SWS: Phoenix: Season opener preview

Desert Jewel Holds Key to Season for Many Phoenix, Arizona. (January 21, 2002) For many drivers in the Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring division, the "Winter Heat" presented by Bosch 100-lap race is a key to their season. The FSWS...

Desert Jewel Holds Key to Season for Many

Phoenix, Arizona. (January 21, 2002) For many drivers in the Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring division, the "Winter Heat" presented by Bosch 100-lap race is a key to their season. The FSWS will commence their 17th season Saturday, February 2, 2002 at the "Desert Jewel" known as Phoenix Int'l Raceway.

The FSWS has one of the shortest off seasons of any of NASCAR's Regional Touring divisions, and are the first to kick off a new season of racing. The annual stop in the desert brings drivers from all over the country together, including many top competitors from each of NASCAR's Regional Touring series'. This years event is expected to see over 70 cars vying for 42 starting positions in the prestigious race.

"Patience is key at Phoenix," said Doug McCoun. McCoun has been a perennial front runner in the series and holds the distinction of finishing in the top-10 final point standings for the past nine straight years. "You have to get to the middle of the race to have a chance," McCoun continued. "If you can avoid trouble early, you'll usually do ok. The car tends to get tight the longer you run, so at times it feels like you are hanging on for dear life. But when the car is right, it is a great track to drive."

McCoun lost long time sponsor Wynn's Oil Company over the winter and hopes to have a strong run at PIR. "The better we do the longer we can race," McCoun said. "We're taking everything on a race-by-race basis. I plan on running the entire season this year and the shorter schedule works out pretty good for me."

Greg Fowler of Longmont, Colo. is excited about his chances at PIR in February. "I do not have a lot of experience on the big tracks," said Fowler. "All I know is that I need to avoid the "Big One" that usually happens early. The key for me is to qualify up front and finish in the top ten." Fowler has great optimism going into the 2002 season. "We have hired Ed O'Hare from Brendan Gaughn's championship Winston West Team," said Fowler. "I really like my chances this year and I feel we have put together a top five team."

With both Fowler and McCoun keying on Phoenix, Darrell LaMoure of Phoenix, Ariz. is looking at seasons end. "I don't know if we can win the championship," said LaMoure. "I do know that we will qualify better and win more races this year. We learned how to win last year, and if you run up front and win, you're there at the end." LaMoure may be over confident, but he deserves to be. His third place points finish is his best in his eight plus FSWS seasons. He finally won his first race last October, and was a contender all season long.

"I really think I have a shot to win Phoenix this time around," LaMoure continued. "We have made some significant changes in the leadership of the team, and my guys are absolutely committed." LaMoure will still carry the NAPA colors as an associate sponsor and continue with his efforts with raising awareness for Missing Children.

Joining his brothers in the South will be 2001 Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series, NASCAR Touring Champion, Kevin Hamlin. Hamlin was the youngest ever series champion and looks to back up his 2001 performance in 2002. "I like coming to Phoenix because it is fast and competitive," said Hamlin. "We don't have a track like Phoenix in the Northwest, so coming down here gives me the kind of experience we need to move forward. I really like running with the Southwest Series because we can run different types of tracks and compete against some real great racecar drivers."

Hamlin will be joined by fellow Northwest Series champions Garrett Evans and Ron Eaton at PIR, along with RE/MAX Challenge Series, NASCAR Touring front runner, Ed Hoffman. The PIR event is the first of 14 races on the 2002 schedule that will also see the season end at Phoenix in November.

In a strange twist of fate, 2001 FSWS champion Craig Raudman may be sidelined this season. Raudman's owner was forced to reorganize some his business interests and the new ownership team has had some difficulties funding the buyout. "All the equipment belongs to Dave (Reed)," said Raudman. "We had a great deal put together, but these things happen." Reed and Raudman are still pursuing other possible suitors for the team, but as Phoenix approaches, time is running out.

"My hope is that we can put the right deal together and still drive the car," Raudman continued. "If that doesn't happen then I'll look for the best opportunity I can find. It is amazing how quickly things can change, but it sure puts everything into perspective." With Raudman's obvious talent, he won't be out of competition long.

With Raudman's future uncertain at present, other drivers are a bit more certain about their 2002 season. Two-time series runner-up Auggie Vidovich Jr. is more determined than ever to win the championship after falling short the last two years. "I really think we can win the championship this year," Vidovich stated. "We struggled early last year and really started to get our act together late in the year, but it was too late. I think you'll see us in victory lane a few more time this season." Last season Vidovich struggled to find consistency with his finishes and qualifying. "I plan on qualifying a lot better this year," Vidovich said. "I have never ran particularly well at Phoenix in the past, but we had a very good test session there and I learned a lot that I think will pay off during the race."

Returning to the FSWS after missing the second half of the 2001 campaign, is wily veteran M.K. Kanke. Kanke had a virtual stranglehold on the series until a freak qualifying accident at Sears Point Raceway last June ended his season. Kanke won four of the first seven races in 2001 and looked to be running away with the championship. The Tommy Fry owned Community Recycling team has not raced since Kanke's accident and has committed to a full-on assault for the 2002 season.

"I can't tell Mike (Kanke) was ever hurt," says team owner Tom Fry. "We'll probably be a bit rusty out of the gate, but we are testing at Phoenix this week, so that should put us all back in the groove. Mike (Kanke) is all wound up and ready to go and so is the team. We are going to step it up a bit this season. We have a new car and all the pieces are in place."

Kanke himself has great optimism for the PIR event. "I don't like finishing second," Kanke said. "I love Phoenix and feel we have a real good shot at the win this year. We have tested at Irwindale and will test at Phoenix this week. As a team we're right back to where we were a year ago." Although Kanke is ready to capture the crown at PIR, he is hesitant to go much further. "I have always approached racing one race at a time," Kanke said. "If you can run up front, you can win races. If you win races and run up front, you can be in contention to win championships."

Other drivers to watch out for at PIR are from the 2001 Rookie class. Eddy McKean from Jerome, Idaho has moved his operation to Bakersfield, Calif. over the winter. "It just made sense," McKean said. "We looked at the travel from Idaho versus Bakersfield and found we could save a lot of money and time." McKean finished in the top ten in both races at PIR in 2001, including a thrilling second place effort this last fall.

Rookie runner-up Scott Brandt of Tucson, Ariz. hopes a top five finish will propel his season forward. "It's all about the budget," Brandt explained. "If we do well at PIR then we'll race some more. You really need to qualify well and race up front at Phoenix. If we do that then our chances are good for another top ten run."

2001 FSWS Rookie-of the-Year champion Burney Lamar is driving for a new team in 2002, as Bonicelli Racing closed its doors earlier this month. Lamar will join Bob Strandwold Racing for the full series schedule with continued support from Waveshield. "I just want to win races," Lamar stated. "I learned a lot last season, I thought we could have won a few, but we came up short."

As all the teams eye the Phoenix event as a chance to break the winter cold spell, several teams look to turn up the heat in the desert and establish themselves this season. Who will rise to the top? Only time will tell. As the great coach Vince Lombardi once said, "The Green Bay Packers never lost a football game, we just ran out of time." So it is with the drivers of the Featherlite Southwest Series. These drivers have never lost a race, they have just run out of laps.

The Featherlite Southwest Series is one of nine NASCAR Touring Series that blanket the United States. NASCAR Touring brings special events to many NASCAR Weekly Racing Series tracks and some NASCAR superspeedways and road courses.

NASCAR Touring Series can provide a competitor with an entire career, or they can provide valuable experience to competitors moving through the NASCAR ranks.

Corporate sponsors make significant contributions to NASCAR Touring Series point funds. The sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, Featherlite Trailers, Gatorade, Goody's Headache Powders, Raybestos Brakes, RE/MAX International, Inc., and R.J. Reynolds brand Winston.


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Drivers Burney Lamar , Darrell LaMoure , Doug McCoun , Craig Raudman , Auggie Vidovich , Kevin Hamlin