Super late model touring provide some of the very best racing in the United States. In many cases, these smaller events are better than the big league races put on by NASCAR’s top three touring series. Regardless of where you live in the lower 48 states, chances are there is an SLM series that races near you. For those of us who live on the west coast like me, the premiere SLM touring series is the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series. The SRL Series began racing in 2001 but did not hold the title of being the top SLM series on the west coast. That was reserved for the now extinct NASCAR Southwest Tour Series.
Prior to 1985, the west coast did not have a touring series where the best short track drivers raced against each other on a week-to-week, race-to-race basis for an overall series championship. Things changed with the formation of the NASCAR All-American Challenge Northwest Series which was formed that year. A year later, another series was formed for the southwest portion of the United States in what came to be known as the NASCAR Southwest Tour Series. The inaugural season featured 13 races at tracks as far north as Shasta Speedway in Anderson, California, as far south as the famed Riverside International Raceway road course and as far east as Silver State Raceway in Carson City, Nevada. In later years, the series schedule would expand even more with 20 or more races.
The 1986 crown was won by a driver who is now considered to be a west coast short track racing legend, Ron Esau. In following years, the trend of top notch west coast talent would prove to be champions in the series. Drivers like Mike Chase, Roman Calczynski and Dan Press won titles in 1987, 1988 and 1989 and while they were not recognized in a nationwide scale, all three are regarded as being among the greatest short track racers in the western region.
The 90s began producing talent that was able to make noise in NASCAR’s upper echelons, thanks namely to the creation of the NASCAR Craftsmen SuperTruck Series in 1995. Doug George won the Southwest Tour crown in 1990 and currently serves as crew chief for truck series driver, Jason White. Rick Carelli won the 1991 title and later became a regular in the SuperTrucks winning four times in his career. Most recently, Carelli has served as spotter and driver coach for both Regan Smith and Danica Patrick.
One of the most famous names produced by the tour is Ron Hornaday, Jr. who won back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993. Of course he’s recognized now as being the most decorated driver in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series having won four championships and 51 races as well as four races in NASCAR’s Busch Series. Two other drivers who were Southwest Tour champions and moved on to race in the truck and Busch/Nationwide Series include Lance Hooper who was tour champion in 1995 and Matt Crafton who won the championship in 2000 and is a regular in the Camping World Truck Series with a total of two career victories.
No question the most famous alumni from the Southwest Tour Series is 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion, Kurt Busch. The Las Vegas, Nevada native only raced the tour full-time for two seasons but made history in his second winning the 1999 crown by a record 328 points over second place. Busch’s dominance in the series attracted the attention of Jack Roush and from there on Busch began his rise to fame and championships in the truck and Cup series.
In its final few years, the Southwest Tour Series seemed to lose a lot of its luster. Many felt that NASCAR was abandoning the tour and focusing more on the top three series. The final year for the Southwest Tour was 2006 with only eight races comprising the schedule. Thankfully the SRL tour stepped in to fill the shoes of NASCAR’s Southwest Tour.
While the SRL’s Southwest Tour grows every season, it still has a long way to go to be what NASCAR’s Southwest Tour once was. The SRL gained a huge boost with sponsorship in 2009 from the Spears Manufacturing Company which has been a west coast racing stalwart for more than 30 years. The only thing the series is missing is a more expansive schedule with more venues. There are several drivers currently racing in the Spears SRL Series that have the potential to move up in the NASCAR ranks such as Derek Thorn, Jacob Gomes and Jonathon Gomez. Write these names down because they just might be the next Ron Hornaday, Jr. or Kurt Busch.