Jeff Jefferson dives into the first turn at Thunder Hill Raceway during qualifying. The ne
Fifth In A SeriesI see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.-Creedence Clearwater Revival
Bad Moon Rising
A full moon from a cloudless Texas sky shown down on Jeff Jefferson as he walked to his Monte Carlo, parked in front of the grandstands at Thunder Hill Speedway in Kyle, Texas.
The veteran driver was fighting the effects of fatigue, a hit on the head a few days earlier, and a virus that seemed to be passing through the Oregon-based team.
Jefferson and rookie Jim Warn drive for MJ2 Racing, which has agreed to allow Stock Car Racing to tag along during its first season in NASCAR's Camping World West Series.
For Jefferson, it had been a grueling three weeks, beginning with a disappointing race at Roseville, California, followed by a Third Place finish at Phoenix.
In between the races Jefferson had to help rebuild cars damaged in both runs, plus prepare to compete on the third-mile, D-shaped oval at Kyle. It is a track he saw for the first time that morning.
"I'm just hoping I can hang on," he said as he got ready to climb into his car. "I've got no energy, no stamina."
Thunder Hill has baked in the Texas sun for a decade and any grip it once had has long since been worn away. Turns 1 and 4 are gentle curves where drivers can get hard on the power. Turn 3 leads to the sweeper. Turn 2 leads to disaster.
"It's really tight," Warn said after he and Jefferson walked the track. "Everything else is a pretty wide radius, but two is like a 90-degree that leads to the back straight."
Promoters laced the pavement with a ribbon of Coke syrup the day before, hoping to give the pavement a bit of stickum.
But this time, things didn't go better with Coke.
A quiet moment in the team hauler saw crew chief Chuck Carruthers, right, meeting with dri
If cars were going to spin and end up off in the weeds, it was going to be at that banked right angle. Almost everyone had trouble with the corner at least once, a few more than once.
Both drivers knew qualifying was going to be critical. Thunder Hill is a single groove track, making it almost impossible to pass.
Qualifying was dominated by Eric Holmes and Austin Cameron, teammates from the Bill McAnally Racing stables. The BMR operation is the benchmark for every other team in the West Coast series.
Jefferson qualified 11th; Warn was five spots back.
"It's going to be a long night," Jefferson sighed.
For a short track race held under a full moon, everything went pretty well for the first 100 laps.
"It's how we planned to race," said Chuck Carruthers, who oversees both teams and is Warn's crew chief. "The idea is to stay on the lead lap and out of trouble 'til the last 50."
Both drivers worked traffic, picking up spots on the inside line and then losing them on the outside. With double-file restarts, an even number car is placed on the outside row and is almost guaranteed to fall back a few positions until his spotter can find a hole for him.
Jefferson pleaded all night for Derrick Shannon, his rookie spotter, to get him inside. In was close to "mission impossible."
But as the laps wore down, the pressure to move up a few more positions built. By Lap 115 Jefferson was fourth and looking for his second podium finish in a row when the caution came out once again.
"I'm getting what I can," he pleaded to Shannon, "but you've got to get me inside as soon as you can. It's critical."
Double-file restarts put Jeff Jefferson on the outside line...no place to be for a driver
"I understand," said the spotter, "I'll do what I can."
I hear hurricanes are blowing.I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Jefferson's car was on the outside row again as the green flew. The driver saw his hard-earned positions fade. With laps winding down toward the checker, he was stuck in the slow lane and moving toward the rear of the field.
"Inside. Inside. Inside," Shannon repeated over and over again as he searched for an opening.
Then suddenly, Jeff Barkshire's car dropped back along the inside. A hole emerged just as the cars were exiting the third turn.
"Clear, clear," Shannon yelled into the radio.
Jefferson dropped to the inside, into a hole about six inches too short for his car. His rear quarter-panel glanced off the nose of Barkshire's racer. And around he went.
After a caution for his spin, Jefferson rejoined the race back in 19th. He picked up five spots in the final 10 laps to finish 14th.
Warn's night didn't go much better. He got tied up in someone else's wreck, got spun and soldiered on to 12th spot.
"Jeff figures I made a mistake," Shannon said as the team loaded the battered car into the hauler. "If that's the case, I'll have to shoulder the blame."
Shannon and Jefferson circled the car, keeping the battered chassis between them. The wreck was simply a case of a driver asking for something that didn't exist and a spotter desperately trying to give it to him.
"Right now, he's pretty upset," Shannon said. "I'm not sure I've still got a job."
Crewmember Dave Cox, left, goes over tire notes with Gary Mears as the team does its last
Working, Watching, LearningThere are two men under Jeff Jefferson's car, double-checking the rod ends on the sway bars.
Two more are at the rear of the Chevrolet, gutting the fuel cell so it can be checked and measured by a NASCAR inspector.
Other team members in red shirts are shagging tires and wheels, checking radio batteries, adjusting the throttle stop.
Gary Mears puts a pair of box-end wrenches back in the tool box and surveys the activity, comparing his mental notes with the checklist taped to the rear of the MJ2 Racing war wagon.
It is an hour before qualifying for an impound race at Thunder Hill Raceway and there is much work to be done. Mears is a detail man. Nothing is left to chance. He knows that the difference between taking the checkers or coming off the track on a hook often is the result of pre-race preparation.
He is in his sophomore year as crew chief for Jefferson. It is a title that makes him uncomfortable.
"Maybe someday," he says, "but not yet. In spite of the title, I know my place in the organization."
And Mears figures it is a good place to be right now.
"If a guy wants to learn what this sport is all about, what better situation to be in with Jeff in the driver seat and Chuck Carruthers calling the shots?" he says. "Both these guys know so much and are so good, that I usually look much smarter than I really am."
Carruthers, with more than three decades building, preparing, and crewing up and down NASCAR's series, oversees the two-car team and works directly with Jim Warn, a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World West Series.
"Don't let Gary Mears fool you," says Carruthers. "He knows a lot more about this than what he lets on."
The series often is viewed as a development program for drivers on their way up to careers as professionals. But it also is a training ground for the men and women who work behind the scenes. In that sense, Mears has a similar dream of every driver who ever hoped to move up to racing's top level.
Mears grew up a racing junkie. He spent a couple years driving his own stock car, but backed away from competition to meet the demands of running his specialized trucking company. But Mears wasn't ready to simply turn his back on racing.
"We were at a restaurant one night and I saw Jeff there, having dinner. I went up and introduced myself and said I wanted to help sponsor him," he says.
Mears eventually bought a trailer to haul Jefferson's Northwest Tour car and became the team truck driver and tire specialist.
"He learned incredibly fast," says Carruthers. "He's the kind of guy who doesn't talk much, asks really good questions and never makes the same mistake twice."
Mears spends every spare moment thinking about racing. He'd like the opportunity to work at it full time for a team in one of NASCAR's top series-Craftsman Truck, Nationwide, or Cup-but recognizes the opportunities for that type of job are rare.
On weekends when MJ2 isn't racing, testing, or practicing, Mears volunteers on other teams racing in the Pacific Northwest. One week he may be changing tires on a Late Model and the next he could be working on a Street Stock. Brenda, his wife, is part of the MJ2 team, often working side-by-side with Gary.
"Every race is an opportunity to learn and develop," he says. "I've never gone to a race that I haven't learned something. Sometimes it is a new way to do something. Other times I learn how not to do something. There are some teams that are so disorganized you wonder how they ever make it to the track."
As Jefferson's crew chief, Mears is known to smile easily, anger slowly, anticipate problems and, once in a while, toss the dice.
Jefferson finished Third at Phoenix because the driver and crew chief decided on an unconventional plan to stretch fuel and take new tires late in the race.
"For a while we had no idea how it was going to work," says Mears. "We knew it was going to be a 'hero or zero' move. I was really relieved when it worked out, because if it didn't, it was going to be tough to explain it to Chuck."
-Jerry F. Boone