Members of the track safety...
Members of the track safety crew try to figure out how to secure what's left of the MJ2 car after it did a multiple roll. Photo by Jerry F. Boone
Seventh In A Series
The thunder begins down in the valley. From the top of the hill overlooking Infineon Raceway and the lush valley beyond, you can hear the engines long before the cars come into view.
They crest the hill like links in a chain, engines snarling and tires grinding for grip. Some corner on three wheels, others make it on only two. A few don't make it at all, sliding tailend out as the driver's enthusiasm exceeds the laws of physics and the coefficients of friction.
Every road course has its "signature turn" that is unique to the circuit. There are no easy corners at Infineon...but the one at the top of the hill may well be the hardest.
Make this corner and you have but a few seconds to settle the car before you fly downhill, dropping like an elevator to a righthander at the bottom. The fast drivers put two wheels up as they go around the corner, then bank off the "gator teeth" to their left before making a kink and trying to position the car for a tight righthander.
And that's only a half a lap.
A record 41 cars took the green flag for the NASCAR Camping World Series West race on the road course at Infineon Speedway.
Jeff Jefferson wasn't among them.
Jefferson and series rookie Jim Warn pilot Monte Carlos for MJ2 Racing during the Oregon team's first season in the Camping World Series West.
Jeff Jefferson crests the...
Jeff Jefferson crests the hill at Infineon. The righthand corner is the signature turn for the California road course, often giving drivers their greatest challenge. Photo by Jerry F. Boone
With two laps to go at Infineon, and running in the Top 10, Jefferson was forced off the track, over a berm, and into the air. His Chevrolet came down on its nose and rolled three times before finally coming to a rest.
The "Jefferson Airplane" act was an immediate hit on the internet and made the video segment in almost every auto racing television show that weekend.
"It's not the way I want to make the highlight reel," he said.
The wreck was a spectacular final act in what may be the worst road course race in NASCAR history.
The Camping World drivers were mostly oval track veterans trying to come to grips with the different demands of right turns, elevation changes, decreasing radius corners, and the rhythm it takes to do well on a road course. And then there were the "road course experts" who had a hard time making the transition from nimble racecars with sophisticated suspension and huge brakes to the nose-heavy, sluggish, under-braked, and comparatively over-weight NASCAR sedans.
Add NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners watching the action for upcoming talent and you have a recipe for chaos.
It took more than three hours in the mid-day California sun, with temperatures hovering in the triple digits, to complete 64 laps. Two-thirds of them were run behind the pace car. You could count the longest green flag run on your fingers, and have a couple left over.
The race was such an embarrassment that NASCAR took the drivers to the woodshed when they gathered during the next race at Irwindale Speedway. There is another road course on the 2008 schedule and officials wanted to be sure there was no repeat of the Infineon wreck-fest.
MJ2 tested at Infineon a few weeks before the race and Jefferson arrived at the track relatively happy with the car and enthused about the possibility to turn a bad season around.
He already won a road course race at Pacific Raceway in the old Northwest Tour series. The Seattle area road course has many of the same elements as the two-mile Infineon track.
Jefferson's dramatic roll...
Jefferson's dramatic roll was played and re-played at the track, along with becoming a hit on the internet and a staple of weekend racing shows. Photo by June Boone
Jefferson qualified 15th and his intention was to pit by Lap 28 for fuel and to take advantage of track position. Most of the leaders pitted on Lap 18 while Jefferson stuck to the plan, eventually landing him in the second position on Lap 24. He came in for fuel on Lap 26 and returned to the track in 18th.
Finally, with only two laps to go, he was running eighth. Exiting Turn 4, two drivers in front of him tangled. Jefferson drove low and maintained his line. Kevin O'Connell, one of the road racing experts, went high. The two were side-by-side heading into Turn 7 when O'Connell drove across Jefferson's line and forced him up and over the berm.
"I raced him clean over the final laps even though he blocked and cut across my car several times," Jefferson said. "I don't know what he was thinking. You can race our regulars side-by-side all race long and never touch. You know who you can trust."
Warn had struggles of his own.
He qualified 23rd, which put him in the middle of the field and the eye of the car-wrecking storm. He was on the same pit strategy as Jefferson, but had to return several times for the crew to fix bent body panels.
The rookie was patient, and by Lap 58, he was running 11th, which gave him an up close view of Jefferson's flight in front of him.
"It was pretty spectacular," said Warn. "He was right in front of me when he went over."
It was the best seat in the house...unless the guy doing barrel rolls is a friend and mentor.
All Warn saw was the underside of Jefferson's Chevrolet flipping wildly over his head. "We were nearly taken out as well," Warn said. "After the 59 car got into Jeff, he hit us pretty good on the right side. I thought we were going to lose two cars, but we managed to survive."
Crewmembers try to create...
Crewmembers try to create some tire clearance after Jim Warn's car was involved in an on-track altercation. Photo by June Boone
For Jefferson, the Infineon aerobatics marked the beginning of a three-race stretch of good runs spoiled by bad luck.
Two weeks after the Infineon wreck, Jefferson was inside the Top 10 at Irwindale Speedway when his race ended in a pile of twisted sheetmetal.
He began the race at the center of the 31-car field, and worked his way up to seventh at the mid-race break, when the crew made a few minor adjustments.
The car was getting loose and Jefferson was barely hanging on in ninth place when the caution came out and the field restarted on Lap 183. On the next lap, Moses Smith dove to the inside and made contact with Jason Patison, who spun to the wall and collected several other cars.
Jefferson slowed to avoid the incident and was clear of the wreck but was tagged from behind by a car that never got out of the gas.
Warn was never a Top 10 contender at Irwindale, but the rookie came away with some valuable experience.
By the mid-race break, he was running 19th and the crew adjusted the car to tighten it up. By the end of the race he picked up four more spots.
"The car was a handful all night," Warn said. "I like to drive a loose car, but too loose is a problem. We just missed the right setup for the conditions but I did learn a lot about how to drive this track."
He hopes it will pay off when the series returns to Irwindale later in the season.
A week later the team unloaded at the three-eighths mile oval at Roseburg, Oregon.
After struggling for half...
After struggling for half a season with a suspension setup that didn't seem to work, crew chief Chuck Carruthers went back to a system he's familiar with. The results at Roseburg Speedway were immediate. Photo by Jerry F. Boone
In between the two weekends, they tested at a short track south of Seattle, where Chuck Carruthers, the crew chief, decided to abandon the soft-spring, big-bar setup used by many teams for a more conventional suspension.
"As soon as we swapped to the conventional setup, we dropped three-tenths of a second," said Carruthers.
"I know other teams are using the soft springs, but we just can't find the key to making them work," he said.
His decision reflects one of racing's long-standing truisms: When nothing seems to work right, go back to the basics and begin building from there.
At Roseburg, Carruthers went into his notebook and pulled out the same setup he used on Austin Cameron's car when he won the race there four years earlier.
Initially, it got mixed reviews.
Warn's car responded reasonably well to the changes and by midway through the second practice session, the crew declared his car ready to race.
Meanwhile, Jefferson continued to struggle on the track with a car that just wouldn't respond. With only minutes to go before the practice session ended, the last change gave the driver what he needed.
"At least we have some adjustability," said Gary Mears, who oversees Jefferson's car. "At Irwindale, we didn't have any. Here we have something we can work with during the race."
Jefferson qualified a disappointing 15th, but took advantage of every yellow flag early in the race to dive into the pits for more tweaking.
The car got progressively better, and by Lap 100 he began working his way through the field, able to take advantage of opportunities on both the inside and outside. It was the Jeff Jefferson his fans expected to see on a short track.
But he knew it couldn't last.
"Temperature's at 260 and oil pressure is getting really low," he radioed to his crew during a caution flag.
At that point, there's nothing you can do but run it 'til it breaks, hoping the engine makes it to the end.
When the green flag dropped, Jefferson nailed the throttle and less than a lap later the engine exploded, shooting flames out from under the chassis.
Warn's night was going much better.
The young driver raced mid-pack for much of the evening, falling back only when he had to make a quick stop into the pits to have the crew change a flat tire. He was in and out and never went a lap down.
"It was awesome work by the crew," he said. "They saved this race."
His car worked well on the inside groove, even when other drivers were having a hard time holding the low line. As cars dropped out with crash damage or mechanical problems, he got a bit more racing room and never put a wheel wrong all night long, finishing eighth.
It was his second Top 10 finish of the season and moved him to 11th in the points overall.
Warn's strong run helped salve Jefferson's continuing misfortune.
"I don't know what I need to do," Jefferson said as the crew loaded up. "It seems like I can't buy a break. I've never had a season like this."
Jeff Jefferson encourages...
Jeff Jefferson encourages Mike Gallegos to let him pass on the Roseburg oval. He didn't take the hint and Jefferson was cautioned by NASCAR to stop playing bumper tag. Photo by Jerry F. Boone
One destroyed road course car.
One damaged speedway car.
Three potential Top 10 finishes victimized by misfortune.
This hasn't been the dream season Jeff Jefferson was hoping to have.
"I think anyone outside of the Top 5 in points can probably say the same thing," said Mike Warn, who co-owns MJ2 Racing with his wife, Cindi. "No one gets into racing hoping for the problems we've had."
Six months ago Warn was hoping Jefferson could be in contention for the season championship and that his son, Jim Warn, may have a shot of the Rookie of the Year title.
Halfway through the NASCAR Camping World West season, most of those hopes have disappeared in twisted sheetmetal.
"We're frustrated, but not discouraged," said Dustin Gerlach, one of the crewmembers who burns through his vacation days to volunteer on the team.
"The reward is knowing we come here and do our best," he said. "There are some things you can't control."
That doesn't mean they are happy with the results.
"I'm pretty miserable on Monday if we've had a bad weekend," said Jefferson, who is a three-time champion in the former NASCAR Northwest Tour. "But by Tuesday or so we've begun to work toward the next race.
"By the time we get to the track, I can't wait to get in the car again. I've never shown up at a race that I didn't want to get out there and do my best."
The team has shown improvement over the first half of the season. Jim Warn has had some solid finishes and, as the season entered the second half, was a dozen points out of the Top 10. Most of Jefferson's problems have occurred while he was running within the lead group.
"People try to console me with the fact we've had some good runs," said Chuck Carruthers, who oversees both teams and is crew chief on Warn's car. "But most of the wrecks occur in the top six or seven cars; that's where the action gets really heavy. We need to do better than that.
"We've built our own equipment and now we must solve our own problems."
The front of the field has been dominated by teams from Bill McAnally Racing, which seem to have the franchise on the checkered flag this season. At most races, there has been BMR out front, and the rest of the field trying to keep up.
McAnally said he's surprised Carruthers has struggled so much this season. "Chuck and I have worked together and I know how good he is," he said. "I'm sure he'll figure it out."
And that's what keeps guys like Gerlach coming back week after week.
"We've got a lot of faith in Chuck," he said.
"We're not giving up," said Gary Mears, Jefferson's crew chief. "There may be teams that are smarter than us or have more experience than us, but no one outworks us."
Mike Warn, the man buying the cars, engines, tires, and paying the motel bills, figures things will turn around.
"Right now we're having a lot of bad luck," he said. "But the most important thing about luck is, it will change."