Rookie Racers Wrap-up Memorable Year

Rookie racers wrap-up memorable year POMONA, Calif. (Nov. 5) -- The last time the National Hot Rod Association visited Pomona Raceway in January, two non-descript drivers slipped into the pit area prior to the race hoping to draw as little ...

Rookie racers wrap-up memorable year

POMONA, Calif. (Nov. 5) -- The last time the National Hot Rod Association visited Pomona Raceway in January, two non-descript drivers slipped into the pit area prior to the race hoping to draw as little attention as possible. The would-be drivers, Shawn Collins, an ostrich rancher from Virginia, and Richie Stevens, a teenager from Louisiana, were as wide-eyed as many of the 100,000-plus fans in attendance.

"We were both a little apprehensive," Collins said. "My wife Mary and I were financing this entire two-car team out of our pocket. I didn't know how to drive and we had absolutely no data on our cars or any track on the circuit. Everyone we talked to said 'laps, laps, laps, get some time behind the wheel' so that's the mindset we had when we showed up in Pomona. We wanted to start building our program."

Stevens, who had cut his drag racing teeth in the junior series and on the International Hot Rod Association circuit, was equally awestruck. "It was nerve-racking," Stevens said. "We didn't know anything. It was literally our first time out there. I didn't know if people would look at me like some kid from the IHRA that didn't know how to drive and just ignore me or what. We had new cars, a new team, no data and no confidence. We felt out of place."

That initial race quickly took on the tone of the season. A steady qualifying session by both men was converted into an impressive performance on race day. Collins took the No. 2 car and gained some valuable seat-time and track data and the more experienced Stevens took the better car and challenged the world's best drivers on Sunday.

The formula worked. After an early season switch to Finish Line Racing Engines, both pilots began to work their way into the action each race, registering competitive elapsed times and top speeds at each NHRA stop despite their inexperience. Stevens has gone on to qualify for 15 races while carding an impressive 12 elimination round wins and Collins has taken the team's back-up car into four elimination sessions with two round wins.

"Our goal was to qualify for a few races and maybe win a round or two," Stevens said. "But we kind of snuck up there and surprised some people. I never expected to be in the top 10 of the points (currently ninth) that's for sure. Plus, the other drivers have really been cool. I haven't heard anything negative. In fact, we all get along pretty well. I remember early in the year I beat Larry Morgan and he came up and shook my hand and said 'good job.' I couldn't believe it. He was one of my heroes growing up and I had just beaten him and then he ends up congratulating me. That meant a lot.

"If you look at it, we have taken some giant steps this year. The car's been strong. We're qualifying everywhere and winning some rounds. And the crew has really come together. This has been a real positive year all the way around. I would love to finish it off with a win at the Winston Finals. We went two rounds here in January and that was with no confidence. This is one of the few times that I can say I've already been to a track and know what it's like. We have as good a chance as anyone else."

Team owner Collins is also pleased with the performance of his cars in 1998. With several laps of racing under his belt heading into the 34th annual Winston Finals at Pomona Raceway, he'll be able to narrow his focus to racing. "I'm excited about the Finals, but to be honest with you, I'm already anxious to start over again next year," Collins said. "Things will be drastically different then. We'll know what's going on and we'll have a brand new car to race. I wanted to learn how to drive this year and I feel like I've done that. Next year our goal is for both Richie and I to challenge at every race. It should be fun."

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Series NHRA