BILL BAIRD BATTLES TO 1ST ARCA CROWN By Don Radebaugh Toledo, Ohio - From the ARCA rookie of the year honors in 1998, to the ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series national championship in â€™99, Bill Baird, in just 47 starts, has clearly made his mark. ...
BILL BAIRD BATTLES TO 1ST ARCA CROWN By Don Radebaugh
Toledo, Ohio - From the ARCA rookie of the year honors in 1998, to the ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series national championship in ’99, Bill Baird, in just 47 starts, has clearly made his mark. In only his second full season chasing the tour, Baird nailed-down his first series championship in commanding fashion posting five victories, 14 top-five and 17 top-ten finishes. Growth in the series continued under the helm of ARCA President Ron Drager with a total of $2,745,605 in posted awards distributed at 21 races in 10 states where attendance grew to 624,000 in 1999. In all, there were 13 different winners in 21 events as well as eight first-time winners including Baird, Bobby Gerhart, Mario Gosselin, David Keith, Blaise Alexander, Robbie Pyle, Jeff Finley and Ron Hornaday.
In one of the most versatile stock car series on earth, Baird, in his own Saturn Machine-Spee Dee Pop-Valvoline Chevrolet, excelled in every arena imaginable from concrete to clay. After finishing eighth in the season opener at Daytona, Baird charged back strong posting back-to-back victories at Atlanta and Salem. Undaunted by a broken transmission on the Anderson Indiana quarter mile bullring, the former stunt pilot from Sturgis, Kentucky finished 11th at Lowe’s and seventh at Michigan before pumping out five consecutive top-five finishes; third at both Pocono events, second at Toledo and Berlin combined with a victory at Shady Bowl Speedway. After an accident while he was leading relegated Baird to 22nd at Kil-Kare, Baird answered that with another streak of top-five finishes in the next seven consecutive events. In that stretch, Baird won on the quarter mile Flat Rock Speedway as well as on the legendary Springfield, Illinois fairgrounds clay mile. Also in that particular mix were runner-ups at Salem and the DuQuoin dirt as well as thirds at Flemington and Winchester capped off with a fifth at Charlotte. After an accident at Talladega, Baird finished up big with another fifth place finish in the Atlanta season finale.
“Right now I feel like the luckiest guy on earth,” said Baird. “This ARCA Series is far tougher than most people will ever give it credit for. It’s not easy to figure out the quarter miles, the high-banked halves, the superspeedways and the dirt too. And let me tell you, it’s not all Bill Baird. To win this ARCA championship it requires a total team effort with absolutely no missing links. This team just never fell down. Many thanks to my crew chief Keith Strunk, to the entire crew, and certainly my wife who’s been there 100%. You’ve got to have support, and we were never without that. We’ll be back to defend the title.”
The year of dominance by the driver of the familiar #52 Chevy Monte Carlo also brought many other accomplishments to Baird and his team including the Oceans Eleven Resorts Lap Leader award for leading the most laps; 830 in 15 races, and the Superspeedway Challenge championship. Additional awards included the Motive Gear Maximum Performance award for completing the most laps, the Auto Value Parts Stores Halfway Leader award, the Bondo/Mar-Hyde Pole/Win Bonus and the Racing Electronics Lightning Challenge honors. Additionally, crew chief Keith Strunk won the Cornwell Quality Tools Crew Chief of the Year award. Depictive of ARCA’s versatility, Baird also won the Bill France Triple Crown, an accumulation of points at 3 very diverse venues; the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, the half-mile, high-banked Salem Speedway and the Springfield mile dirt. Baird also racked up Talladega Pole awards at Salem twice, Anderson, Toledo and Flat Rock Speedways. In all, Baird’s team hauled in $256,550 in total team earnings.
Soddy Daisy, Tennessee’s Ron Cox, who finished eighth in points, won the STP-Prestone ARCA Rookie of the Year award with top-ten runs at Anderson, Berlin and DuQuoin as well as the Prestone Advanced Formula award for advancing the most positions throughout the year. Additionally, the driver of the Northgate RV & Parts-Brown’s Tax Service Chevrolet, posted his career-best superspeedway finish of 11th at Atlanta as well as 11th place finishes at Flemington and Springfield. Cox also finished 12th at Toledo and put up four 14th place finishes at Pocono twice, Salem and Talladega. 1998 ARCA champion Frank Kimmel finished second in points in Larry Clement’s Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet, with victories at Pocono, Berlin and Flemington bringing his career-win total to 17. Kimmel raced his Chevrolet to the front in eight races for 376 total laps led recording 12 top-five and 14 top-ten finishes along the way. Gerhart finished third in points followed by Joe Cooksey, Mark Gibson, Andy Belmont, Bob Schacht, Cox, Cavin Councilor and Norm Benning to complete the top ten. Cooksey also won the Thermo-Tec Durable Driver award for completing the most laps in that category and Benning was the recipient of the Hoosier Tire Midwest Hard Charger honors.
Other than Baird and Kimmel, the only other repeat winners in ’99 were Alexander and Ken Schrader. Alexander triumphed twice at Pocono and Toledo while Schrader posted series’ victories six and seven at Anderson and Salem. Gerhart’s Daytona ARCA 200 victory came in his 131st ARCA start to open the season while Keith scored for the first time in a Jeremy Mayfield-owned Ford Taurus with a new one-lap track record and victory at Michigan. Gosselin got everyone’s attention in May at Charlotte where the Lake Wales, Florida driver won the pole and the race in his first ARCA start and also established a new one-lap track record there in October. First-time winner Pyle gave Dodge a win on the one-third mile Kil-Kare oval and ‘88 series champion Tracy Leslie raced his way into victory lane at Winchester in Jack Bowsher’s familiar #21 Ford. Finley held off Baird by less than a length on the DuQuoin dirt to earn his first ARCA checkered flag while Kirk Shelmerdine won at Charlotte under the lights in October before veteran Bob Strait drove Mark Thompson’s Midway Islands Ford to a pole and win at Talladega. The season concluded at Atlanta for the final ARCA race of the millennium where two-time NASCAR Truck Series champion Hornaday, making his first ARCA start in a Dale Earnhardt-owned NAPA Chevrolet, won a convincing victory in the season finale while Derrick Gilchrist, also in his first ARCA start, set a new one-lap track record in the Andy Petree-owned Oakwood Homes Chevrolet.