Brendan Gaughan wins one for the 'Desert Rats' DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 18, 2002) - The story is well known: four off-road team owners approach NASCAR Chairman Bill France in 1994 to create a racing series for pickup trucks. Their fortunes,...
Brendan Gaughan wins one for the 'Desert Rats'
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 18, 2002) - The story is well known: four off-road team owners approach NASCAR Chairman Bill France in 1994 to create a racing series for pickup trucks.
Their fortunes, after the series kicked off the following year, were mixed. Only one - Jim Smith - remains, but his Ultra Motorsports team has been in of the best on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
Smith's drivers have won 24 times - third best all-time - and Ted Musgrave finished second in the 2001 series championship chase.
What didn't happen, however, was the belief that off-road and stadium competitors could translate their considerable skills onto asphalt ovals and road courses. Stars Dave Ashley, Walker Evans and Rob MacCachren gave it their best shots, but returned to the desert without winning a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event.
Ironically, Smith's first win - in 1995 at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway - was posted by open-wheel racer Mike Bliss.
In fact, until June 7 - when Raybestos Rookie contender Brendan Gaughan won the O'Reilly 400 at Texas Motor Speedway - the series conceived by off-roaders for off-roaders had seen a winner from virtually every motorsports discipline but off-road.
Gaughan, a 26-year old protege of Evans, won six off-road titles and more than 30 races. He then switched to NASCAR and captured back-to-back Winston West Series titles in 2000-2001.
The Las Vegas resident was attending Georgetown University, where he played basketball before earning his degree in Business Management, when he heard about the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series - and a vehicle then known as a SuperTruck.
"I also remember being somewhere with Parnelli Jones and Walker and they were discussing the fact that they figured they would have at least one year, maybe two, before all the NASCAR regulars would begin to take an interest," Gaughan said."They figured that would be enough time for all of the' desert rats' to figure this pavement thing out.
"Unfortunately, they were wrong. I knew that the off-roaders were in trouble when Rob MacCachren, who I personally feel is one of the world's greatest drivers, was pushed out of the series right away."
Evans lasted the longest - competing in 41 events with four top-10 finishes. The famed Baja racer, also a team owner, gave Gaughan his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series start in 1997 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Gaughan qualified 18th, finished 24th and knew his racing future would be asphalt and concrete rather than sand and sagebrush.
Gaughan, driving initially for Evans and then the Orleans Racing team owned by Bill McAnally, needed two-plus seasons to win in NASCAR Winston West. But, in 2000, he won twice and posted nine top-five finishes en route to the title. Last season was even better - six wins among 10 top-five and 11 top-10 finishes overall in 14 starts.
In 2001, Gaughan also tested the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in preparation for this year's Rookie campaign. He finished third at Bakersfield, Calif. and second in the June event at Texas Motor Speedway.
This year ownership of Orleans Racing shifted to the driver's father, Michael Gaughan - another off-road racer - but the team moved intact to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Shane Wilson is the crew chief. Orleans Racing remains headquartered in Las Vegas and, with Gaughan's Texas victory, became the first non-factory-supported Dodge team to win in NASCAR Craftsman Trucks.
"It is definitely neat to be the first off-road driver to succeed in NASCAR Craftsman Trucks," said Gaughan as the No. 62 NAPA Auto Parts Dodge team prepares for this week's event, Saturday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 200 at Memphis Motorsports Park (ESPN, MRN Radio, XM Satellite Radio, 1 p.m. ET)."Winning at Texas was awesome, (but) one win has only served to increase our determination." Gaughan is ninth in series points heading to Memphis, the year's eighth race.
Gaughan, of course, isn't the only former desert and stadium star to excel in NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson has scored two victories on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, also as a Raybestos Rookie.
Johnson and Gaughan were fierce, but friendly, off-road competitors. And Johnson's congratulatory call was one of the first Gaughan received after emerging from victory circle at Texas Motor Speedway.
It wouldn't be a very big surprise to see them battling each other again, in the not too distant future - but this time as NASCAR superstars.