This could be Ron Hornaday Jr.'s big weekend. And not because he will race Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway in the 300-mile season finale of the NASCAR Southwest Tour.
Considering the way it is likely to end for Hornaday, the Southwest Tour is nothing to write home about--especially when your father is Ron Hornaday Sr., one of the most successful drivers in the history of the Southwest.
For the second consecutive year, Hornaday appears destined to finish a disappointing second on the tour. He is in need of a minor motor-racing miracle in the season’s final race to win the championship.
On Sunday, Hornaday will compete in a higher-profile race, the Pyroil 500, a combination Winston Cup-Winston West event that could provide the exposure Hornaday has waited for during his 13-year career.
Hornaday, a four-year tour veteran from Palmdale, led the 15-race tour from June 4 to Aug. 24--a span of four races--before blowing his engine and his points lead at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino.
Pulling out of the race on the 41st lap cost Hornaday 80 points and probably the season championship. Rick Carelli of Denver moved into the lead and he holds a 76-point advantage over Hornaday.
Carelli needs only a 19th-place finish to win his first tour championship. He has finished all but one of the previous 14 events and has 12 top-10 finishes.
Hornaday appears to have second place in the bag. He leads third-place driver Jon Paques of Albuquerque, N.M., by 58 points. But Hornaday, whose hair is far more gray than his 33 years suggest, has to be wondering if all this racing and chasing is worth it.
After all, this is Ron Hornaday Jr . In the minds of many racing buffs, he always will be runner-up to his father, a two-time Winston Cup West champion in the early 1960s and a local legend at Saugus Speedway.
“When the tour started again this year, we said, ‘Why are we doing this again--grabbing that extra nickel, going from race to race?’ ” said Hornaday, who began racing at Saugus in 1978 and won the track’s Modified division title in 1986. “Something keeps you going.”
Perhaps it is the opportunity to eclipse the fame of his father, who never became a household name east of Phoenix. And Phoenix, of all places, is where Hornaday figures to begin doing just that.
The Pyroil 500 will feature some of NASCAR’s biggest wheels, including Geoff Bodine, Rusty Wallace and Hornaday’s idol, Dale Earnhardt.
It will be the fourth time this season that Hornaday will drive in a Winston West event, NASCAR’s most lucrative racing endeavor on the West Coast.
“Finally, it appears that there’s a good possibility that he’ll be driving at Daytona one day,” said Ron Hornaday Sr., 60, a longtime resident of Simi Valley who retired from racing in 1975. “Then he’ll make money doing it.”
In March, Cold Duck Racing, Inc., a City of Industry-based racing team, hired Hornaday as a driver and arranged to compete in four Winston West events with plans to increase participation next year. That might include a trip to the Southeast, where racing coveralls are adorned with ads for beer and smokeless tobacco and NASCAR is bigger than the tomahawk chop.
Three times this season--twice at Bakersfield and in Monroe, Wash.--Hornaday has done double duty, driving in the Southwest Tour race on Saturday and the Winston West race the next day.
Jim Benison, one of three owners of Cold Duck Racing, said that the team has been fielding entries on various racing circuits since 1969. Among the one-time unknowns who have driven for the team are NASCAR veterans Wallace and Kyle Petty.
Naturally, that appealed to Hornaday during the negotiation process.
“I was flattered,” Hornaday said. “You always have that goal of going bigger and better, to race with the big guys. Earnhardt is your goal. You gotta go out there and prove yourself and open the eyes of somebody.
“After Phoenix, we’re going to sit down and see what we can do. They know what it takes to go racing.”
Benison said he saw a spark in Hornaday on the Southwest Tour.
“We went after Ron Hornaday because he’s one of the best drivers on the West Coast--maybe even the best,” Benison said.
If that’s true, Hornaday has had a difficult time proving it--at least behind the wheel of Benison’s car.
While Hornaday’s career record on the Southwest Tour is respectable--he is the tour’s fourth career money-winner with more than $88,000--he has yet to finish a Winston West race.
In May, Hornaday pulled out with engine trouble midway through a 400-lap race in Bakersfield.
In July, Hornaday qualified sixth--second fastest among West Coast competitors--at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe. But he was involved in an accident 270 laps into the 500-lap event.
Three weeks ago in Bakersfield, engine failure forced Hornaday to again make an early exit, just 15 laps into the 400-lap event. “Little dollar and dime stuff has been putting us out of races,” Hornaday said.
With the odds against another non-finish, Hornaday is optimistic about Phoenix. And excited too.
Sunday’s race will be televised nationally by cable’s The Nashville Network. With several high-profile NASCAR drivers on the same track with the Winston West competitors, many eyes will be watching. Some may spot Hornaday.
If all goes incredibly well, Hornaday might draw the attention of a major sponsor. That could be the team’s ticket to a ride in the Southeast.
“Hopefully, somebody will spot him in Phoenix,” Benison said. “We just want somebody to say, ‘Hey, this young guy could do well in the South with some money behind him.’ ”
Hornaday’s goal is one that his father never attained.
Hornaday’s father won Winston Cup West championships in 1963 and ’64 and had one of the most dominating seasons in the history of Saugus Speedway in 1965 when he won the track championship by an overwhelming margin. But responsibilities to a wife and five children and limited funds kept him from pursuing greener pavements.
The Hornadays remain close, each giving the other credit for being the better driver. Aside from an exhibition at Saugus last season they have never driven on the same track together.
“I think Ronnie is a better driver than I was and I’m not being modest,” Hornaday Sr. said. “He’ll be fantastic if he can get back East.”