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VOL. 133 | NO. 111 | Monday, June 4, 2018

Garcia Blisters Final Racing Segment to Claim His First Victory

Pete Wickham, Special to The Daily News

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They got heat. They got history. But for most of 3,000 or so fans who made their way to steamy Memphis International Raceway Saturday, they got a welcome dose of NASCAR. And they want more.

As the 95-degree temps faded into twilight, Ruben Garcia Jr. of Mexico went from patience to pounce mode in his Max Spiegel Toyota to capture the Memphis 150 presented by AutoZone.

“It was a dream of mine to come to the States and race in NASCAR, and a dream come true to be with a team that has made me feel like it’s home,” the 22-year-old said after his first win in two-plus seasons on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East circuit. “Now to finally reach Victory Lane … it’s unreal.”

Fans love that the thrill of racing is back at Memphis International Raceway as young Rueben Garcia takes the checkered flag in tightly contested Memphis 150. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

His crew waited until the last of three 50-lap segments in the 112.5-mile race to use their last set of tires, after spending the weekend working to get the car to show its best during long runs. Garcia quickly jumped from eighth to first, passing pole-sitter and series points leader Tyler Ankrum of San Bernadino, California, at lap 113. Garcia led comfortably after that but said, “those last 10 laps I felt like I was going so slowly, until I finally saw that checkered flag.”

Garcia averaged an event record 93.61 mph and won by .598 second over Ankrum, who was followed by his teammate, Tyler Dippel of Walkill, New York.

The Xfinity stock car and Camping World truck series, which ran in Memphis from 1998 until Dover Motorsports shuttered the facility in 2009, are the Triple-A and Double-A levels feeding NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series. The K&N East and West tours are Class A ball, heavy on young talent. Take out graybeards Marcus Gomes of Brazil (33) and J.P. Morgan (42), and the average age of Saturday’s 19-driver field was a short north of 19.

Garcia won the NASCAR Mexico Series title in 2015, and for three years has been part of the “NASCAR Next” and the “Drive for Diversity” development programs. Saturday he became the fourth Mexican driver to win in this series. The last, Daniel Suarez, was Xfinity Series’ 2018 champion.

Veteran crew chief Steve Plattenberger stood to one side of the victory celebration with a quiet smile.

“We had the car set up well for the final (50-lap) segment in terms of tires and adjustments,” Plattenberger said. “But Ruben … he’s just so smooth. Ran the last 50 laps perfectly. If some Xfinity team doesn’t grab him, they’re crazy.”

Plattenberger then scanned the ¾-mile Memphis oval, and smiled a little more.

“I love this place. I missed coming here. Racing on this track is outstanding. The trucks and Xfinity cars need to come back.”

That was the mantra of the fans who turned out for the Memphis 150, and it’s very much on the track’s radar.

“We’re in the middle of a seven-year plan,” said track president and general manager Pam Kendrick, who has run the facility since it was bought in 2011 by IRG Sports and Entertainment of Florida. “When we re-engaged NASCAR, our plan was a three-year run in this series. This is year two. Make enough progress, and we’ll talk with NASCAR about the trucks. Do that for two years, then think about Xfinity.”

Kendrick said the biggest positive was that the VIP tent packages sold out quickly. Early in the afternoon it seemed the heat might kill walkup sales. But as qualifying ended and an autograph session began, there were suddenly healthy clusters of fans around the cars and drivers. The stands were better-than-half full as AutoZone project manager Milt Peters gave the start-engines command.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Kendrick said.

Peters was like most of the fans, a staunch advocate for the hometown track.

“This is still grassroots-level motorsports, but the facility really stepped up in terms of getting the word out,” Peters said. “They have done a great job turning things around.”

He is excited about the exposure the track, and AutoZone, will get when NBC Sports Network airs the race Wednesday at 5 p.m. (CDT).

“Getting a prime time slot is huge,” said Peters, who added social media traffic “has been phenomenal.”

NASCAR senior director Brandon Thompson said, “There are still things that have to be done here, but we’ve had nothing but a positive experience.”

AutoWeek’s website touted Memphis, and short tracks like it, in articles posted this past week.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr., a three-time Memphis truck race winner, thinks the sport should be looking more to short tracks like MIR.

"They had the beating and banging," Hornaday said. "Nowadays with the mile-and-a-halfs, you depend on aero(dynamics) so much ... Go to Martinsville (a .526-mile paper clip-shaped oval), watch that. You'll get the excitement back. You'll have the rivals, because you got to move somebody out of the way."

For this event, fans came from close by, like Chris Avramov of Cordova.

“I was bummed, heartbroken when they closed this place. Closest NASCAR I could get to was Talladega,” Avramov said. “Other places I just couldn’t afford. But this is really good racing, and it’s just 20 minutes from home.”

David Tisvale came with son, Brian, and his two sons.

“Dad used to take me to the races here, and now we’re keeping the tradition going,” Brian Tisvale said.

David’s reaction to the race? “Bring ‘em all back,” he said, referring to the big series.

Then there is David Vaught and son Craig, who drove 12 hours from northern Ohio for this race. For them, that’s nothing.

“We like to go to race tracks. Been to about 30 this year,” Craig Vaught said.

But MIR is now on their return visit list. “Awesome track. You saw good racing all over,” David said. “And we were really happy to see Ruben Garcia win.”

Anyone who knows Ruben Garcia knows the sport.

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