Thursday, November 9, 2017

11/1/92: The story of Rick Carelli, NASCAR’s original Colorado connection, and a last-place finish at Phoenix

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
For this Sunday’s running of the Can-Am 500(k), Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will run a throwback paint scheme honoring the life of Robert Yates. The #17 Ford will resemble the #28 Texaco / Havoline Ford that Davey Allison drove to eleven of his nineteen career victories. Two of those wins came in back-to-back races at Phoenix in 1991 and 1992. Last year, we featured Kenny Wallace, who scored his first last-place finish in the ’91 race for Team III Racing. Today comes the story of 1992’s last-placer: Rick Carelli.

On November 1, 1992, Carelli picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Pyroil 500K at the Phoenix International Raceway when his #37 Chesrown Chevrolet fell out with handling problems after he completed 1 of the race’s 312 laps. The finish came in Carelli’s second series start.

While Furniture Row Racing is often credited as a trailblazer in NASCAR for keeping its headquarters out of North Carolina, Carelli, who now works for FRR as Erik Jones’ spotter, had an all-Colorado team of his own decades earlier. Carelli was born in Arvada, a suburb of Denver. FRR president Joe Garone was one of his first crew chiefs. His car owner and sponsor was Marshall Chesrown, a family friend who owned the Chesrown Auto Group, a successful chain of Colorado car dealerships. Like FRR, Chesrown Racing set up shop outside of Denver, specifically the suburb of Lakewood.

Carelli was nicknamed “The High Plains Drifter” by the late Larry Nuber of ESPN for traveling great distances to tracks all over the U.S. and Canada. No matter how far he drove, he always found time to race at his home track, the Lakeside Speedway, where he followed his older brother Donnie into racing in 1973. Years later, he would set his sights on NASCAR.

On March 28, 1987, at the tiny third-mile oval in Saugus, California, Carelli made his first start in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour, a late model division that would produce such talents as Kurt Busch and Ron Hornaday, Jr. Carelli started outside-pole that day, and much to everyone’s surprise, led the race from start to finish. Two more wins would quickly follow, leading to a fourth-place showing in the standings. Four years later, he was the series champion.

By the time of that title in 1991, Carelli had branched out into other forms of stock car racing. He competed in the Snowball Derby that December, leading fourteen laps and finishing 6th. He made a pair of starts in the Winston West Series (now the K&N Pro Series West), finishing runner-up in his second start at Mesa Marin Raceway outside Bakersfield.

At the time, the Winston West Series also ran “companion races” where West competitors could earn championship points by qualifying for Winston Cup events at Sonoma and Phoenix. Carelli missed out on his first attempt at Phoenix that November, one of thirteen West drivers sent home. The following June, during the Save Mart Supermarkets 300 at Sears Point, he qualified his #37 Chesrown Chevrolet 38th in the 43-car field, bumping from the field fellow West competitors Wayne Jacks and Bobby Woods. He finished 37th in the race – just 8th among the West competitors – when the rear end gave out in the final laps.

1992 was one of Carelli’s best seasons. Coming into his Cup debut at Sonoma, he had swept the first two rounds of the Winston West schedule, leading 187 of 300 laps at Mesa Marin, then 149 of 200 at Saugus. He picked up a third win at the South Sound Speedway in Washington state, then a runner-up in the return to Mesa Marin. Still, he entered the final race of the season 3rd in points, 35 markers behind runner-up Bill Sedgwick and 39 behind point leader Bill Schmitt.

It was a similar story on the Southwest Tour side. Carelli had racked up wins in half of the first sixteen races, including a streak of three in a row. But, again, he was down on points, 77 behind leader Ron Hornaday, Jr. and also trailing Doug George. Hornaday was also running double-duty with the Winston West Series, where he came into the final round fifth in the standings, 70 points behind Carelli.

Both titles would be settled at Phoenix.

Carelli began the weekend strong, qualifying 28th in the Winston Cup / Winston West “companion race” to lead the group of West drivers in the field. West Series point leader Bill Schmitt qualified 33rd in his #33 Bowman Fasteners Ford. Runner-up Bill Sedgwick timed in 37th in Wayne Spears’ #75 Spears Motorsports Chevrolet. Ron Hornaday, Jr. squeezed into the field as well, lining up 41st in the 42-car field in his #92 Palmdale Chiropractic Chevrolet. Starting last that Sunday would be the #61 All Pro Auto Parts Chevrolet of another West Series driver, Rick Scribner, in what would become his second and final Cup start.

The day before the Pyroil 500K, on October 31, 1992, Carelli, Hornaday, and George waged war for the Southwest Tour title in the season finale, the 185-lap GM Goodwrench / Delco Battery 300. This time, Hornaday out-qualified Carelli, the pair starting 6th and 8th, respectively, but Doug George took the pole. The race turned into a crashfest, slowed by twelve cautions and marred by wrecks involving all three title contenders.

First, Hornaday was blindsided by an exhaust pipe that fell on the track, then was run over by the car in front of him. The pipe caught air and smashed into the right-front corner of his windshield, tearing it open. Then, Doug George moved into title contention, only to crash out of the lead with fifteen laps to go. Finally, Carelli held on to a Top 5, but his own title bid was snuffed when he lost control coming off Turn 4 on the final lap. His #6 struck the wall with the driver’s side, then slid into traffic, where he was struck by two more cars. The resulting red flag ended the race. When the points were tallied, Hornaday had taken the title by 33 points over Carelli and 38 over George. He celebrated the title by pushing his battered car across the finish line.

While Hornaday’s encounter with the exhaust pipe left him with only a minor injury to his right forearm, Carelli had two broken ribs, putting his start in Sunday’s race in jeopardy. According to Mike Joy’s account in the TNN broadcast, it was decided Carelli would tape himself up and drive “for as long as he is able, then take the car to the garage,” making sure he had enough points to lock up Rookie of the Year. As it turned out, one lap was all Carelli could take, though this was still enough to claim Rookie honors. Although the original race results indicated Carelli’s reason out as “quit,” the Racing-Reference.info listing has since been changed to “handling.”

While Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, and Alan Kulwicki waged their legendary battle for the 1992 Winston Cup title, Bill Schmitt lost an engine and finished 33rd while Bill Sedgwick came home 27th, allowing Sedgwick to take the Winston West title by just six points.

Finishing 41st that day was last-place starter Rick Scribner, who lost an engine six laps after Carelli. 40th went to Dick Trickle, whose #8 Snickers Ford lost an engine into Turn 1 and backed into the outside wall. The next time by under caution, Geoffrey Bodine lost an engine on Bud Moore’s #15 Motorcraft Ford and pulled behind the wall, leaving him 39th. Rounding out the Bottom Five was still another engine failure, this time Morgan Shepherd’s #21 Citgo Ford, which let go down the backstretch.

Carelli scaled-back on his Southwest Tour effort in 1993 and stormed to the Winston West championship, claiming five wins and holding the point lead from the fourth race onward. The Chesrown effort also looked into expanding their Cup Series schedule to non-companion races, attempting both races at Atlanta and the spring race at Richmond. Sponsorship from Total Petroleum and a car number change from #37 to #61 coincided with an attempt at Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1994. Unfortunately for Carelli, the ’94 season turned out to be one of the most competitive Winston Cup fields in recent history with even established teams like Petty Enterprises missing races to start-up teams. Carelli’s rookie bid ended after five-straight DNQs to start the year, and the four starts he made after turned out to be his last in Cup competition (other than both NASCAR exhibition races in Japan).

Fortunately, that winter saw a new opportunity for both Carelli and Chesrown: the new NASCAR SuperTruck Series (now the Camping World Truck Series). Total Petroleum stayed with the team as they prepared their first Chevrolet Silverado for the “Winter Heat” exhibition races. That September, Carelli had already finished 4th in the first 25-lap exhibition at Tucson, and when the series returned there on November 20, took the checkered flag in the first round of “Winter Heat,” leading 107 of 200 laps. Carelli, Chesrown, and crew chief Joe Garone became part of the Truck Series’ inaugural season in 1995, where they ranked 6th in the series standings. Their first win came the following year at Bristol, this time with new sponsor RE/MAX.

Three years later, a second crash nearly took his life.

On May 8, 1999, Carelli was racing at Memphis Motorsports Park. He’d just scored the third win of his Truck Series career the previous month at Mesa Marin, and entered the event sixth in points. On the fifth lap of the Memphis 200, Carelli swerved to avoid a spinning Bobby Hamilton. Carelli cut right at the last minute, but couldn’t avoid contact that damaged his left-front fender. He stayed out on track, but soon after the restart, the fender came down on the tire, causing a serious rub. On Lap 12, as he headed into Turn 3, the tire let go, steering him into the outside wall nearly head-on. The truck rolled to a stop on the apron, incidentally resulting in his third and final Truck Series last-place finish.

Ron Hornaday, Jr. recalled that day in a 2000 interview with the Las Vegas Sun. “I saw Ricky when he hit, and came around the next lap and he wasn't moving. . .When he wasn't moving the third or fourth time, I was real concerned.”

Carelli was rushed to the hospital. Blood was flowing from his ears, which tests showed came from a burst blood vessel in his sinus cavity. He’d suffered a basilar skull fracture, the same injury that in the next two years would claim the lives of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Jr., and Dale Earnhardt. But, miraculously, like Stanley Smith after his wreck in 1993, Carelli never lost consciousness, and lived to tell the tale:

“I remember my wife and pastor Jim Lanning praying over me, and the blood just stopped.”

The accident, however, was too much for Marshall Chesrown. He told Carelli’s wife Cathy that he didn’t want her husband to race again. While Chesrown hired Randy Renfrow as a relief driver for two races, he closed the team in July. That same year, Chesrown sold his dealerships to AutoNation to pursue other businesses, including real estate development. According to The Spokesman-Review, as of 2015, he is dealing with the fallout from a 2013 bankruptcy.

Though he fought double vision, Carelli did return to racing, and did so much sooner than expected. That day came at the Phoenix Raceway, scene of his other serious wreck on Halloween 1992. He was hired by Ed Belec, a high school classmate of Carelli’s, to drive in the Southwest Tour’s Copper World Classic on February 6, 2000. Starting outside-pole, Carelli took the lead on the first lap and never looked back, taking the checkered flag. The return was complete later that month, when he arrived in Daytona to drive Dave Phelon’s #66 Carlin Burners & Controls Chevrolet. That year, Carelli claimed his fourth and final Truck Series win at Richmond and finished 15th in points.

Ultimately, Carelli stepped away from racing in 2004. Ironically, one of his first jobs after his retirement was with Kevin Harvick, Incorporated’s Truck Series team, making him part of another of Ron Hornaday, Jr.’s championship wins. He also mentored Matt Crafton, another of the Truck Series’ most successful drivers. He’s also an inductee of both the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame (2009) and the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame (2011).

Monday marked Carelli’s 63rd birthday. This Sunday, he’ll climb atop the spotter’s stand for Furniture Row Racing, where he’ll serve as Erik Jones’ spotter for one of Jones’ last starts with the team. As he calls the shots, his thoughts may briefly return to that fourth corner at Phoenix, to the crash in 1992 and his dramatic return eight years later.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #37 since September 28, 1986, when Joe Millikan’s Short Pump Ford lost an engine after 9 laps of the Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro. It was also the number’s first last-place run at Phoenix, to be followed by Jeremy Mayfield (1996), Tony Raines (2009), and Mike Bliss (2014).

THE BOTTOM FIVE
42) #37-Rick Carelli / 1 lap / handling
41) #61-Rick Scribner / 7 laps / engine
40) #8-Dick Trickle / 68 laps / crash
39) #15-Geoffrey Bodine / 69 laps / engine
38) #21-Morgan Shepherd / 85 laps / engine

SOURCES
*Archives. “Carelli got his wish – survival,” Las Vegas Sun, February 24, 2000.
*Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame, “Rick Carelli: 2011 Inductee.”
*1992 Pyroil 500K at Phoenix, TNN
*Racing-reference.info
*Rodman, Dave. “Carelli on the mend in Colorado,” NASCAR Online, reposted at motorsport.com, May 23, 1999.
*Stucke, John. “Marshall Chesrown, bankrupt developer, faces new financial fights.” The Spokesman-Review, May 17, 2015.

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