Dirt Racing’s Winning Moment: First-year driver Hudson O’Neal etched himself permanently etched himself into Rocket Chassis history, holding off five-time World 100 winner Jonathan Davenport on a green-white-checkered restart to win his first career World 100 and the first for the Rocket house car Saturday night at Eldora Speedway (Sept. 9).
The win had both driver and team owner in tears in victory lane, also bringing veteran Flo Racing commentator James Essex to choke up calling the final lap as O’Neal’s victory was the first for an Indiana driver in the crown-jewel event.
O’Neal, who was the fastest driver across all three days of racing at Eldora, grabbed the lead from Chris Ferguson on lap 15 and proceeded to lead the next 36 circuits before Davenport took the point on lap 52.
Though Davenport took the lead, he never drove away from O’Neal, who on lap 92 re-assumed the lead for good.
Dirt Racing’s Dramatic Moment: The weekend’s closest finish came in the second preliminary feature Friday night, with Brian Shirley joining the rare club of drivers to beat Ricky Thornton Jr. to the finish line in 2023, albeit by inches.
What Dirt Racing Fans’ll Be Group Chatting About This Morning
The competitor in me loved seeing Rocket Chassis prove as dominant as they were this weekend, not out of any vitriol towards any other brands, but simply because the dominance of Longhorn drivers Bobby Pierce and Thornton needs a check on it.
Having said that, it was karmic to see O’Neal lose a tire while leading his preliminary feature Friday night, a failure that ultimately cost the Rocket driver a weekend sweep (he won his prelim feature Thursday night). The elbow he threw on Pierce for the race lead Friday night was REALLY borderline.
Let’s talk about tire failures for a second. I sincerely hope that Randy Weaver’s pit reporting this weekend regarding teams’ opting for softer compounds, aggressive camber setups and low air pressures was truly responsible for the rash of failures that plagued Eldora this weekend, because otherwise the royal palace of dirt racing has a Hoosier problem. Given that the World 100 is not a series race, it’d be awesome to see this event go to an open-tire rule.
Speaking of Weaver, watching him work this weekend makes me think Flo Racing ought to move this guy from pit reporting to the booth. He was overly wordy and too familiar handling the second and third-place interviews with Davenport and Dale McDowell post-race, but his mid-race insights regarding track conditions and car setups were absolutely golden all weekend long. That driver’s perspective would be a welcome addition to the Essex/Jarrett partnership that itself was a bit too familiar much of the weekend.
DirtonDirt’s race recap stated that the decision was made during the second half of the World 100 feature to deactivate the video board during green-flag conditions to ensure that no drivers could utilize it for competitive advantage (signal sticks were also banned for this event for the first time after Eldora banned them in June).
First things first, if the timing of the DirtonDirt article is accurate and this decision was made in the middle of the A-main of a three-day event, that’s atrocious officiating. Making competitive decisions that are not an absolute necessity mid-race is never acceptable.
But, removing that concern from it, this decision feels rash. For one, Eldora raced a lot like Eldora in the closing 40-some laps of Saturday’s World 100. Translation – this move did nothing to improve the on-track product or to change how drivers performed. O’Neal did not suddenly get the best of Davenport because Superman couldn’t look at a video board.
But from a different perspective, speaking as a race fan, this change would have irritated the living daylights out of me. Eldora, for as fan-friendly a facility as it is, has a TON of obstructed view seating. The haulers in the infield and the banking in the corners, coupled with seating that is largely natural hillside, means there are literally thousands of fans at every race that can’t see the whole track even though it’s a literal short track. Turning the video board off devalues a ticket at the facility. I sincerely hope this practice is revisited before Eldora’s next race.
I will admit that I’m a relative newcomer to dirt late model racing, meaning my historical appreciation is a bit lacking. But my God, the amount of alternate paint schemes that ran the World 100 made it a hell of a lot harder to watch the weekend’s races.
RTJ in a white car, Davenport in a black car is one thing. But Brandon Overton, Daulton Wilson and Chris Madden going as far as to run different car numbers as well took novelty to distraction. It’s one thing to see paint scheme changes at a Cup race with franchised ownership, it’s another at an open event with over 100 cars entered.
And while we’re comparing the World 100 to NASCAR at Kansas, I won’t be as bold as to say Eldora had more fans in the stands than Kansas did. But the actual attendance tally was definitely closer than the big leagues would want to admit.
Dirt Racing’s Hero(es) of the Weekend
O’Neal’s World 100 victory was his 13th of the season, a tally that pales in comparison to the more than 50 that Thornton and Pierce have combined to score in 2023. But as good as those drivers’ seasons have been, O’Neal’s season is one that still has to be in contention for driver of the year.
The way that O’Neal, who just turned 23, has returned what is arguably the most iconic racecar in dirt late model racing to national relevance and into a machine that can actually trade blows with Longhorns heavy hitters is something the entire sport should be thankful for.
The timeless McDowell aged like fine wine in this year’s World 100, winning hard charger honors with an absurd 27th to third run that had him within striking distance of the race win.
Dirt Racing’s Victim(s) of the Weekend
Defending World of Outlaws late model champion Dennis Erb Jr. was the biggest-name driver of the weekend to suffer through hard luck, starting Friday night when he absolutely slammed the turn 3 wall while leading his heat race.
Erb took another beating Saturday night, cutting a tire while running in a transfer spot of the final heat race that evening. He failed to make the A-main.
Carson Ferguson was more of an underdog than Erb, but had a very similar rough weekend at Eldora. Friday night saw the younger Ferguson also cut a tire while leading his heat race, then endure a nasty crash in the second heat race on Saturday. Ferguson also failed to make the A-main.
The heartbreak of Saturday night belonged to one Donald McIntosh, who was leading the fifth heat race only to wreck in thanks to a tire failure.
Up Next: Frontstretch will be back Friday morning (Sept. 15) with three days of coverage from the Knoxville Late Model Nationals on site in Iowa. Streaming coverage can be found on Flo Racing.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.