Not long ago, Rocky Moran, Jr. figured he would spend the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend entertaining a sizable group of business clients at his home track and overseeing a booth on the trade show floor. Now, he finds himself cramming an actual race into that already packed schedule. And he couldn't be happier.
"It's absolutely a miracle - the whole event came out of nowhere, and I literally found out just two weeks ago," Moran says about his unexpected return to the cockpit. "The Long Beach Grand Prix is just a really important event for me, because it's an event I've been going to since I was a kid, and I've raced in it a few different times. It's my hometown race, and I'm just really looking forward to getting back into the car after taking the entire 2003 season off. I'm with a great team, and I think we have a great shot of getting on the podium and potentially winning."
Moran, who found himself unemployed after Tom Wieringa's top five Sigma Autosport team folded in late 2002, made a serendipitous trip to Phoenix earlier this year. "Essentially the team was going out to Firebird to do some testing, and I called up just to talk to them. That's only about five hours from where I live, so I offered to drive out and do some driver coaching. We talked to a couple of our local sponsors who were willing to put up a little bit of money. Between King Taco, my teammate Philip Fayer and the money he raised, a couple days of driver coaching turned into a couple days of testing; then from there it turned into racing at Long Beach."
While Moran's strong 2002 season did not result in the ChampCar ride he eagerly sought, he kept himself busy in the interim launching a new go-karting facility in Beaumont alongside his father, CART and IMSA veteran Rocky Moran, Sr. Moran Raceway opened last June 13 to rave reviews, and Rocky Jr. planned on all sorts of promotional activities in conjunction with Long Beach weekend.
"It's really, really busy and a lot of work; my dad and I are kind of a one-man band, though we do have a few great employees helping us out. We've been growing our driving school and corporate rentals - that side of the business. As far as races go, we have 24 booked race events for 2004. We have one of the only tracks in the US to have a Stars (of Karting, formerly Stars of Tomorrow) national race and a SKUSA national race - the two biggest sprint kart race organizations are holding races at our track. The California State Championship, Region 7 IKF and WKA's holding races at our track, and Saturdays and Sundays are just incredible. We've had up to 110 drivers practicing on any given Sunday."
In another fortuitous surprise, the proprietors of Moran Raceway found themselves thrust onto center stage last Halloween weekend. Amid the catastrophic southern California wildfires that resulted in cancellation of the Fontana CART finale - and the Stars support events - Rocky Sr. and Jr. kept the weekend from becoming a total loss for the hordes of incoming gearheads.
"We got a call from them Wednesday saying they were potentially looking for alternative venues," Moran recalls. " That was news to us - we didn't know anything about that. We weren't even contemplating it. Thankfully the track was ready for a big event; we had already done our homework and had trash and port-a-potties. The track had a lot of parking to begin with the day we built it. Logistically it was crazy because all the teams came up there and started on their tents, and staff and fencing and vendors came in. All of a sudden we went from three to four people at the track to 4-500 people at the track!
"But the event went off remarkably smooth. The karters didn't have to change their hotels, rental cars or airports because we're really close to Fontana. We're just 30 minutes up the road, so that didn't throw too big a kink into that whole program."
Despite some difficulties with series officiating between heats, the on-track product showcased Moran Raceway as a premier karting locale. "The racing was unbelievable. SpeedChannel put on an awesome telecast that ran multiple times; I think there was a combined 626,000 households that saw the racing. There were a lot of drivers and people from ChampCar in general, including media guys, who didn't have anything else to do. We had tour buses of people planning on going to Fontana that were getting dropped off at our track.
"It was just a massive, massive event. Everyone knew about our track - the word had already traveled before that - but it really put our track on the map, on a national level, because people saw it on TV and it was written up in magazines. All the karters from the east coast, Canada and South America got to show up and drive the track. I just think it really helped the word spread."
"When I went back to Firebird, I expected to be really dusty and it would take a long time before I could really brush everything off. Within about 25 laps, I felt totally at home in the car. It came back much quicker than it even used to. In the off-season, we'd have two months and I'd come back and take about half a day before things begin to slow down and feel normal. This time the transition was just really quick, and I attribute that to the karting. It's basically a training tool that keeps you sharp and fit so that when you do get back into a racecar, your body's used to steering, braking, applying the throttle. All the muscles used for driving are totally ready to go. It's the best tool in the world for keeping you ready to go when that phone call does happen."
Right now the Long Beach revival stands as a one-race deal, but Rocky hopes a strong performance will lure the sponsorship necessary for a full-time Atlantic effort. At the same time, he is also keeping his options open with a lingering eye towards NASCAR trucks. "Part of the deal is we're just trying to raise the money, and once we find the money we'll know where we can go with it, depending on how much we raise. My heart is still in open wheel; I absolutely love turning both directions and driving open wheel formula cars, but Craftsman Trucks is a totally cool series. The racing's really intense and tight, and I know if I was to go there, I'm sure I'd love it there too. There certainly seems to be more of an opportunity there right now and more of a future there than in open wheel."
In the meantime, Moran welcomes this return to his first love in front of his karting constituents, family and hometown fans. "The Toyota Atlantic series is a very neat series. I've spent three and a half seasons racing there, and I absolutely love the cars. They're the coolest cars I've ever driven, of all the different types I've driven. I'm just really excited, and we're just looking forward to going into the event trying to win it."