The most anticipated race of David Gilliland’s career came to a crashing halt at Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night, but that didn’t keep the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver from celebrating when the race was over.
Gilliland returned home to the track built just minutes from Los Angeles and endured an unforgettable week of ups and downs that culminated with his No. 88 David Gilliland Racing Super Late Model in the turn one wall. But David was all smiles on the track after the race, as 14-year old son Todd finished third in his Super Late Model debut, and grandpa Butch, at 56, returned from an 8 year hiatus to finish fifth.
“Really proud of Todd right now, for his first time ever in a Super Late Model, this is pretty amazing,” David said. “I’m just amazed at what he can do in a racecar.”
The youngest Gilliland’s day started slow, with a tight racecar preventing him from qualifying up front. After starting 10th, Todd quickly worked his No. 98 DGR entry past Butch, who started 9th, and was able to ride for the first 50 laps. Following a late caution, Todd started making his moves, finally settling into third for the final 10 laps. Jason Patison beat former NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver Jack Madrid to earn the $3,000 win.
“I definitely got more comfortable as we went,” Todd said. “We had a long run car. We were just so tight early on that it was hard to pass. But the longer we went, the more I learned and it ended up being a great night. The first thing I told dad when I got out of the car was ‘we need to come back here again.’”
By the time the green flag fell on Saturday night, David and his crew were already exhausted. The DGR team flew in to California after last weeks Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire and immediately went to work on the two cars pegged for David and Todd. David’s No. 88 hadn’t raced since 2010, while Todd’s No. 98 last saw the Irwindale track in 2009. The team missed a day of practice on Thursday because the cars weren’t finished.
Then, on Friday night, with just 20 minutes left in practice, David’s car lost a motor, sending the team into a frantic scramble. After a replacement was secured, the team worked all night and into the morning to get his car on the track with just five minutes left in race day practice.
After qualifying 7th, David started picking off cars one-by-one. On lap 26 he moved to third following a restart, and immediately set his sights on Ryan Partridge’s No. 11 in second. The 2011 All-Star Showdown winner didn’t give Gilliland an inch, and when the two came out of turn four on lap 30, Gilliland pushed up into Partridge, turning Gilliland head on into the wall, and ending Partridge’s night as well.
“It’s a shame, we just got turned around, that’s all it was,” Gilliland said after the race. “We were running good, coming up through the field. The car definitely wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but I’m so proud of this team and all of the adversity we overcame to get it to where it was. We were coming, that’s for sure.”
Partridge saw things differently.
“David kinda ran me up the track a little, took my line away, but I had a run on the outside and was at his door when he came up,” the defending Late Model track champion said. “I mean it was really honestly just good, hard racing. The last thing either of us wanted to do was wreck.”
After flying in from Thailand, where he works as a government contractor, Butch wasted no time getting up to speed in hi No. 38 Jackson racecar.
On the lap 30 restart following his sons accident, the eldest Gilliland – who still holds the track record in a stock car at Irwindale from the inaugural 1999 K&N Pro Series West event – started picking cars off. He quickly went from 10th to 6th, and finally moved into 5th with 15 laps to go. Early in the race, he and Todd exchanged positions a few times, something Butch said was the thrill of a lifetime.
“This is really, really special, honestly,” the 1997 West series champion said. “In fact, I don’t think its really even set in yet just how special this was. To race my grandson, to race David, this is right up there at the top as far as career highlights go.”
Todd used the event as a tune-up for his CRA Super Series debut at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis next week. The entire family hopped on a plane Sunday morning to return to the DGR shop in North Carolina, where the new Super Late Model is almost ready to go. Todd said the experience he gained at Irwindale would be invaluable next week.
“The tracks are just so similar,” Todd said, referring to the variable banking and sweeping corners. “Indy is a little bigger, but the concepts are the same. Everyone has to be patient, roll the top, set up a pass. It’s not like a normal track where you can just drive it in past everyone.”
While the night didn’t end the way David had hoped, he too was appreciative of what the weekend meant to his family.
“To come out here and see all these friends, all my family, I mean this is where it all started for me,” David said. “These are the people who got me to Cup. This is the best short track in America. I still haven’t been to a track this nice in my career, this racey, this fun. Todd’s coming back, and I want to come back and do this again. It was just an unforgettable experience, and I can’t thank everyone that made this happen enough.
“This was so fun, and it’s one moment I’m going to remember forever.”
– By Jason Galvin, special to Speed51.com. Photo credit: Sal Sigala Jr.