Hudson O’Neal and Rocket team looking to build on early season momentum

Hudson O’Neal

Hudson O’Neal made a big decision as the 2022 season was coming to an end. The Martinsville, IN native announced that he would be leaving the Roger Sellers-owned Double Down Motorsports team where he had twice finished in the top-5 of the final Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series standings and won marquee races such as the Topless 100 and the Show-me 100 to take the driver’s seat in the Rocket Chassis house car. And initially, the results with his new team were not what had been hoped for.

However, O’Neal and the Mark Richards-owned team got red hot as Georgia-Florida SpeedWeeks progressed. Ultimately, the 22-year-old driver would earn nine consecutive top-5 finishes and score two wins each at East Bay Raceway Park and Volusia Speedway Park.

Unfortunately for the Rocket 1 Racing operation, they had not raced since February 18th until this past Thursday in the Kyle Larson Late Model Challenge at the Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap, Tennessee. Because of that early success, O’Neal currently ranks second in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series standings just 50 points behind leader Ricky Thornton Jr. While nothing could have been done about the weather that forced the postponement or outright cancellation of planned events, the risk of losing that early momentum posed a potential issue.

The Shinnston, WV-based organization has taken steps to stay focused on the task at hand during this unexpected break from action.

“It didn’t really change anything from our mindset or anything like that,” O’Neal told prior to the race at Volunteer Speedway. “We didn’t want to quit, we felt like we had a good thing going there at the end of SpeedWeeks and we wanted to try and keep it rolling the best we could. It’s been a little bit of a break here but we went and did some testing and I think that, hopefully, we’ve got a race car that’s better than we even were at SpeedWeeks and we come out of here and have a good showing today.”

O’Neal and the No. 1 car showed speed right out of the box in Bulls Gap. He was second in Group A qualifying behind only Jonathan Davenport then won the second heat race of the evening. After running in the top-5 for most of the feature, O’Neal eventually scored a sixth-place finish at the end of the 50-lap affair.

O’Neal recognizes that he is fortunate to be the driver for such a well equipped and talented organization and he is proving to be the match for the ride he now has.

“I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of qualified people and I’m just the lucky one that got chosen,” O’Neal explained. “I think we have a really good program, a really good crew, probably one of the best crews in the pit area and really good equipment. We’re excited about it. I think we’re going to have a good showing. I’ve just got to do my job.”

Despite his success with Double Down, the son of National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame member Don O’Neal still had certain degree of apprehension about joining one of dirt racing’s most recognizable and prolific teams. But any insecurities quickly dissipated after achieving success.

“At first, yeah, it could be a little nerve-racking,” he admitted. “You know who you’re racing for and the equipment and all that. After we got a couple of wins under our belts, some of that faded. I felt a lot better about it after I got that first one out of the way it was like the world was lifted off my shoulders and it was like, okay, now I know I can do this and I know we have a good race car.”

Hudson O’Neal in the Rocket Chassis house car

Plans are for the Rocket 1 Racing team to follow the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series throughout the season. With that goal in mind, O’Neal plans to focus on each event as it comes.

“Our ultimate goal is to win a championship and I don’t necessarily feel any pressure,” he pointed out. “At the end of the day, that’s our ultimate goal but there’s a lot of racing between now and then. We’re awfully early in the year to be worried about something like that. We just want to come out here and we want to try to win races and do the best we can. If we can’t win, we want to salvage the best thing we can salvage. Hopefully if we run good enough throughout the year and have the right mentality throughout the year in every one of these races it will turn into something like that.”

Just a few short years ago, O’Neal found himself in a difficult position as he was forced to bounce from ride to ride, often for reasons outside his own control. He describes how he would have reacted if told back then he would be the driver of the Rocket Chassis house car in 2023.

“I would have laughed at them,” the 2017 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Rookie of the Year declared with a smile. “I’m just very blessed to be able to do what I love and be able to come out here everyday and race and make a living racing. There’s a lot of people out there that would love to be in the position I am and I’m just the one fortunate enough to be able to do it. A lot of people ask me what it feels like to drive the Rocket house car and I can’t really put it into words. I’m surrounded by a lot of great people. I think a lot of Mark Richards and Danny White(crew chief), Austin and Joel and Cody and everybody involved with this team. It’s an honor to be able to represent a company the way I have been fortunate enough to do the last few months. We’re going to keep trying to do our best and hopefully that turns into something.”

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Photos from the Kyle Larson Late Model Challenge

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