Saturday, June 5, 2021

WEST: Stories from the back of the pack during the General Tire 200

Bobby Hillis, Jr.'s neon ride

While Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing group cruised to an easy victory in Saturday’s running of the General Tire 200 at the Sonoma Raceway, several smaller teams in the ARCA Menards West Series were battling to even make it to the green flag.

By far, the most dazzling car in the field belonged to Bobby Hillis, Jr., whose #27 First Impression Press Chevrolet was wrapped in shades of neon yellow and orange that matched the blazing yellow rims. “It’s the exact opposite of the other car,” said Hillis. “So, I bought two cars from Matt Levin, and one of them is yellow with orange graphics and then I just flipped it for this car. . .I like having stuff that stands out – the wheels, I like doing the wheels. A lot of people don’t do wheels, but I love bright wheels.” Hillis credited Sign-A-Rama in Phoenix for the colorful wrap. He also wore a Paul Menard #27 cap to match his car number, and remarked that he thought he had tape over Menard’s name.

I asked if the car ran as good as it looked. “Good. I’m just getting up to speed,” he said. “We’re near the back, but we’ll be better in the race. I was running old tires for most of the practice, and then we switched to new tires and ran two laps and that was it, we were done.” Starting 21st, he looked to pass half the field. “Top Ten if we could get there. Tenth would be great. Top Ten in this series, me spending no money, is like a win. So, if we can get the Top Ten, I’d be happy. Keep the car clean, load it in the trailer, get a Top Ten, that would be brilliant.”

Dave Smith in his car before practice

Dave Smith
was featured here when NASCAR last came to Sonoma in 2019. The former mechanic and current racing instructor from Novato, California finished 9th in the #35, completing all 57 laps.

This time around, Smith’s deal had come together just months before the race. Ken Clapp at NASCAR had contacted Joe Nava at late model powerhouse P1 Motorsports was looking for a road course driver, and Ken Clapp at NASCAR had personally recommended Smith for the job. Smith pulled together his existing sponsorship with Fixse Wheels and Dusty Baker’s Family Vineyards, plus Peelz Mandarins (formerly Halo) and the 181 Fremont Residences in San Francisco, owned by Matt Latucie, one of Smith’s students at the racing school.

Saturday’s practice session would serve as qualifying to set the 22-car lineup. No sooner had the session began than Smith had issues.

“Well, it’s been a rough practice / qualifying for us,” said Smith. “Because as soon as we left pit lane, an axle backed out. So we thought it was the clutch, and all of a sudden as soon as I left pit lane, I could feel the car all sideways. . .I got up to second gear in Turn 2, and I went to third and I had nothing. So I coasted it all the way down. Anyway, we got to pit lane. They got the axle fixed. A cap came off the axle that holds the axle in.” 

Smith’s crew got the car fixed with just minutes left in the session, their #77 the only car to not yet complete a lap. Unable to make any adjustments, Smith fought a car that was tight on entry and loose on exit. He got in just three laps before the session concluded, but managed to improve from 22nd to around 15th on the grid.

Ryan Philpott's car receiving repairs

Near the end of the session, Ryan Philpott ran off-course in his #52 Hacienda Pools Chevrolet. He returned to pit road under power, but with the front valence pulled up and the rear panel pushed in. With the session red-flagged with around seven minutes to go, Philpott climbed out and helped his team straighten out the rear of the car. At one point, the driver was swinging a mallet behind the TV panel. He had to – Philpott was one of the series’ owner-drivers, his crew consisting of volunteers. He hadn’t raced in the series since 2013, and had just recently bought the car to “have some fun.”

“I just put it in the wall,” said Philpott with a laugh. “On the right-hander before the Carousel, the car gets real light there, and I was trying to get a decent lap. I just got loose, tried to save it, but the inside wall’s so close there. Backed it in.” The crew straightened the rear of the car, and with several strips of black tape holding the rear clip in place, presented on the starting grid to roll off in the 20th position.

But when the National Anthem had concluded, one car was still sitting on jack stands in its pit stall. This was the #68 Florian Ind / Rodd Fundraising / Hwy 12 Wrkg Chevrolet of Rodd Kneeland. With the rest of the field lined-up single file on pit road, Kneeland’s 19th starting spot remained open. Kneeland had snapped an input shaft, forcing the team to switch transmissions in the less than 90 minutes between the end of qualifying and the start of the race. After the National Anthem, there was still one crewman inside the car and another underneath. The left-front wheel was still missing. Kneeland put on his helmet and HANS device, and the team topped off the fuel tank when the command was given. Finally, Kneeland climbed behind the wheel as the car came off the jack stands, and the engine fired to applause from the crowd. ARCA added another pace lap to allow him to catch the tail end of the field. Three times before Kneeland had won the Brembo Brake-Through Challenge Award for overcoming adversity, and he seemed set to claim a fourth.

Zane Smith's car towed to pit road before the start.

Further up the lineup, Zane Smith was looking to make the most of an off-weekend for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series by running David Mayhew’s familiar #17 MadoroM Wine / Best Western Sonoma Chevrolet. Smith’s engine fired, but during the pace laps, something let go in the right side of the engine, and his car stopped on track. He was towed to pit road, and Smith climbed out. He watched the start of the race from pit road.

“It looks to me that we just blew up. I really had no indication of it. I went to go index my wheel, and before I knew it, it was smoking like crazy. Really not sure – I haven’t gotten to figure it out. We just got the car back to our stall, but it looks like it blew up.”

As Smith’s crew pushed the #17 back to the garage area, Kneeland’s resurrected #68 stalled on the track during the first green-flag lap, drawing the caution flag. The car was pushed back to pit road, but unlike Smith’s car was left at the far end of pit road, closer to the exit of Turn 11. Several crew members had to run up to that end of pit road and push it back to the garage area. Kneeland himself turned the steering wheel to make it up the sharp rise to the garage.

“Just unfortunate. We broke a transmission in practice, and we put a new tranny in and it’s slipping also. It’s got no power to the ground. I passed four cars in Turn 1 – we had a good car – but we’re not out there running, which is where I want to be. It’s a passion of mine. . .(The transmissions) are both fresh. I have nice stuff, so I don’t know what’s going on, so we’ll have to eliminate that problem. I never had DNFs or any type of stuff, but it’s the way it goes.” 

While Zane Smith broke down first, it was Kneeland who was credited with the last-place finish of the General Tire 200. Kneeland looks to return at Portland as he continues to focus on the road course events. Dave Smith finished 17th with Hillis and Philpott completing all the laps, taking 10th and 9th, respectively. Hillis’ #27 was banged-up at the finish, but the driver must certainly have been happy with the finish, his first top-ten since last September on the Las Vegas dirt track.

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