One of the biggest pieces of news to come out of last year’s silly season was the move by Hudson O’Neal to the Rocket Chassis house car. The idea of a highly talented driver joining a highly talented and deep team seemed a recipe for certain success. However, early results from a few starts at the end of last season and the beginning of 2023 did not produce the immediate wins that many expected.
O’Neal drove the famed No. 1 machine to finishes of 13th, 5th and 8th in the three feature races in the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series-sanctioned World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte at the end of 2022. A 9th place in the first feature of the Sunshine Nationals at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park then a failure to make the main event on the second night were less-than-inspiring results to open the 2023 campaign.
Keep in mind, this is a team that has won hundreds of feature races and eight World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series championships split among Josh Richards and Brandon Sheppard. Success is an expectation in that Mark Richards-owned car.
However, things began to turn around, albeit slowly at first, for Rocket 1 Racing and the team’s new driver when the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series season kicked off at Golden Isles Speedway near Brunswick, Georgia in late January. Top-5 runs were beginning to become almost commonplace as the 22-year-old driver racked up two second-places, a fourth and two fifths in short order as the 2023 season moved along.
It seemed as if a win was on the immediate horizon. However, Wednesday’s effort in a non points event at East Bay Raceway Park proved disastrous as a preliminary race crash forced the team to a backup car for the remainder of the time at ‘The Clay by the Bay’.
But the recovery from that disappointment was quick. Over the last two nights of Lucas Oil competition at East Bay, those initial expectations have begun to be realized. O’Neal collected paychecks valued at $10,000 and $15,000 by leading a total of 90 consecutive laps after starting from the front row each night on Thursday and Friday because of strong qualifying efforts and heat race wins.
“I can’t even begin,” O’Neal told FloRacing.com when asked if Thursday’s win came as a relief. “The worst part is, I know we had it in us this whole trip but little things just don’t fall our way. Man, this is so awesome. I can’t thank the whole Rocket group, everybody back at the shop, Mark Richards, Danny(White), Joel(Rogers), Austin(Hargrove) and Steve Baker. My whole family is here. It’s just really cool. It’s a team effort. It’s been a few weeks coming and I’m happy we got it done.”
Admittedly, much of the pressure O’Neal felt in taking this ride was self-imposed. Thursday’s win went a long way toward removing some of that.
“The world has been lifted off my shoulders now,” O’Neal added from victory lane at East Bay. “I felt like if we could just get that first one out of the way, I think they are going to start coming a little easier, or maybe easier for me. Maybe I’m going to take it easier on myself but this is so cool. After last night, I was kind of down but these guys never missed a beat. They started working and they just prepare phenomenal cars. It’s an honor to drive it.”
The Martinsville, Indiana native proved to be somewhat of a fortune teller. Not only did the second win come easier, it came just one night later.
“That was 50 laps of get it on, man,” the young driver said in the East Bay victory lane on Friday evening. “The race track was in great shape, I felt like we were more maneuverable tonight to get around them lapped cars. I saw Devin(Moran) several times underneath of me before the last caution. I knew I had to get up on the wheel and go because I knew he was. My whole family is here, this is so cool. Rocket Chassis gave me such an amazing car to come down here with and represent them. It’s an honor to be able to do it.”
A bad sign for the competition in the Dirt Late Model world could be that the confidence level is now beginning to match the talent level of both driver and team.
“It’s sky high, no doubt. To be able to win like we did last night in a little bit slower conditions and come out tonight and have a bad fast race track and still be able to hang on. Clean air means a lot. We’ve just got to continue to qualify good and heat race good and stay up front starting on the front row in these features. That makes everybody’s job a lot easier so I’ve got to continue doing my job in qualifying. I’m sure they will keep giving me an unbelievable race car.”
The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series portion of Georgia-Florida SpeedWeeks is over but the Rocket 1 Racing team plans to race this coming week in the DIRTcar Gator Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park.
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