and opening ceremonies at 7 p.m.
Lucas Oil Modified Series Press Release. Photo Credit: Lucas Oil Modified Series