The View From Turn 3 - Small Cars, Big Excitement

posted Jun 27, 2010, 11:35 PM by Admin RMLRA
(Reprinted with permission of Scott Orr/Motorsports Writer -

“I’m the guy you’re going to learn to love...or hate,” says Larry Lambert, introducing himself to a driver just arriving at the track. Lambert’s an official for the Legends car series. This is a spec series and Lambert’s job includes inspecting the cars to insure they have only approved parts installed in the specified manner.

Members of the Rocky Mountain Legend Racing Association visit I-25 Speedway as part of their four-track touring circuit. They also race at Colorado National, north of Denver, Big Country in Wyoming, and Gearing in Nebraska. (They’re looking at the possibility of racing Pikes Peak International Raceway, a one-mile oval track between Colorado Springs and Pueblo that used to host NASCAR Nationwide series and Indy Racing League dates until 2005.)  The club is sanctioned by governing body INEX, and that’s who Lambert represents today.

The Legends series is a pretty big deal as non-professional racing goes; the series was developed by well-known racing promoter H. A. “Humpy” Wheeler while he was running Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 1992, he started the series, based on 5/8th scale models of classic roadsters powered by Yamaha 1250cc motorcycle engines. The goal was to make racing available at a reasonable cost. The cars are manufactured by US Legend Cars International and the rules prohibit modifications; the idea is to create a level playing field and to keep people from dumping loads of money into mods in pursuit of speed.

Because US Legend Cars International is owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the drivers have access to run on some major tracks around the country, like Charlotte Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and The Bullring in Las Vegas.

Today, though, these racers, over 20 of them, are at I-25 Speedway. Larry and his son, Don, are inspecting the cars as they arrive. Larry found his way into the role by accident: one day, he was in the pits at a race when one of the two officials failed to show.  The call went out for a volunteer to help the one who did, and Larry stepped up. Now, he’s in charge.

The relationship between Larry and the competitors is a friendly one, and the worst offense he finds is a discrepancy between where to track’s rental transponders will fit on the car versus the ones drivers own. A short discussion fixes that issue.

Legends cars are driven by racers of all ages. The younger ones may see the series as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, perhaps a racing career.  Professionals that have seen seat time in a Legends car include Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, Joey Logano, and brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch.

“These cars are hard to drive,” says Larry, explaining that budding racers learn vital car-control skills by running in Legends cars.

Fifteen-year-old Pete Dellarco is perfecting his skills in one this year. He began driving quarter-midgets at age nine, then moved to the Legends series last year. Pete’s a rarity in the pits: a first-generation racer. He told his parents, Buck and Ann, he wanted to race cars early on, and, despite their efforts to encourage him to play stick-and-ball sports, he hasn’t wavered. (He has played football, however.) Pete is a true race fan: if it has wheels and a motor, he’s interested.

If you can drive one of these cars, you can drive anything.
Buck, who works as a money manager, has done all he could to support that passion, even learning how to be a crew chief by trial and error. He asked for help with set-ups from other competitors (they were happy to help) and made the investment necessary to
help Pete.

Buck, Pete and Ann Dellarco discuss strategy
“If he runs well, he might get picked up” by a team, says Buck, pointing to fellow Coloradan Chris Eggleston, who ran Legends and can now be found in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He and Ann have carefully guided his development, but you don’t get the sense they’re “soccer parents.”  They’ve kept Pete from moving too quickly, even putting him in the back of the field if he happened to qualify “too well” as a rank rookie, to keep him from becoming a threat to wreck the field if he made a beginner’s mistake. “Besides,” Buck says with a smile, “it was passing practice.”

For all of Ann’s motherly concern for her son’s safety, most of the cars in the series carry a reminder of our mortality, in the form of a slash of black tape over their number. It’s a “mourning band” for a fellow racer, Garrett O’Neill, 14, who was killed a few weeks earlier, not in an accident on the track, but while performing tricks on his bicycle. He fell and struck his head on cement. Perhaps with that in mind, Ann acknowledges the inherent danger that comes with motorsports, but allows that she was more tense watching Pete get knocked around on the football field than she is watching him race.

Nearby, a father-son pair of drivers preps for the day’s action. Gary Kopp, 67, and his son, Derek, 17, work on each other’s cars. Their story is sort of reversed from the usual family situation, too: Gary got into Legends racing because Derek was involved and Gary wanted to spend time with him. Gary has a racing background of a different sort, though, having come from over a decade running vintage Formula Vee cars on road courses. Gary says he can “keep up” with the younger drivers, which belies the fact that he finished 5th in RMLRA points in 2009 and was voted Rookie of the Year.

Gary gets ready to race.
Gary retired from a job as a pilot with United Airlines in 2003 and now works for the FAA with a schedule that gives him time to do garage work on the two cars as well as time to race them. “You do most of the work on the cars at home,” he says. “You just unload them and go at the track.”

Unlike Pete Dellarco, Derek isn’t looking toward a career in racing. He loves to compete, but knows he’s not going to make the cut as a professional driver. When Derek does stop, Gary says he’ll quit, too. “I’ve been racing on weekends for ten years. I have no idea what weekends off are like,” he laughs.

The Legend cars are kind of funny, in a way: they're tiny little things, and thanks to their motorcycle-engine heritage, they sound like a swarm of angry bees when they run in a pack. But they're fast, too.

Derek Kopp races Chris Cooper for the lead.

The father and son end up running in the same trophy dash tonight. Derek, in his 24 car, is pretty fast and works his way up to second, but it happens right when the caution flag flies and he’s moved back a couple of spots. Back under green, he gets up to second once again and is challenging the 34 car driven by rookie Chris Cooper.

Another caution, and now Kopp is right behind Cooper. What happens next depends on whose interpretation you believe.

As the pack comes into turn four, headed for the green again, Derek is right on Cooper’s bumper, and when the flag waves, Derek hits the 34, hooks him, and turns him, causing a chain-reaction pileup.

Derek is sent to the back of the field for rough driving. “He was pushing the 34 through turn four and spun him when the green came out,” says Track Manager Mike Lippincott, who was watching from the exit of pit road and made the call. “He caused this,” Lippincott continues, gesturing at the track.

A fellow driver walks by and says, “That was a bad call.” But no protest is filed, and the result stands.
Cooper gets his spot back. To his credit, Derek makes up several positions in the few remaining laps.

Derek is unhappy, claiming Cooper missed a shift and that caused his 24 to run into the 34.  A fellow driver walks by and says, “That was a bad call.” But no protest is filed, and the result stands.

Until, that is, Dan Clegg, a member of the RMLRA Board of Directors, and the father of racer Kody Clegg, approaches Pit Steward Aaron Ford to complain. He is worried that allowing rookie Chris Cooper to start on the pole for the Main could lead to an expensive mess if he misses a shift or makes another mistake in front of the 20+ car field.

Clegg and Ford initially look like they’re headed for a major argument, with Ford claiming the INEX officials wanted the lineup to be set the way it was, and Clegg pointing out that rookies usually start in back to avoid just the problems Clegg is describing. The discussion becomes heated. Finally, Lippincott steps in, and after a conference, the decision is made re-set the field and move the 34 back for the start of the race.

Buck Dellarco understands the concern, calling the potential alternative “carnage.” The change also puts a couple of very fast, aggressive drivers up front. Pete sees the reasoning behind it too, saying that, while watching them work their way through the field is entertaining for the crowd, these drivers aren’t afraid to punt a slower car that holds them up for too long.

In the end, one of these drivers, Danny Medina, takes the checkers first. Pete Dellarco ends up 10th, Gary Kopp 11th, Derek Kopp 15th, and rookie Chris Cooper finishes 17th.