Thursday, June 29, 2017

CUP: Tommy Regan’s effort a throwback to West Series “combination races” at Sonoma

Tommy Regan
PHOTOS: Brock Beard
When browsing the entry list for last Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, many took notice of the five drivers set to make their Cup Series debuts.  Four of the five were traditional “road ringers,” racers with road racing experience outside of NASCAR’s top three series: Israeli open-wheel turned Euro Series racer Alon Day, Ford factory driver Billy Johnson fresh from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Grand-Am veteran Kevin O’Connell, and IMSA and SCCA competitor Josh Bilicki.

The fifth, Tommy Regan, was a different class of racer – a throwback to the days when K&N Pro Series West drivers were invited to race alongside Cup veterans.

The very first race for the K&N Pro Series West, held March 28, 1954 in Oakland, California, was a late model race which matched local drivers against Grand National stars like Lee Petty, Marvin Panch, and Dick Rathman.  In an effort to grow both series, these “combination races” counted toward the point standings of both divisions.  The result put tracks like Riverside, Ontario, Phoenix, and Sonoma on the Cup schedule.  It also introduced new talent in the Cup Series fields, including Ray Elder, Jim Robinson, and Bill Schmitt.

Up until the late 1990s, west coast Cup Series events were still “combination races” where several West drivers banged fenders with Cup regulars.  By 1994, the highest-qualified West driver was still guaranteed a starting spot by means of a provisional.  That year, the West provisional set the grid for the inaugural Brickyard 400, where Mike Chase bested 14 others from his region for the final starting spot.  Some of the drivers Chase beat, including Rick Carelli and Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday, Jr., would go on to lay the foundation for the Camping World Truck Series.

While the K&N Pro Series West has continued to bring new talent to the Cup - most notably Kevin Harvick, Brendan Gaughan, and current Truck Series rookie Todd Gilliland – the west coast Cup races are no longer “combination races.”  Only at Sonoma does the K&N Pro Series West even share a weekend with Cup, and when they do, they run different cars on different tires in a completely separate race.

On the grid for qualifying
In 2012, Tommy Regan was in that Sonoma race, finishing 21st in a field of 30 driving a #44 Ultra Lube Toyota for car owner Marv Brown.  It was one of four starts that season for Regan, who since 2001 had been competing in weekly series races at the Altamont Speedway, a bullring not far from his hometown of Tracy, California.  “I was born and raised in like a horsepower family, not necessarily a professional racing family,” said Regan on Friday.  “We always had the v-drive boat in the garage and some ’69 Camaros, some Chevelles, and some drag racing in high school time and stuff like that.  But wanted to take it to the next level.”

Regan reached the next level in 2014, moving to Mooresville with sights set on his Truck Series debut.  Driving for car owner Christopher Long, who had entered trucks for current XFINITY Series owner-driver B.J. McLeod, Regan started 28th in the field of 36 at Iowa before ignition issues ended his run on the opening lap (LINK).  Undaunted, Regan improved over his next two starts, finishing 25th at Martinsville and a career-best 24th at Gateway.  His efforts became the subject of “Regan Motorsports,” a 2014 reality show on the Velocity Channel.

This year, Regan has made two Truck Series starts this season, driving as teammates to both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Norm Benning.  Along the way, he’s has become friends with current Cup Series car owner Rick Ware and helped out at their shop.  “I really enjoy – I’m not an official employee, but I really enjoy being there in the garage, working with the cars, and helping the setups.  It’s still really exciting to me.”

Regan obtained clearance to compete in Cup this season, and eyed making his debut at Sonoma.  When asked why this particular track, he said “I would say it’s the track I know the most.  I have the most experience here, I understand the most, and I’ve done the most laps here, so that’s what I felt comfortable with.”  A social media post first indicated that Regan would drive for Ware, but with Josh Bilicki’s deal already secured over the winter, the opportunity then came to drive for Premium Motorsports with Ware offering support.

“It’s been a culmination of about maybe 100 different things that finally came together,” said Regan.  “The stars needed to align for this deal and they did.  So excited to be here at Sonoma, my first Cup race., they really made – they stepped up to the plate to make this happen.  Capri Tools, I really couldn’t have done this without them.  Rick Ware was a huge help in helping my career to help me get here.”

While other newcomers were hoping for a Top 20 finish, Regan was mindful of the challenges that lay ahead in Sunday’s race.  “I’ve gone at it differently this time.  I’ve made it aware to everybody that this is my probationary, first time race.  I’m more looking for to follow through on the processes and fundamentals.  You know, I’m still building my foundation, we just started, and I don’t have expectations of high finishes.  My expectations are getting consistency and stability with our processes, our strategies, and really starting to work on that aspect of things.”

“This is our first race, so I kind of put all my focus on just this race.  I haven’t even looked towards the future past this.  But I do – my sponsors are all very happy, they say they want to re-up with me and the race hasn’t even started yet (laughs).”

Regan qualified 37th in Sunday’s 38-car field, and for much of the afternoon worked his plan.  He fell back at the start, holding down the last spot for most of the first stage and into the early laps of the second before Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s crash in Turn 4 (LINK).  He was just about two seconds ahead of race leader Martin Truex, Jr. when the first stage ended, and only lost the first of three laps late in the third stage.  He finished 34th with just a couple of scrapes on #55, and though his black driver’s uniform was soaked with sweat, he was just as excited.

Loading up after the race
“Oh my gosh, it was everything that I ever wanted,” he said.  “I just – if I could just keep it in one piece and, you know, I was just trying – I was learning so much because when I went out there, I had different lines than most of the people.  I’d tuck in behind Junior or tuck in behind Hamlin and be like ‘oh, that’s what they’re doing!’ (laughs).  You know, so it was mostly a learning curve.  My fastest lap was Lap 90 [of 110].  Yeah, so I had a tremendous amount of fun, I learned a lot, I kept getting faster.  Before my next race, I’ll definitely try and do some testing or sort of stuff and it’ll definitely help me out.”

“I wanted to be really respectful on the track.  When somebody was coming on the lead lap, you know, they were obviously faster than me, I would move over, but I’d tuck right in behind them when they got by and try and catch and learn as much as I can.”

When asked about the endurance side of the race, particularly after triple-digit temperatures earlier in the week, he said, “I was really impressed because I didn’t know what to expect because that was my first three-hour – what – three hour, fifteen minute race, so I trained really, really hard for a three-hour race over the past five months, and it really paid off ‘cause I didn’t get tired in the car and it was very enjoyable.  I mean, out of breath, you know, obviously, tired comes, but I wasn’t out of breath, my focus even at the end of the race was right on point and all that training really helped out. . .The end of the thing of the first tires, I was slipping and sliding, like I was on ice skates, it was like woah-woah-woah, and you’re moving over here, so it was really enjoyable.”

Regan was sure to thank his sponsors, who applauded him as he wrapped up his interview.  “You know, I wanna give a humongous shout-out to and Capri Tools.  They really helped my dream come true today.  I mean, I raced my first Cup race!  So it all begins now, and I’m just – today’s a great day.  I finished, what, 32nd? [34th].  That’s a win for me, buddy.”

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