Cars line pit road at Phoenix for the second race in the Camping World West Series. JUNE B
Fourth In A SeriesSuddenly, the radio was very quiet. The MJ2 Racing team held its breath.
Moments earlier, Jim Warn was accelerating off the front straight into the first turn at Phoenix International Raceway when the car in front of him stepped out and skidded sideways.
Warn anchored the brakes and did what he could, but at the speed they were going, there was no way to avoid a wreck with veteran Greg Pursley, the 2004 NASCAR national short track champion.
And then, just as the two cars were sliding through the corner, Warn got nailed from behind. Eric Hardin's car climbed the back of Warn's Chevrolet, over the roof and down the far side.
It was over in a moment. But it seemed like an eternity before the rookie driver cued his radio.
"I'm OK guys," he said. "I'm really, really sorry about the car. I had no place to go."
The car was a wreck, probably beyond repair. But at the moment all the men and women who put their heart, soul, and passion into it weren't concerned about steel tubes and sheetmetal.
"Don't worry about it," Ken Bailey, his spotter, answered from a deck that gave a commanding view of the carnage. "They were wrecking in front of you. There was no place for you to go."
Warn climbed from the car, waved to the cheering grandstands and walked slowly to the ambulance.
In the NASCAR development series, even practice creates tight competition. Jeff Jefferson
The 26-year-old driver from Oregon is a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World West Series. He is one of two drivers for MJ2 Racing, which has agreed to allow Stock Car Racing to tag along during its first season in the series. He is partnered with Jeff Jefferson, a three-time NASCAR Northwest Tour champion and a veteran of about two dozen races in what was then known as Winston West.
The OpenerThe season opened about 10 days earlier at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.
The situation at Roseville wasn't ideal for a young driver like Warn, who had to qualify for the first race, then prove himself in competition in order to be eligible to go to Phoenix. If he didn't make the first race, he couldn't get into the second, and any hope of being Rookie of the Year would go down the drain before his season even began.
The pressure on Warn is two-fold. He wants to do well in the series simply because it is the nature of being a racer. But he also feels he must prove to himself-and others-that he deserves to drive the car, that he isn't behind the wheel simply because his family is bankrolling the team.
"When your family name is on the car, there's always that added element of trying to justify being the driver," he said. "You have something extra to prove."
It is a similar situation for drivers with last names like Petty, Earnhardt, and Menard. Money and family ties get you in the car, but it is talent that earns the respect of your peers.
"I think that he's aware of that pressure says a lot for him," said Chuck Carruthers, Warn's crew chief and overseer of the two-car team.
"You can look up and down a lot of pit roads and see young drivers with a sense they belong in the car simply because their family paid for the ride. They show up after the work is done, get in the car and leave after the race.
Gambling on a late stop for fuel and fresh rubber put Jeff Jefferson in position to notch
"Jim isn't like that," Carruthers explained. "He knows what goes into making this team work and he's not reluctant to get his hands dirty to help."
While Warn waited his turn to qualify, Jefferson ran early and came off the oval complaining about the car.
That gave Carruthers cause for concern. He set up the cars to be identical twins, with the same shock, spring, and tire package.
"They have to be a bit loose," he said. "If they are loose at the end of practice, they should be just fine in the race. It's an impound race, so we don't get a chance to work on the cars after qualifying."
But Jefferson's Chevy was suddenly tight.