CORDELE, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) - For race fans at Watermelon Capital Speedway's SpeedFest 2013, the on-track action was exciting despite numerous cautions. But for many of the racers at the track, the annual event provided an opportunity for fathers and sons to work together to carry on the tradition of families in racing.
NASCAR legend Bill Elliott of Dawsonville has never officially retired from driving, but these days guiding his 17-year-old son Chase's racing career is his main focus. "I ran twice last year and that was enough for me. Now about all I do is try to keep up with Chase and our Late Model program," the 1988 Cup champion said recently.
Chase has progressed steadily through the ranks with Bill mentoring him and has certainly become a fan favorite just like his father. While he will continue to drive Pro Late Models for Bill Elliott Racing, this season he jumps to the ARCA Series and NASCAR's Camping world Truck Series driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
While the Elliott's were certainly popular with the SpeedFest crowds, the Middle Georgia track is in the backyard of another NASCAR family, the Ragans. Roush Racing car chief Brett Ragan took a leave of absence from work to help run SpeedFest with his father Marvin, who owns the 4/10ths mile asphalt track and has been battling leukemia.
On the track, NASCAR star David Ragan, who hails from nearby Unadilla, was as popular with the fans as young Chase Elliott. His father Ken, a former NASCAR Cup Series driver himself, manages David's Ford dealership in nearby Perry, and is the brother of track owner Marvin Ragan. He was on hand to support David in his quest for a SpeedFest win at his home track and help Marvin with hosting the event.
David Ragan's Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland came to Georgia with his son Todd to watch the racing and to visit Ragan's Redhawk Plantation in nearby Hawkinsville. Though 14-year-old Todd is not racing yet, he may soon. "We're here just seeing what all it takes to run," David Gilliland said, "He's considering it in the future."
At this level of racing, crews are generally made up of family and friends volunteering their time. Even for a driver with deeper pockets like David Ragan, his late model team only has one full-time employee. Friends such as Leesburg's Geoff Mills helps Ragan when he can and brought his son Geoffrey Jr. to the track. And don't think the 4-year-old kid wasn't interested in race cars. As Geoff worked under Ragan's racecar adjusting the rearend, the youngster crawled right under the car with dad and was handing him tools.
Harrison Burton was at SpeedFest getting his feet wet in pro late models after cutting his teeth in quarter midgets. The 12-year-old son of NASCAR Cup driver Jeff Burton is definitely a rookie when it comes to full-bodied stock car racing. He squirmed and step back when the trophy queen tried to hug him during driver introductions. If his 10th place finish in the 100 lap Pro Late Model race is any indication, he'll be getting kisses from trophy queens in victory lane very soon.
John Hunter Nemechek is almost a veteran at late model racing. The 15-year-old son of NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek put on a thrilling performance after being penalized at the halfway break when his car would not restart. Starting at the rear, he drove through the entire field to the lead only a few laps from the checkers. But a large number of caution laps caused him to run out of fuel while leading, giving way to Elliott and Ragan, who would tangle a lap later taking themselves out of contention.
"I think everybody knew he was here. He passed a lot of cars and drove up to the front and raced with the best of them and got more experience," said Joe Nemechek with pride and a big smile. "It's just kind of gut-wrenching that you lose so many of these things. You know the opportunity is right there. He had a shot at winning quite a few of them last year and one of these days we're going to get it.