As the days of the 2023 Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour dwindle, we are now almost two full seasons into the existence of the Pro Late Model division, the series that replaced the Super Late Model division at the beginning of the 2022 season.
Throughout the 2023 season, we’ve seen our fair share of great racing in the Pro division. In six of the 12 races so far this season, there has been a margin of victory under one second. However, these races haven’t all been pretty and we’ve seen tons of racecars get torn up on multiple occasions. So, after the free-for-all that was the end of the race at Tri-County, is it time for a sit down with the Pro Series?
First, let’s go over the examples of how the carnage has increased. We’ll start by going all the way back to the second race of the season, back in March at Hickory Motor Speedway. Out of the 29 cars that started the race that night, only 18 of them crossed the finish line 100 laps later. Isabella Robusto got into the rear bumper of race leader Connor Zilisch, spinning the No. 25 on lap 46.
Robusto later made hard contact with the inside frontstretch wall while battling with race leader Mike Hopkins coming to the white flag, which was followed by a multi-car pileup on the back straightaway on the ensuing restart.
The race ended with Hopkins and Brent Crews spinning sideways towards the inside wall, though no major damage was done. All-in-all, the 100-lap race ended with seven cautions on the night.
Around the midpoint of the season, the Pro Late Models had a standalone event at Wake County in July, where only 10 cars attempted to start the event. The race began with a four-car pileup in turn 2 on lap 3, caused by Ashton Higgins getting into the left rear of Giovanni Ruggiero. Just a handful of laps later, what appeared to be retaliation from Ruggiero ended with Higgins hard into the turn 4 wall.
Just past the halfway point, a hard battle between Ruggiero and Katie Hettinger left Ruggiero ultimately being sent up the racetrack after contact multiple times between the two. Finally, after leading 99 laps, Caden Kvapil attempted to throw a block on Ruggiero heading into turn 3 on the final lap, which resulted in the No. 96 being spun hard into the outside wall. Ruggiero’s No. 28 would ultimately join him allowing Logan Jones to take the win.
Finally, we get to what happened this past weekend. In the penultimate race for the CARS Tour Pro Late Models at Tri-County, everything hit the fan with 20 laps to go. A side-by-side battle for not only the win, but the championship points lead went sideways, literally, as Kvapil slid up the hill off turn 2 and made contact with Hettinger, sending the two sliding down the backstretch toward the inside wall.
Kvapil was sent to the rear for rough driving, where he was lined up side by side with the damaged Hettinger on the restart. As the field came to the green, Hettinger took a hard left and hooked Kvapil’s No. 96 towards the outside wall in retaliation, while unfortunately spinning her own No. 81 into the inside wall, ending her night.
As the two crews began to scrap on pit road, the race continued and the drama ensued on the white flag lap. Second-place runner Gavan Boschele made contact with the left rear of race leader Higgins, spinning Higgins’ No. 9 into the outside wall. The No. 25 of Boschele was subsequently disqualified for rough driving and the win was handed to second-place finisher Kvapil.
On the cooldown lap, Higgins jumped from his car and ran across the racetrack to meet Boschele on pit road before punching the windshield of the No. 25. Moments later, the two crews were in an all-out brawl before eventually being separated by security.
Series officials announced Tuesday, Oct. 24, that Hettinger will serve a one-race suspension, while Boschele and Higgins have both been put on probation.
With that being said, the Pro Late Model championship has now been decided, due to the fact that Hettinger, second in points, will be sitting at home for the season finale on Nov. 4. Now, what kind of look is that for the series? It sure isn’t a positive one and that’s why I think there needs to be change.
Suspending Hettinger, while unfortunate for the series due to the title fight, is the right move and a step in the right direction toward fixing this problem that has become apparent in the Pro Late Model Series. The series is built around younger, up-and-coming drivers and that is absolutely a good thing, but there is also not nearly as much money in late model racing as there is in other genres of motorsports.
With that being said, these younger drivers have to understand the consequences for tearing up expensive equipment and realize that retaliation and rough driving will have consequences, both in the short and long run.
The series has set the precedent now and in order to be respected, must stay consistent at minimum with these penalties if a similar situation should arise again. The Pro Late Model Series absolutely has a place in the CARS Tour, as do the drivers themselves.
But scenes like this past Saturday night are not good for the sport or the series’ image. A culture change needs to infused, leadership from the top down in order for these situations to be avoided going forward.
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