In opening his champion’s speech, 2011 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Philip Morris asked the crowd gathered at NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Grand Ballroom to travel back in time with him. He prodded the drivers and crews in attendance back to before a single racing trophy had been earned, back to when all they had was a dream and a determination to make it come true.
Morris’ dream has certainly hit its stride in recent years. He was on stage accepting his fourth NASCAR Whelen All-American champion’s trophy, a title that firmly entrenches him as one of the most elite short track racers in history. But all he could talk about was that dream he had grabbed a hold of twenty years ago, proudly displaying a picture of his first ever car, a beat-up Bomber division machine, and his first racing helmet, a gift from his grandfather. “In the beginning, it seemed like I barely had two nickels to rub together,” Morris said, clearly becoming emotional at the fruits of his long climb to racing greatness.
Both Morris’ passion and encouragement to younger drivers is a picture perfect example of why the Whelen All-American Series means so much to the sport of stock car racing, why the people and stories woven between tracks far and wide makes racing great. In a day and age where fans grumble that money matters more than talent, that sponsorship plugs get you farther than quiet respect, where the stars at the very top of this sport seem robotic and distant, the Whelen All-American Series is the counterpoint.
Track championships are earned by long, unpaid hours in a shop. First feature victories are punctuated by a driver’s tears and screams of joy. Sponsors are the local hardware store or restaurant. That is why Friday’s banquet was a true celebration of this series, a night where stories and laughs were handed out just as often as the all-desired trophies.
The road to Friday’s banquet came from all walks of life, types of racing machine, place of residence. The contrast of the top-three alone serves notice of this:
1st Place – Philip Morris – This was Morris’ fourth title, but it came in a much differently than the first three for the grizzled 46-year old Virginia veteran. Increased work commitments this year meant that much of the setup work would be left in the hands of crew chief H.C. Sellers and Sellers’ brother Peyton, who won the 2005 Whelen All-American national title. Lack of testing and setup input didn’t slow Morris down much at all though, as any fan at South Boston Speedway can tell you. Even though Morris has made his bread and butter at nearby Motor Mile Speedway in recent years, Morris’ renewed attention to the South Boston facility netted him an incredible 19 wins in 22 starts. Morris is a driver who truly could have gone on to the upper levels of NASCAR, as indicated by some Nationwide Series success in the late 1990s. Yet his commitment in family, faith, and team have made him more than content to remain in Virginia and be a great racing and life mentor to a new generation of drivers.
2nd Place – Keith Rocco – Rocco was born into racing. His father Ken was a longtime Connecticut competitor, and Rocco’s brother, Jeff, has been busy on the mechanical side of racing for years. Rocco was the defending national champion and playfully dusted some fingerprints off Morris’ trophy when walking onto the stage, his way of reminding Morris he intends to put his fingerprints back on the crystal in 2012. The ever-aggressive Modified racer netted track championships at Waterford Speedbowl and Thompson International Speedway, just one year after sweeping all three Connecticut tracks (Stafford Motor Speedway is the other) in route to that national title.
3rd Place – Lee Pulliam – Pulliam was the new face on the stage at Charlotte this year and there’s no doubt he left many other impressions on the track this year. Unlike Rocco and Morris, Pulliam has only been strapping into the seat of a racecar for a few years now. The twenty-three year old carried a swagger into the season that netted him the track title at Motor Mile Speedway with sixteen victories. That swagger also earned him some notorious run-ins late in the season, bumping Matt McCall out of the way to win the prestiguous Virginia is for Lovers 300 at Martinsville. A few years later, he was on the other side of the coin during South Boston’s season finale and his frustration with Morris resulted in two torn up racecars after the checkered flag, a fight, and a suspension from NASCAR until May 30. Whether time had healed the wounds or he was just phrasing his words as carefully as possible to avoid further trouble, Pulliam spent a good portion of his speech praising Morris for his professionalism and mentorship on and off the track. He will start next season behind the 8-ball due to his suspension, but Pulliam is a rising star that you will hear more of in 2012.
Of course, three drivers do not make up the Whelen All-American Series. 15,000 drivers competed at a NASCAR Home Track in 2011 and nearly one hundred racers were honored Friday night. I would have loved to talk to so many more drivers than I got to say hello to, as so many good stories came out of this year’s state and track champions.
One driver I spent a few minutes with was national Rookie of the Year Travis Braden, who took home two track titles, the ROTY hardware, as well as the Ohio state championship trophy. I plan to sit down soon and write more about Braden, but here are some other great storylines from this banquet that are worth a read:
• Ron Proctor and Zak Hausler also doubled up track championships as rookies. Proctor took home the hardware as champion of Devil’s Bowl Speedway (VT) and Albany-Saratoga Speedway (NY). Hausler swept both Texas tracks in 2011, the Modified division champ at Houston Motorsports Park and Thunderhill Raceway. If you recall from a feature earlier this year, the high schooler won so many races at Houston in a row in the summer that the track put a $6,000 bounty for a new winner.
• Phil Bozell earned the Kalamazoo Speedway (MI) track championship in a most interesting way, beating father Andy Bozell. Combined, the Bozell family has completely monopolized Kalamazoo success for the last two decades.
• Amy Catalano one-upped the Bozell storyline, earning the New York State Championship by just a handful of points over her husband Dave Catalano. Both were seen happily after the event sharing the trophy in pictures, though I’d have to imagine the trophy will wind up sitting firmly on her side of the bathroom sink.
• Erica Thiering was another female driver claiming a track championship, but this is far from her first. Today when owners are looking far and wide across America in search of a female driver that can seriously contend in the upper echelons of racing, Thiering has been racking up track title at Alberta, Canada’s Edmonton International Raceway. This is her third title in the last four years.
• Nate Monteith might have been the most demonstrably happy person at the banquet. He claimed the Kingsport track championship and the Tennessee state championship in 2011. Celebrating his first NASCAR title of any kind, an ever-smiling Monteith thrust his trophies high in the air as he walked across the stage and then took a multitude of pictures with family, friends, and trophies on the red carpet after the event.
• Wayne Helliwell, Jr., a regular on the ACT Late Model Tour, claimed his second Lee USA Speedway (NH) track championship in a row. It wasn’t easy though because Lee decided to change their feature division this year from the Modifieds to an ultra-light SuperModified. It took Helliwell a while to figure it out, but still managed three victories and, of course, the track title.
• Perhaps the most successful racing family in Great Plains history is Omaha’s Kosiski family. Joe, Ed, and Steve are all multiple NASCAR titlists, dirt late model terrors from the 1980s and 1990s who won at just about every dirt oval the region has to offer. While all are past their prime racing age, they have found a way to keep a NASCAR title in the family. Bill Leighton, Jr., Joe’s son-in-law, won the Nebraska state title for the third time in four years.
• Brandon Davis won the track title at the ultra-competitive Toyota Speedway at Irwindale and as a result also won the California state title. Davis’ story is interesting because he completely changed racing careers a season and a half ago, forgoing a promising road racing career to jump to stock cars. While the road racing experience came in handy in some races with the K & N Pro Series West this season, Davis was convincing at the Irwindale oval with ten victories.
• Whelen Modified Tour regulars Ryan Preece (Stafford) and Justin Bonsignore (Riverhead) also competed regularly enough at their home tracks to claim their first track titles.
• Finally, if I am allowed to give one driver a shoutout for someone a car owner should take a chance on in the coming year, it’s Evergreen Speedway’s Naima Lang. Lang just won his third Evergreen title and hasn’t been too shabby in “big boy” cars either. He won a race in the old ASA NorthWest Tour and earlier this year earned a top-ten finish in a K & N Pro Series West race at Evergreen in equipment that can generously be described as “low-budget”.
Thus closes the books on a great 2011 season for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. While all the stars and cars were on display Friday at Charlotte, drivers will be heading back to their respective states and provinces in preparation for 2012. The most important ingredient to the success of local, grassroots racing are the fans, so Speed51 strongly encourages you to locate your local home track and also begin making your plans for 2012 so you can witness these stories and drivers for yourself.