A little over thirty-one years ago, a driver from Lakeside, CA drove to a championship, in the very first season of the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour Series. Nearly twenty years ago, that same driver made his very last start in a “Tour” car, in that same series. In just a few weeks, that well known racer will make a return to the SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series, at the Irwindale Event Center (CA). The car is owned by another long-time Southwest Tour Series car owner. He will also serve as a teammate to a fellow NASCAR Southwest Tour Series Champion.
On August 19th, “Rapid” Ron Esau will return to the seat of a Southwest Tour Series Super Late Model, driving for Dave Reed Racing, in the “Patriots Honor 100 presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse San Dimas”, at Irwindale Speedway (CA). Esau will team up with 2001 NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour Series Champion Craig Raudman, to form an effort with unparalleled experience for a West Coast Team. It is a combination that team owner Dave Reed is excited about for himself, the series and racing on the West Coast.
“It’s pretty exciting to have two championship drivers on one team”, Reed told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Ronnie has been an integral part of our crew team. To have two championship drivers, driving for one team owner, for the last few races of our season, too me, it is pretty special. And I think it is for the series as well. It’s kind of Ronnie’s farewell tour. It is kind of like Darrell Waltrip’s old farewell tour, but he probably will run some more races next year. Hopefully they will be for me, but maybe for someone else. He still has it in him though, and he can still wheel a race car.”
Esau began his racing career at the now defunct 605 Speedway (CA) in Irwindale in 1971, at the age of 16. He also raced at Orange Show Speedway (CA) until he was old enough to race at his home track, the now defunct Cajon Speedway (CA), at the age of 18. He was the Rookie of the Year, and then champion in the Super Stock Division (now known as Late Models) at Cajon Speedway. Esau went on to find success in the late 70’s and early 80’s in the Open Competition Class, with victories up and down the West Coast. Tracks such as Mesa Marin Raceway (CA), Orange Show Speedway, Saugus Speedway (CA), All American Speedway (CA), Craig Road Speedway (NV), Evergreen Speedway (WA), Western Speedway (BC) and Bonneville Raceway, in Salt Lake City Utah, saw Esau carry home the winner share of the loot.
In 1983, Esau went to what is now the NASCAR K&N Pros Series West, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in a borrowed car from Lee’s Racing. The following season he finished fifth in the final standings, after purchasing the championship car that Jim Robinson drove the previous season. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however, and wanted to win a championship. It was a desire that led Esau to his first touring series championship.
“I got sponsorship from Tom Speil, who was an owner of five McDonald’s franchises in the local Riverside area”, Esau said. “So I looked into what it would take to win the championship in the West Division, over what it would take to just finish fifth. I approached Tom with it, and he just didn’t want to spend that much money. So he said to me that they are starting a new NASCAR Division out here on the West Coast, and they are calling it the Southwest Tour. Why don’t we just take a step backwards, and get used to winning. Let’s go win races there instead of just finishing top five in the West. So I said that is a good idea, and I built a car that year and we went out and won the first championship (in 1986),” Esau concluded.
The following season, Esau backed it up with a third-place finish in the championship standings behind Mike Chase and Roman Calczynski, just ahead of Rick Carelli. It was his last full season on the “Tour” after leading the standings late into the campaign.
During that time, Esau also had opportunities to race in the now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, driving for owners such as D.K. Ulrich and James Hylton, at tracks such as the now defunct Riverside International Raceway (CA) and Ontario Motor Speedway (CA). Those West Coast events gave him the opportunity to race at the highest level of NASCAR, even if it was only for a short period of time.
Esau began, “I got some exposure to the Cup level racing, so in ’88 I went back east and ran for Buddy Arrington. I started in the middle of summer with two guys I took back east to help me. We stayed in a little trailer behind the shop, while living the dream of going Cup racing. But he (Arrington) wouldn’t spend the money to even put tires on the car, or do anything. I was used to winning races, but now I was back to running 20th, 25th or 30th, and not even making a lot of shows. It was after that, that I decided to come back to the West Coast, and just race as a hobby. And that is what I have been doing since then”, Esau concluded.
In addition to local racing, Esau was able to participate in a few NASCAR K&N West Series Events each season. In 1997, Esau got the opportunity to drive for Dave Reed at California Speedway (CA), in the West Series. It was because of his previous big track experience that he got the call from Reed. It led to a long friendship with the long-time car owner.
“In ’97 Dave (Reed) approached Craig (Raudman) about racing at Fontana”, Esau commented. “Craig said I’m not just up to jumping into the car, and going that speed right now. He suggested that Dave get Dan Press, but Press said he wasn’t ready for it either. They said why don’t you call Ron Esau. So I ended up hooking up with Dave Reed through Dan Press and Craig’s recommendation. I ended up driving for Dave Reed in the first California Speedway race, because there weren’t very many drivers on the West Coast with big track experience.”
In Esau’s career, he has 17 starts in the now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, four Nationwide Series starts, including a third-place finish at Riverside International Raceway (CA), and six Camping World Truck Series starts, with a best finish of ninth at Evergreen Speedway (WA). It was that Truck Series start, that many remember from the formative years of the series.
“I got an opportunity, when I was helping Walker Evans as a driver coach for Brendan Gaughan in the Truck Series in ’95”, Esau remembered. Previously, I had the opportunity to race in several NASCAR (exhibition) races down in Australia. I finished third down there in 1989, behind Terry Labonte and Kenny Schrader. Well, Kenny was at the truck race (1995) in Monroe (Washington, at Evergreen Speedway) after winning the previous race at Saugus Speedway. When working on the truck, he put his hand down into the radiator fan, and cut his thumb off. Kenny was in the ambulance and told the guys to go get Ron Esau to run the truck, because he will take care of it. I ended up driving Kenny Schrader’s truck at Evergreen that weekend. We qualified ninth, and finished ninth, against some pretty tough competition back then. I had a lot of fun in that event.”
Since that time, Esau has raced Late Models in the final season at Cajon Speedway (2004), several partial seasons at Irwindale Speedway, a number of seasons at the road course at Willow Springs Raceway (CA), and most recently the V8 Road Racing West Series. In his last time out in that series he won at Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
The opportunity to race for Dave Reed Racing, in the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series, came about partially because of Esau’s expertise as a driver coach. In addition to drivers like Brandon Whitt and Brendon Gaughan, Esau was also a coach for Ricky Schlick, who drove a partial schedule for Dave Reed Racing in 2016.
“When Ricky and his dad (Howard) decided to do their own program this year (2017), Dave came to me and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea. Since you helped me out the last couple of seasons with Craig, and you drove for me in 1997 at California Speedway, why don’t you run a couple of races with me this year?’ I said I’d love to. I’m just glad I’ve gotten some racing experience as of late, even if it was on a Road Course”, Esau surmised.
Esau is excited to get back behind the wheel of a Southwest Tour Series car, but he is even happier that it is for Dave Reed. Over the years, since his drive in Reed’s car at California Speedway, Ron and Dave have become good friends, both on and off the track.
“Dave and I have always had a good relationship, since I drove for him back in ’97. Over the years, I started to like golf, and he would invite me to play golf with him. We would play and not even talk racing, but just play as friends. I am really honored that he would ask me to drive for him. I am getting older, and I’m not as quick as I used to be, but I think with the experience I have, I will be able to stay out of trouble, and we will see what we can do. I’d like to be like Garrett Evans, get out there, and run up front”, Esau stated.
In May of this year, Esau got the opportunity to jump into Craig Raudman’s SRL car at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NV), when Raudman missed Friday and Saturday’s practice. It was an opportunity that both fueled Esau’s appetite to drive the car, as well as give him some experience behind the wheel of a Super Late Model/Tour car.
“Getting back behind the wheel of the tour car for practice, really gave me the itch to race one. I have been running a class of car that uses a two barrel carburetor, over the last several years. I got in the car and felt like it was coming of the corner good, and handling well. When Craig got there, he noticed that there was a problem with the engine. He said, didn’t you notice that? I said, well it’s so much better than my two barrel, and I didn’t really run too close to anyone, so I didn’t notice that we were getting beat that bad”, Esau recalled.
It has been since 1998, that “Rapid” Ron has raced been behind the wheel of a Southwest Tour Series car. He has followed the series over the years, however, and has a unique perspective of the changes that have taken place over that period of time. Esau was quick to point to the changes in technology, and how close the fields are, as some of the biggest.
Esau ventured, “When we first started in the Tour, people were just starting to learn about shocks. With the rules being equal for everyone now, the shock technology is much more important than it was back then. Then it goes from shocks, to coil binding, to bump spring and bump washers being important. Being able to have guys buy equipment from manufacturers also makes a big difference. Back then we had to make a lot of our own stuff, as well as our own chassis. Now there is a lot of technology in the chassis.”
Esau continued, “Back then, I was like the big king when I pulled into the pits with a box van truck, with an open trailer. I’d pull in and we would set up a tarp and we’d look like the big kings. Now, teams spend more money on their haulers than we did racing all season. But it was still competitive back then, and I think it is super competitive now. To be able to take these young kids, and put them in a ride that really handles, really tightens up the gap.”
August 19th at Irwindale Speedway will be the 62-year-old driver’s first Tour race since his last start at Tucson Speedway in 1998. It will likely be a much shorter span between starts this time, however, as the plan is to get Esau a few more starts for Dave Reed Racing this season. Beyond this season, Esau is still open to additional races, if the opportunity would present itself.
“The plan for this year is to run Irwindale, and if all things go well, we will go to Kern (County Raceway, CA) and Vegas (Bullring at LVMS). Beyond this year, it is pretty much up to how we do now, and how business goes for Dave.”
The opportunity for Esau to get back in a “Tour” car is made possible through Dave Reed’s business, Approved Memory, with additional sponsorship from K&N Filters, Lucas Oil and Eibach Springs. Ron will be on track for practice on Friday, August 18th and again on Saturday from 1pm to 2pm. Qualifying will take place at approximately 4:35pm. Fans can come out and meet with “Rapid” Ron and the entire SPEARS Southwest Tour Series field, during an on-track autograph session from 5:45pm to 6:30pm. Opening Ceremonies are scheduled for 6:45pm, with Main Events for the Vintage Class, Super Stocks, SPEARS Southwest Tour and Lucas Oil Modifieds following.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo Credit: Ron Esau Racing Facebook