Craig Murto: The upset of the week

Craig Murto

Racing champions compete at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford.

The .416-mile high-banked paved oval plays host to NASCAR Weekly Racing Series champions Philip Morris and Lee Pulliam when they run their Late Model Stock Car shows. Between those two drivers there are seven national titles and numerous track championships from all over the region.

It’s expensive to race Late Models, whether on pavement or dirt surfaces. Most of the time, the Late Model division is the top class at a track. And despite many tracks’ efforts to help curtail costs by allowing crate engines or limiting the number of tires a competitor can buy each night, Late Models are expensive to run no matter where you go.

Motor Mile is one of the top NASCAR facilities in Virginia. It’s been speculated that one of the reasons you have multiple national champions racing there is that they pay a sizeable purse. But these guys already have plenty of money; if you can’t afford to lose money on the track, you shouldn’t be racing local Late Models. It’s also been speculated that they prefer the track’s rule of allowing unlimited tire purchases; they can spend as much money as they want.

If you can afford three sets of tires just for practice, it certainly could give you an advantage over competitors who can’t afford them. Racing Late Models anywhere is expensive; to win at Motor Mile is beyond most people’s budget.

It’s not uncommon to see Late Models hauled to the track in $250,000 toter-homes, enclosed trailers with a comfortable cabin in which driver, family and crew can get out of the 90-degree summer heat and watch racing on satellite TV. At the very least, Late Models are pulled to the track in enclosed trailers, such as those used by landscaping companies.

It’s a pity, really. It seems that gone are the days of towing race cars to the track on open trailers. When I was a child, if I saw an open trailer pulling a race car, I asked my father to follow it and see where it was going. Sometimes I got to see racing because of it. Every time it was great publicity for the track.

Now it seems you usually see open trailers at the track in the lower divisions. After all, it takes huge dollars to run Late Models, so those guys can afford the expensive haulers.

Except for the No. 87 car owned by Billy Martin. The car is headquartered behind the garage of its driver, Mike Looney, from Catawba, Virginia. Whereas cubic dollars drive other Late Model teams to the track, Martin’s team gets there through determination, tenacity and an ability to do more with less than most. It’s not fair to call them lucky, unless you acknowledge that hard work creates most good luck in racing.

Saturday night, David got lucky and beat Goliath. In fact, David beat more than one Goliath.

For 65 laps of the 75-lap feature, Looney chased Lee Pulliam around the track. Pulliam seemed to have the long-run setup in the car. But a late-race caution resulted in a seven-lap dash to the finish, and that’s when willpower beat horsepower.

As the track’s PR person, J.W. Martin, described the battle, “Tenacious from the top side of the track, Looney wrangled the lead away from Pulliam’s No. 5 following three circuits of white-knuckle, two-abreast racing. Looney completed the pass on lap 70, out-muscling Pulliam entering Turn 1. In a fleeting attempt to regain command of the point, Pulliam launched an aggressive maneuver in Turn 2 on the following circuit. Slight contact exiting the corner forced Pulliam out of the groove down the backstretch, allowing Morris’ No. 01 to join the fray for first.”

But with only a handful of laps to go, Looney pulled ahead as Pulliam and Morris battled in his rear mirror. Looney had a .419-second lead at the checkered flag, as Morris nipped Pulliam for second.

“Lee [Pulliam] had a better car … I just wanted it so bad,” Looney said as he celebrated his first win at the track since 2012. “I guess the good Lord likes an underdog sometimes.”

Looney’s triumph was an early birthday present for his car owner Martin, who celebrated his 69th birthday July 20. An underdog, Martin had been winless in Late Model competition at Motor Mile Speedway since 1990.

Champions with huge budgets race at Motor Mile. But last Saturday night, the small underfinanced team with the open trailer beat them all.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.